Main Dharma room altar

On Saturday, I drove to Rhode Island to attend a Buddhist precepts ceremony and subsequent festivities at the Providence Zen Center. As I’ve noted here before, going to PZC always feels like a spiritual homecoming. Although I’ve never lived at PZC, I’ve spent enough time there on retreat and attending ceremonies that there’s something decidedly familiar about its buildings, grounds, and familiar faces.

And then there are the Gold Guys.

Providence Zen Center has not one but four gold Buddha statues: the largest in the main Dharma room, a second in the smaller upstairs Dharma room, a third in the octagonal peace pagoda, and the fourth in the Diamond Hill Zen Monastery up the hill from the Zen Center. (These pictures show the main Dharma room Buddha as well as the one in the monastery: I didn’t photograph the Buddhas in the upstairs Dharma room and peace pagoda during this weekend’s visit.) As I’ve noted in a previous post on Buddhist iconography, newcomers to the Providence Zen Center who come from a Judeo-Christian background are often uncomfortable with big gold statues that look like idols. Speaking from my own Catholic-turned-evangelical-gone-Buddhist perspective, though, I’ve grown inexplicably fond of the Gold Guys.

Main Dharma room buddha

PZC’s gold Buddhas aren’t gods or idols: truth be told, they’re actually hollow. But like a familiar doll or stuffed animal, these Buddha statues do seem to carry an aura of personality, as if they are looking down and watching the various goings-on happening in their midst.

During Saturday’s welcome ceremony for new Dharma teachers in training, Zen Master Soeng Hyang admired the newly re-gilt upstairs Dharma room Buddha, trying to remember how long she’d sat with him. Now that Zen Master Seung Sahn is gone, the Gold Guy who now sits in PZC’s upstairs Dharma room is one tangible link to the Gray Guy who founded the Providence Zen Center and the international network of Zen Centers and practice groups affiliated with it. Zen Master Gray Guy is dead and gone, but the Gold Guys he brought over from Korea–and the human men and women who sit with them–still carry on.

Dharma room Buddha

Although the Gold Guys are just statues, if you spend enough time with even an insentient object, you get a feel for the personality of the thing. If we attribute familiar personalities to our cars, boats, and other everyday objects, why wouldn’t we grow fond of the accoutrements of our spiritual practice, especially if they have human forms and faces? Given the long hours on retreat I’ve spent cross-legged and achey, cross-legged and sleepy, cross-legged and scatter-brained, or just cross-legged and cross, it’s comforting to think someone in the room is cross-legged and comfortable, even if he’s really a hollow man with gilt that’s only skin deep.

In my years of teaching college composition classes, I’ve read many essays by homesick freshmen describing the places and objects that mean “home.” After reading piles of papers describing the almost magical aura of places like Grandma and Grandpa’s house, I’ve come to believe that the tendency to make icons out of everyday objects is an essential part of human nature. Children are creatures of habit, so they rely heavily on those simple rituals that remind them they are loved and cherished. The lesson of Grandma’s bottomless cookie jar or Grandpa’s magically replenishing candy dish is that there’s one place where you’re always loved, even when you’ve been naughty or Mom says you’ve already had enough sweets.

Dharma room altar

Although it might seem absurd to say that PZC’s Gold Guys feel almost grandfatherly to me, I do think these ritual objects carry the same sort of iconic power that Grandma and Grandpa’s house wields in the hearts of so many of my college freshmen. Just as Grandma and Grandpa will always (or so we hope) have cookies, candy, and other treats set aside whenever cherished children come to visit, Providence Zen Center feels like home to me in part because I know the Gold Guys will always be there. No matter how many times I nod off while meditating, slip and slouch in my meditation posture, or fall off the practice bandwagon entirely, I know the Gold Guys continue to practice unmoved and unmoving. No matter how many times my attention wanders and I find myself doing anything but meditation practice, I know the Zen Center with its Gold Guys will be there when my attention and intention return.

The Providence Zen Center just paid a hefty chunk o’ change to give their Gold Guys a makeover, commissioning master gilders to re-cover their hollow forms with gold leaf. So even though Buddha’s been sitting a long time, he’s looking fabulous these days with a fresh application of ruby-red lip paint and spring-green eyebrow and moustache appliques:

Dharma room Buddha

Precepts ceremony

Although to non-Buddhists it might seem silly to spend good money fixing up a statue that’s not much more than a glorified doll, the real value of a bright and shiny Buddha becomes clear during a picture-perfect precepts ceremony when rows of Gray Ones assemble beneath the Gold Guy. Providence Zen Center isn’t about a place or even the objects assembled there: it’s about the people who congregate in their midst. Just as the magic of Grandma and Grandpa’s house is really about Grandma and Grandpa, their hollow house being of secondary importance, the iconic power of a place like Providence Zen Center is only indirectly reliant upon liturgical accoutrements. Gold Buddhas are wonderful, but flesh-and-blood practitioners are even better, their beauties being far more than gold-leaf deep.

For this reason, my favorite image of this weekend’s Gold Guys is one in which a smiling statue seems to be leaning to listen as Zen Masters Wu Kwang and Dae Kwang give congratulatory speeches to new preceptors: a trio of smiling Buddhas, one of them gold-skinned and hollow and the other two gray-clad and whole.

Smiling Buddhas

Buddha altar

At first glance, this looks like a fairly standard Buddhist altar. There’s a Buddha, candles, and incense holder. There’s a meditation bell-in-a-box at Buddha’s right knee, and a supply of incense at his left. There is a baseball-sized moktok–a hollow wooden percussive instrument–draped with meditation beads at six o’clock, a black and brown striped stone draped with meditation beads at nine o’clock, and a snail shell draped with a wooden rosary at three o’clock. Yes, I like beads of either a Buddhist or Catholic sort: in good ecumenical (or heretical) fashion, I used to count my Buddhist prostrations with a Catholic rosary. (Lord Buddha and/or Jesus help me.) From this up-close view (and you can click the image to look closer), the only striking thing about my altar are the two bouquets of dead carnations in old, moldy water. A good Buddhist would take better care of her altar flowers…and she’d dust more often.

Buddha altar with crucifix

Viewed several paces removed, though, the meditation altar in my home office looks a bit less conventional: a bit more funky. Yes, that’s Jesus on the cross (in a triumphant resurrection pose) hanging above Buddha, and a stereo underneath. In front of the right stereo speaker are two chanting books (one falling apart from age and use; the second its replacement) and a pocket-sized copy of the Dhammapada. On top of the stereo is the CD case for Peter Gabriel’s Passion, the Islamic-infused soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ. Above my meditation mat and cushion, a banner says “Buddha,” but the overall statement here is “Eclectic! Ecumenical! Eccentric!”

My corner of the blogosphere has been buzzing with talk of altars–home altars–those quiet corners of our abodes where we display whatever sort of objects and amulets remind and return us to our practice. It started with Dave and moved to Rachel, with various other bloggers and blog-readers contributing to comment threads along the way. Whether you see an altar as a site of sacrifice or a point of visual focus, it seems quite a few of us have actual altars–or shelves of precious mementos that function like altars–that point to the sacred nature of home and hearth.

In last year’s post on Buddhist iconography, I explained that Buddha statues and the altar accoutrements that accompany them aren’t the trappings of idolatry. Instead, Buddhist altars are points of visual focus: fancy or funky reminders of our own intrinsic awakened nature. In thinking more about home altars versus the fancy type you see in churches and Zen Centers, I realize that our altars are a kind of alter ego: a visual expression of what we cherish and value. Looking at my home altar, you can tell I’m ecumenical not orthodox, I’m a bit funky or even eccentric, and I’m not particularly particular when it comes to housekeeping. Perhaps there’s a coffeetable book in this notion of Altar Egos: My Altar, My Self.

So, what’s on your altar?

UPDATE! As either fate or chance would have it, Fran blogged her home altar yesterday, and her post reminded me that I’d forgotten to mention Augustine’s colorful contribution from July 15th. It seems I need all sorts of reminders, altar-oriented and otherwise, to keep my forgetful mind on track.

Ji Jang Bosal

Make no bones about it: if you’re squeamish about Buddha statues and other overt examples of Buddhist iconography, the Providence Zen Center is the kind of place that will make you (repeatedly) lose your lunch.

Main Dharma room altar

One of the things we talked about at this weekend’s Kwan Um School of Zen Dharma Teacher retreat was the eye-popping Buddhist art that can be found in our Korean-influenced Zen Centers. Since most of the folks who practice in our School weren’t raised as Buddhists, these colorful cultural trappings can be very off-putting to newcomers. As someone who was raised Catholic and was “born again” in college, I came to Zen with something of a Christian double-whammy. The first time I walked into a Zen Center and saw a huge gold statue looking back at me, every fiber in my good little Catholic-turned-evangelical soul was screaming protestations: “No! Not an idol! Run away, sister, and repent!”

Apparently I’m not the only one who had (and eventually overcame) such a vehement first reaction. During his presentation on Buddhist iconography, Zen Master Dae Kwang, himself raised as a corn-fed Nebraskan Presbyterian, recounted how another Dharma teacher used to come to the Zen Center every morning for 5 am bows and then would immediately go to a church around the corner to pray for forgiveness. “Three of the Ten Commandments,” Zen Master Dae Kwang explained, “forbid idols and idolatry. That’s how much God hates gold statues!” God’s distaste for devotional art notwithstanding, the Providence Zen Center is chock-full of scarily exotic statues, altars, and other iconographic tchotchkes, so any Zen Center resident or Dharma teacher necessarily has to spend a lot of time doing damage control when freaked-out Christians, Jews, or Muslims gingerly set foot into a Zen Center for the first time.

Side altar, main Dharma room

So, here’s the skinny on all those Buddha statues: they aren’t idols. Although you’ll see Zen-heads bowing in front of such statues, you’ll also see us bowing to our meditation mats, and to our food, and to one another. Bowing is simply a sign of respect, a sort of Buddhist “pleased to meet you.” Although there have been times on retreat when I’ve felt like worshipping my food, that isn’t why I bow to my bowls before digging into an eaten-in-silence meal. Bowing is a physical sign of both humility and interdependence, an acknowledgment that our individual selves aren’t separate from the rest of the universe. When a Buddhist bows upon entering a Dharma room, they bow as a sign of gratitude to the silent practice energy of that place. The room isn’t a god to be worshipped, and neither is the statue that’s found in that room.

Instead, the purpose of Buddha statues, altar paintings, and other iconographic images is purely symbolic. Representations of the the historical Buddha, the Buddha’s heavenly incarnations, and various other mythic characters are designed to point inward, not outward. Meditating in front of a Buddha statue, a Zen-head isn’t worshipping much less praying to that statue. Instead, a Buddha statue is a physical symbol of one’s own true, compassionate nature. The historical Buddha never claimed to be a god; instead, his teachings point to the fact that everyone has a latent ability to wake up and realize their true connection to all beings. Like a sports-crazed kid who covers his bedroom walls with posters of Shaquille O’Neal, Buddhists simply surround themselves with images of someone they want to be like. Buddhists don’t worship the Buddha any more than sports fans worship Shaq or Lutherans worship Martin Luther. The flesh-and-blood man who earned the title Buddha simply showed one way of waking up. Statues and paintings of that man and his various mythic counterparts simply point to the need to enact that way for oneself.

Dharma room altar

If all these Buddha statues are simply symbolic, why have them at all? There certainly are religions (Quakerism being one) that eshew all religious trappings in favor of a bare-bones approach. For all of Zen’s emphasis on spiritual minimalism, it still derives from a visually rich tradition. True, Buddha statues, altars, candles, and incense aren’t necessary: it’s entirely possible to meditate and gain enlightenment without any of these fancy accoutrements. By the same token, though, we as embodied creatures rely on our senses to steer our thoughts and emotions. Separated from our family, we cherish photographs that remind us of our loved ones even though we technically don’t need such reminders. Although it’s possible to get romantic without candlelight and flowers, sometimes we need a sensory nudge to get us in the mood. At times, sitting Zen can feel no different than waiting for the bus: it’s easy to zone out and let one’s mind wander. A gleam of candlelight on gold or a whiff of wafting incense can serve as a powerful reminder: this room is special because this moment is unique. This truth applies everywhere at all times, but sometimes we need additional physical reminders.

Peace pagoda

Long-time Zen practitioners often use the term “Dharma candy” to refer to all the fancy Asian accoutrements that tease the eyes and senses of Zen Center visitors. Truth be told, meditation is boring. If we expected newcomers to sit following their breath in an unfurnished cinder block basement, we’d probably get very few repeat customers. As much as many Westerners recoil at the “smells and bells” of Buddhist practice, exoticism nevertheless has a huge appeal. Like candy, enormous statues and looming pagodas have very little nutritional value spiritually speaking. Simply looking at a Zen temple won’t earn you any karmic points; instead of snacking on candy, you have to dig into an entree called practice. But if the sight of a lovely Asian temple nestled in changing trees provides a sweet enough taste, perhaps you’ll be tempted to stay for an entire meal. Meditation can be bitter medicine, and devotional art serves as a spoonful of sugar. When your mind wanders during meditation, chanting, or bows, there is something colorful and interesting to focus your attention on. A peaceful Zen Center filled with beautiful things points to the special quality of one’s True Nature. Yes, enlightenment is no different from ordinary life, but at the same time it is special. Precisely because enlightenment can happen anywhere at anytime, we set aside special, extraordinarily lovely places to remind ourselves of that fact.

Greenhouse buddha

One of the intrinsic paradoxes of Zen practice is that it is simultaneously iconographic and iconoclastic. One famous Zen story recounts how an impoverished monk chopped and then burned his temple’s wooden Buddha to keep warm: when push comes to shove, fueling the practice fire is more important than devotional formalities. At the same time, though, Zen-heads are meticulously careful about tending their altars and practice spaces: how you keep your altar is how you keep your mind. Whether made of gold, wood, or stone, a Buddha statue is like your mind: efficacious only if you pay attention. Left to its own devices, a stone Buddha will collect dust like any other inanimate object: left to its own devices, a stone Buddha has no inherent power. The power of any iconographic symbol lies entirely in the eye of the beholder; although a sign can point you home, only your own legs can get you there.