Cardinal

It’s hard not to snap a photo of a bird that’s sitting pretty and all but posing for you.

I find it fittingly ironic that mere days after arguing the utter artlessness of the photos I post here, Hoarded Ordinaries took home two Blogisattva Awards, both of them for visual rather than literary merit. According to the folks responsible for this year’s Blogisattvas, which recognize “excellence in English-language Buddhist blogging,” Hoarded Ordinaries is noteworthy for its “Clean, Straightforward, Unaffected Design” and “Creation or Use of Graphics in a Blog.”

Snow lion

I should promptly point out that the presumably clean, straightforward, and unaffected design of this blog has nothing in particular to do with me: Hoarded Ordinaries looks the way it does because when I moved my site to WordPress last year, I picked an off-the-rack template designed by Vanilla Mist (a.k.a. Patricia Muller). I don’t know if Muller is a Buddhist, but I think she deserves more design credit than I do for any presumed “Buddhist” virtues underlying the look of my blog.

I also find it amusing that my “creation or use of graphics” here on Hoarded Ordinaries should be deemed somehow inherently Buddhist: two years ago, when I was creating and using graphics exactly as I do today, one of the folks behind the Blogisattvas pointed out that Hoarded Ordinaries didn’t actually qualify as either a “Zen” or “Buddhist” blog. I wonder what has changed between now and then to make the “look and feel” of Hoarded Ordinaries seem suddenly (and award-winningly) Buddhist? Have the pictures I post suddenly become more intrinsically Zen-like, or does the fact that I now have a category tag pointing to Zen posts make my site more overtly Buddhist? Perhaps I should ruin the presumably clean, straightforward, and unaffected design of Hoarded Ordinaries by tacking a label at the top proclaiming that it now boasts “New and Improved Zen Flavor,” given how the word “Zen” makes even household cleansers seem cool.

Snow-capped

I never was one of the popular girls, I’ve never understood the politics behind awards ceremonies, and I certainly have never entered much less won a beauty contest, so this year’s Blogisattva Awards and the suggestion that the look of Hoarded Ordinaries is downright pretty has left me a bit flummoxed. I guess the appropriate response is to smile and thank the Academy, Buddha, and all the little people who stood beside me on my way to the top. For good or ill, it seems that as a Buddhist blogger I’m more effective (or at least more award-worthy) when I’m choosing blog templates and posting pictures than when I’m actually talking about Buddhism. If nothing else, I guess these two awards go to show that when it comes to the Zen of Buddhist blogging, silence is better than holiness, especially if you’re lucky enough to sit pretty.

Modica Way

Yesterday morning on my way to Zen practice, I stopped to photograph Modica Way, the alley in Central Square, Cambridge, that has been taken over by street artists.

Modica Way

The most democratic of genres, graffiti is an extremely random art form: anyone with a spray can, paint brush, or inedible marker can add their scrawl. Not only is Modica a collaborative work incorporating the efforts of several different artists, the wall reflects various media of street art, with stencil work, free-hand tags, and all sorts of stickers covering the bricks, exposed ductwork, and other building surfaces.

Even at its most random, the Modica mural shows some semblance of order, with different sections being dominated by different artists, including Bren Bataclan, the Boston artist who painted my Christmas present. When I first visited (and photographed) Modica Way over a month ago, I wasn’t sure where the “real art” of the wall’s sanctioned artists ended and the popular editorializing of random punks began. On a wiki-like wall where everyone can write and revise, which version is the truest? After staring a while, I realized the point of pastiche is the ultimate randomness of it all. When your parchment is a palimpsest, every painting is pentimento: every iteration is a literal do-over, today’s version writing over yesterday’s.

Modica Way

I’ve had randomness on my mind all weekend as I’ve been spending a surprising amount of time staring at the gift I gave J for Valentine’s day: a digital frame for him to display his photographs. I figured a digital photo frame was a perfect gift for a photographer who has everything; what I didn’t foresee was the way I’d enjoy revisiting a couple hundred of J’s favorite images from the last year. Now that there’s a frame on J’s kitchen counter cycling in random rotation his various photos of me, our pets, and the places the two of us have explored together over the past year, I find myself stopping to watch these scenes from our shared life, marveling at how many memories two people can cobble together without really trying.

At Zen practice yesterday, I gave consulting interviews, and one practitioner asked about the difference between good thoughts and bad. How can you encourage the former and get rid of the latter?

Modica Way

“There is no difference between good thoughts and bad thoughts,” I explained. “The mind is a sense organ that perceives an endless series of thoughts, just as the eyes perceive an endless supply of visual stimuli, the nose perceives an endless series of olfactory signals, and the ears perceive an endless stream of sound.” Just as we don’t blame our nose for bad smells or gouge out our eyes when they see something ugly, we can’t blame or give credit to our minds for their thoughts. Thinking is what minds do, so it makes no sense to judge our thoughts or to cling to presumably good thoughts while pushing presumably bad ones away. Instead, thoughts will be thoughts, and our minds will be minds: like a digital frame set to “random,” our minds endlessly loop the thoughts and images they’ve taken and stored whether we like them or not.

And so the answer I’d give in response to Annette‘s request that I describe my life in six words or less would be the following Zen-inspired definition of consciousness: an endless series of random stimuli. Some folks wait until their dying breath to see their life flash before their eyes, but I say watching your life is as easy as walking down a graffiti-covered alley or flipping through the virtual pages of an electronic photo album, the accident of your life appearing in all its random glory.

Click here for a photo-set of images from Modica Way, taken yesterday and in January. Enjoy!

Historic Shell sign

The vintage Shell gasoline sign at the corner of Magazine Street and Memorial Drive in Cambridge is (like the freeway revolt mural near the same corner) something I’ve passed countless times, both when I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center a decade ago and now whenever I return to Newton after practicing in Cambridge. When I lived at CZC a decade ago, I didn’t have a hungry blog to feed, nor did I carry a camera with me. But now that I’ve been staying in Newton every weekend, driving to and from the Zen Center a couple times a month, and perpetually looking for quirky, blog-worthy sights, I’ve been meaning to stop and take a picture of this sign.

When people think of landmark Boston signs, they immediately think of the Citgo sign in Kenmore Square, which is visible over the outfield at Fenway Park (and thus known and loved by Red Sox fans around the world). But the Cambridge Shell sign is something only a Cantabrigian would know and love. And only the People’s Republic of Cambridge (as citizens of my once fair city are wont to call her) would officially declare an old gas station sign a historic landmark even though during one point in its poorly maintained past, the sign read HELL after the neon bulbs in its initial letter burnt out.

Old & new

Knowing this sign is not simply interesting to look at but actually historic–and knowing my personal history of having passed it so often–I’ve been meaning for a long time to stop and photograph it. And yet, every time I pass it, I have some reason or another not to stop. Usually I’m in a hurry to get back to Newton, or I have other errands to run, or the weather is bad for shutter-snapping. On Sunday, however, the weather was picture-perfect: bitterly cold, yes, but with a crisp, blue sky that makes a perfect backdrop for a yellow and red sign. As I started to pass the Shell station on Magazine Street on my way to turn onto Memorial Drive, an Inner Voice (my muse?) urged me to stop. “There’s no time like the present,” this metaphoric voice suggested. “If you don’t stop and take a picture on a clear, blue-skied day, what exactly are you waiting for?”

On Sunday, I’d gone to the Zen Center to give consulting interviews–a chance for me to meet one-on-one with newer practitioners and answer whatever questions they have about their practice. Consulting interviews are an optional thing. Although on retreat you’re expected to have kong’an (koan) interviews with the Zen Master, during Sunday mid-morning practice, consulting interviews with senior teachers are optional: you can opt in, or you can literally bow out.

Historic Shell sign

When I lived at the Zen Center a decade ago, I often skipped going to consulting and even kong’an interviews. When you live in a Zen Center, you have countless opportunities to interact with teachers, sit retreats, and otherwise immerse yourself in Everything Zen, 24/7. What need is there, you ask yourself, to go to an interview to ask questions of a senior teacher who is invariably going to tell you to practice more, keep a “don’t know” mind, and figure things out for yourself? Only after I moved out of the Zen Center did I realize how precious those (often missed) opportunities really were. When I’m in Keene, the Zen Center and the people who practice there are an hour and a half away; even when I’m in Newton, the Zen Center is a half hour away by car (and about twice that far away by T). How much easier it was, I sometimes think, when I lived in the Zen Center and could literally roll out of bed and find myself face-to-face with a Zen Master!

Nowadays, I find myself in a funny position, the meditation cushions having turned. When I was sitting in the student seat, I put off going to interviews, figuring I’d have more time some other time. Now that I’m just as busy as ever (albeit with different things), I now find myself sitting in the teacher’s seat, wondering why more practitioners don’t make the time to practice, go to consulting interviews, and ask more (and more insistent) questions. If there’s one thing I’d go back and tell my younger self–if there’s one thing I’d tell the folks living and practicing at the Zen Center now who don’t think they “need” to go to interviews–it would be this: practice as much as you can while you can. Unlike a certain gasoline sign in Cambridge, your Current Condition isn’t a protected historic monument: instead, you never know when your Current Condition will change, you’ll move away, and your easy access to a thriving practice community will become much more complicated. If you knew that the picture-perfect conditions of Today were going to change Tomorrow, would you make a point to do all the things you’ve been putting off? Impermanence surrounds us, protected landmarks notwithstanding. If we don’t take pictures, go to practice, or ask questions now, what exactly are we waiting for?

Golden glow

Yesterday afternoon, before driving to a Thanksgiving potluck with friends, J and I took a walk around his golden-leafy neighborhood. “Everyone goes walking on Thanksgiving,” J noted, “even if they don’t walk any other day in the year.” He was right. On a typical day in Newton, you’ll see people walking dogs, people jogging singly or in pairs, and an occasional couple, walking. But yesterday it was balmy and beautiful–warm enough for several convertible-owners to drive with their tops down–and we saw several loose clusters of people walking the streets without dogs or exercise togs: just walking. Apparently Thanksgiving is a day when you gather with family, eat inordinate amounts of food, and then spend time engaging in the simple activities (such as walking) you wish you took the time for the rest of the year.

Japanese maple leaves on ground cover

J and I spend much of our time together walking, even when it’s not Thanksgiving. Yesterday J mapped a two-mile afternoon walk for us to take; last weekend, we walked four miles on Sunday and a total of twelve miles between Thursday night and Monday morning. Some people spend Thanksgiving watching the Macy’s parade on TV; others watch football games. On Thanksgiving like other days, J and I walk because it’s something we enjoy: it’s good for you, it costs nothing, and it’s a leisurely way to spend time together, with or without dogs or cameras. If you live in a golden-leafy neighborhood with plenty of pretty, safe streets to stroll, why wouldn’t you spend as much time as you are able ambling?

Falling and fallen

And yet, not everyone lives to walk: walking, after all, is slow-paced and lacks the thrills and chills of, say, drag-racing. Why walk when you can run, roller-blade, bike, or skateboard? Why walk when you can sleep, watch TV, or shop? Every time I visit my parents in Ohio, my mom and I go walking together; my dad prefers bench-sitting to walking, and “walking the dog” always provides my mom and me with ample excuse to escape. “Why aren’t there more people out here,” my mom will ask, gesturing toward almost-empty paths in the close-to-home suburban parks we explore whenever I go home. “They put in all these nice walking trails, and people are too busy watching TV, playing video games, or going to movies to find time for a walk.”

I never know how to answer my mom’s rhetorical question since it demands I speak for the “they” who do not walk, and how can I understand “their” motives? “Why do people spend good money,” my mom will ask, “to sit inside watching some stupid movie when they can be out walking?” At this point in the conversation, Reggie is typically tugging his leash and I’m pulled in two directions, part of me following the path of conversation and another part of me paying attention to the literal path ahead of me. “I don’t know,” I’ll admit. “Some people like movies, and some people like walking. To each his own, you know?”

Old man's beard

This morning, I went to Zen practice in Lexington for the first time in months. Fall semester has been a busy time: I’m teaching what amounts to a double course-load at several schools, in October there were the late nights and lost sleep of a Red Sox championship run, and by November a teaching overload necessarily results in grading gridlock. At some point you begin to cut yourself slack by replacing things you’d like to do with the things you must do. “In December, after the semester is over,” you tell yourself, “I’ll start writing, practicing, and working out again.” Next semester, you tell yourself, your teaching load will be lighter, and there will be more time for everything you’ve been postponing…if only you can get to the end of this hectic time.

Confused flower

If it weren’t for Reggie and J, I suppose I’d have postponed walking these past months, too, figuring I didn’t have time. And if it weren’t from an email last week from Zen Master Bon Haeng (aka Mark Houghton) asking someone to lead practice today, I suppose I’d have slept in this morning. But knowing that ZM Mark is in Korea and needed someone to lead practice–knowing that it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to drag myself out of bed, drive the 15 minutes or so from Newton to Lexington, and have the satisfaction of knowing I’d both practiced and helped Mark out by covering practice for him–I responded to the email. “No problem: I’ll be there. Have a good, safe trip!”

Japanese maple leaves & samara

And so this morning, I got up at 5:30 to crawl into meditation clothes, drive the 15 minutes or so from Newton to Lexington, and make sure the lights were on when other folks arrived for practice. About 95 percent of Zen practice is simply showing up, and the other 5 percent is simply staying. On Black Friday, when other folks dragged themselves out of bed to drive to malls and stores offering door-buster bargains, I tried to find no better deal than my own breath, attentively watched. There will be time in December to catch up with writing, practicing, and working out; there will be time, come Cyber Monday, to shop. But this morning, thoughts of all those classes headed into their final weeks were shoved to the back-burner, just as they are when J and I stroll the streets in our golden-leafy neighborhood. Some people like to watch movies, and others like to walk. Some people like to shop for door-buster bargains; others choose to spend the morning after Thanksgiving meditating. To each his own, you know?

Freeway revolt

Never underestimate the strength of a group of angry Cantabrigians.

Activism

As long as I can remember, there’s been a mural on the backside of the Microcenter store on Memorial Drive in Cambridge, MA commemorating the 1970s freeway revolt that is the reason why Interstate 95 goes around rather than through Boston. It might seem easy to pave a neighborhood: who in their right mind, after all, would stand in the way of the bulldozers of progress? Some twenty years before I moved to Cambridge to live for two and a half years at the Zen Center that’s only about a mile from this mural, a bunch of residents stood up to the road builders and said “Not in my backyard.” In a very real way, I owe the ongoing existence of the neighborhood that once was my neighborhood to folks I never met apart from their symbolic representations on this wall.

I was back in Cambridge yesterday giving consulting interviews at the Zen Center, a role that still feels foreign to me. I’ve been a Senior Dharma Teacher in my Zen school for four years now, but I still expect to be sitting on the student rather than the teacher cushion in the Zen Center interview room. Who am I to be giving anyone advice about anything, I wonder every time I pick up the bell that says “Next!” to Dharma room meditators awaiting an interview. On a good day, I’ll try to share a glimpse of what I’ve experienced during some eighteen years of Zen practice, and I let the person on the other side of my mat decide what to keep and what to reject. On a bad day, I take the tenuous job of “teacher” too seriously, saying more than is technically helpful and breaking the Number One Zen Dictum, “Open mouth, already a mistake.”

The Man = Federal Innerbelt I-95 worker

Spending any amount of time in meditation–on a certain level, eighteen years, eighteen minutes, or eighteen seconds are merely microcosms of the same immeasurable experience–feels a bit like standing up to an oncoming bulldozer. When I first began meditating, I’d often experience bouts of panic where I thought I’d literally die from the terror of simply sitting and watching my own karmic crap. In daily life, there are countless ways to ignore, drug, or drown out your inner insecurity, insanity, or inanity. When you’re sitting on a meditation cushion, however, you can’t reach for a drink, the TV remote, a bag of fattening snacks, or your preferred Distractor of Choice. When you’re sitting on a meditation cushion, the only defense you have against whatever you’ve spent your conscious hours ignoring is your own breath, and that’s a shield that feels as flimsy as air.

One of my favorite Zen sayings (and one I observe much more faithfully than “Open mouth, already a mistake”) is “You’re stronger than you think.” I suspect that had those nameless Cantabrigians who saved what would eventually become my erstwhile neighborhood seriously thought about how big a task standing up to a bulldozer is, they might never have undertaken it. Instead, activism starts with one action, and one action leads to another. The way you sit out a Dharma room panic attack, I’ve learned, is to use the mantra of “One more breath” like a lifeline: you can live an entire life surviving from breath to breath. I suspect the secret to a successful freeway revolt is something similar: signature by signature, you fill your petitions; moment by moment, you refuse to be moved.

Making a stand, with child

Today, some twenty years after the citizens of Cambridge said “no” to the freeway that would have bisected their neighborhood, the citizens of Boston’s North End, who have lived in the shadow of Interstate 93 since the 1950s, saw a long-promised park open where the Central Artery has since gone underground. There’s one sort of strength that says “Hell, no”; there’s another sort of strength that says, “Someday, this too shall pass.” The citizens of Cambridge earned their freeway-free neighborhood; on a sunny Sunday, even Memorial Drive is closed to vehicular traffic so locals and visitors alike can walk, jog, push baby-strollers, roller-blade, escort dogs, and otherwise move motor-free down a normally busy thoroughfare. The residents, too, of the North End amply deserve the parks that have replaced the freeway there. The last time I was in the North End, I kept looking slack-jawed at the sky, shocked to see air where an ugly Artery once stood. It’s been a long time coming.

Each of us, individually, is stronger than we think; collectively, gathered into neighborhoods and united by even the smallest vision of what could be, our strength is greater than bulldozers. One breath is the merest tickle; many breaths become a mighty wind. Heaven help the power that tries to fight that strength.

Standoff

This is my belated contribution to last week’s Photo Friday theme, Strength.

Boat watching

You might call this the many-years-after version of this “before.” Long after the excitement of posing for wedding pictures fades, the realities of marriage endure. I wonder how many times this couple has taken Sunday strolls along the harbor, watching cruise boats come and go. How many miles, nautical or otherwise, has this particular couple logged, and through what weathers?

Boat watching

There’s nothing more wholesome than a long-married couple taking a harbor-side walk, unless it’s a grandmother taking her young grandson boat-watching. The shiny novelty of a young couple posing in their wedding finery is one thing, but show me the weathered face of a grandmother or middle-aged couple, and I’ll show you a picture worth more than a thousand words. There’s nothing finer than young love…unless, of course, it’s older love. Marriage is no pleasure cruise; it’s a journey marked by trial and more than a bit of tedium. When I consider the marital math lesson I’ve offered the Almost-Married, it occurs to me that couples who have lasted longer than the almost-thirteen years I was married have that much more wisdom. If the couple in the picture above could give a word of advice to the newlyweds who posed not far from them, what lessons would they share?

These days, I’m more interested in old married couples who have been together forever than I am in new couples just starting out. The excitement of a wedding is fine and good, but what happens when monogamy becomes monotony? The true test of any life, coupled or not, comes on Monday morning with its mundane drudgery. Who is going to do last night’s dishes, and who will take out this week’s trash? It strikes me as downright counter-cultural that one of my favorite things to do with J is grocery shopping on Saturday afternoons: why don’t I “get” the nearly universal message drummed into single folks that dating is about excitement, not mundane chores? And yet, it strikes me that a truly long-term relationship is more about grocery-shopping, laundry-doing, and other household chores than it is about wine, candlelight, and roses. Romance is fine, but unless someone buys the groceries, cooks the meals, and cleans the dishes afterward, how can man or woman live on romance alone?

Cyclists with skyline

Years ago when I saw the blockbuster film Titanic on the big-screen, I remember being struck by one scene near the end of the movie. While everyone else was ooh- and aah-ing over the sexy on-screen chemistry of the movie’s attractive young protagonists, the scene I found the most memorable showed an elderly couple huddled in bed as their cabin filled with water. Too old to race for the lifeboats, the couple had presumably made a pact to go down with the ship together. It’s fine and good for Celine Dion to croon that the female protagonist’s “Heart Will Go On” after her heart-throb suitor ends up dead in the water: it’s easy to love a man you don’t ever have to live with, the novelty of infatuation never having the chance to wear off. But isn’t the truer, truest love the kind that has looked “’til death do us part” in the face and remained faithful?

There’s an oft-quoted Zen saying that says “After the ecstasy, the laundry.” Presumably after the thrill of enlightenment has faded, all that remains are dirty T-shirts and undies. And yet, I’d beg to differ with this oft-quoted saying, or at least the preposition therein. It isn’t that laundry comes after ecstasy; it’s that laundry is ecstasy. If you fully embrace your life with all its tedium and drudgery–if you fully embrace the monotonous routine of the same old spouse as you head off to meditate, again, on the same old cushion–you discover your laundry and your ecstasy are one in the same. What is marital bliss, after all, but the repetition, ’til death do us part, of the same old chores, the same old laundry, and the same old ecstasies?

This is my belated submission for last week’s Photo Friday theme, Wholesome.

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