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The sixth century Chinese relief sculpture of the Buddha flanked on either side by a bodhisattva, on display in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, is roughly six feet tall and initially imposes itself on its viewer. This imposition passes rather quickly as one gazes at the Buddha’s face, reflecting on his serene countenance. One is put at ease by his meditative posture; he sits with legs folded, his right arm lifted and his left resting. Interestingly, he looks at once relaxed and firm. This sculpture of him, as is true for all images of the Buddha, is not only a reverential idol of the founder of one of the world’s great religions (using the term generally), but a depiction of a foundational principle of Buddhism. More appropriately, it shows the goal of the Buddhist way of life, the enlightenment that was reached by the Buddha.
The Buddha occupies a space in the consciousness of Western people, most of whom have a superficial idea of Buddhism, as a very happy and joyful figure. When looking at the sculpture in the MFA, one does not get the feeling that the figure depicted is particularly happy, in the sense that one is happy for some specific reason. Rather, the state embodied by the Buddha is one of contentment. While contentment and happiness may generally be used interchangeably, there is a subtle difference between the two. Happiness is an emotion that comes and goes as one experiences the causes of happiness, or of unhappiness. Contentment, on the other hand, describes one’s continuous state. The Buddha seems at peace, his eyes slightly parted and his mouth with a slight closed smile. This speaks volumes about the Buddhist ideal of enlightenment. Nirvana, when properly understood, is not a particular feeling that comes about due to some specific cause, like happiness. Rather, nirvana is essentially a recognition of the Truth, in terms of what the Buddha described as being Truth. It is not a sense of euphoria, or a spiritual high, it is simply a settling. The word nirvana itself carries the meaning of “blowing out a candle,” indicative of its reality.
One gets the feeling when looking at the sculpture that the Buddha himself created an aura of calm around him. The bodhisattva’s that stand on either side of him have similarly content looks on their faces, themselves being on the brink of nirvana and willingly forgoing it to help others. As honorable as their task is, their small size relative to the large Buddha portrays the immeasurable difference between one in nirvana and one who isn’t. Their stillness, along with the firm yet relaxed stillness of the Buddha himself, shows another aspect of enlightenment. While Buddhism doesn’t teach that an individual seeking the Truth has to separate from society and become an acetic monk, it is apparent that nirvana comes to those who are contemplative. Those who place themselves in a calm stillness are more able to reflect, contemplate, and meditate.
The art of the world’s Buddhist traditions has acquired renown for depicting principles of Buddhist enlightenment. The images of the Buddha in particular show a content being, one that is privy to a Truth that many are not aware of. One can imagine the way Buddhists of the past, and even today, viewed these sculptures. They likely saw in them a lofty goal, and a beautiful individual that had reached it.