Touching the Face of the Buddha
by Gerald Grow
At the Asia Society in New York, I visited an exhibition from the Rockefeller collection containing a group of early Bodhisattva figures—statues of those who achieved Buddhahood but, instead of disappearing into personal enlightenment, remain on this earth to help others. The gallery was dark, with the only light emanating from the illumination inside each free-standing exhibit—a nice symbolic touch. This meant that, when you came close enough to see a figure, you entered a pool of light, so that, in addition to seeing the statue, you saw a faint overlay of your own reflection, set off against the surrounding darkness.
Some had clearly been objects of devotion. One brass figure was smooth from where thousands of devotees had touched the face of the Buddha. Each figure had a presence of antiquity and immediacy, unearthly stillness and endless activity, otherworldly peace and immersion in the world we ordinary humans know. You could feel that these were representations of a different way of seeing the world.
Halfway through the exhibit, it occurred to me that, if I stood behind and looked over their shoulders, I could try to imagine what the world looks like through the eyes of a Buddha.
It was an interesting aesthetic experiment—the kind of thing one does in order to see art in a new way— until I came to a head of Avalokiteshvara, the traditional embodiment of compassion, carved from volcanic stone in central Java in the 9th century. It is a massive head, more than two feet high, apparently removed from a large statue that was attached to a building. It must have looked down from a considerable height, though now it rests in a transparent rectangular case on a stand that sets the statue’s eyes only slightly above my eye level.
I stood to the sculpture’s left, where its shoulder would have been, looking through the corner of the case to the space in front, through the multiple reflections in two thick sheets of plexiglass—the side and front of the case.
What came into view was not the empty space I had seen when looking over the shoulders of the other statues in the exhibit, but the reflection of the Bodhisattva’s own face from the pane in front of it, floating faintly in space about ten inches in front of the enclosure, and, due to the angle of viewing, somewhat lower than the head. Against the light-and-dark background of the gallery, I could clearly see about three-fourths of the reflected head, translucent, three-dimensional, like a hologram hovering in space.
The Bodhisattva statue is one of those paradoxes that makes the raw sandpaper surface of volcanic stone take on tenderness, and the floating reflection seemed even more tender and kindly than the face itself—perhaps because it showed the face more from below, as it was originally meant to be seen.
As I watched, other visitors passed by, moving from the darkness of the gallery into the space where the face of the Buddha hovered, lighting up and merging into it as they bent to read the display card, then moving away, leaving behind them the floating image of peace and compassion that, from their vantage point, they could not see.
After a few minutes, I realized that I could reach the image from where I stood. The natural temptation of any thinking person would be to thrust a hand through the reflection and dispel the illusion. But this was not an illusion; it was an opportunity to touch the face of the Buddha.
When no one seemed to be looking, I reached my left hand around the plexiglass case to the space where the image floated. As it entered the multiple reflections, the hand appeared to become only half solid.
In that dimly illuminated air, I gently felt the features of the reflected face—caressed the cheek with the hair on the backs of my fingers, followed the soft outline of the smile, touched the profound peacefulness of the eyelids, traced the cheek and nose and chin and jaw and ear and temple in every curve and contour, and came to rest with my palm on the Buddha’s broad forehead—all in a space anyone watching would see as empty air.
I then slipped around the case to where my hand had hovered.
I lowered my eyes and immersed the face I knew as mine into the face of the Buddha that I knew to occupy this volume of space.
Little happened then, but alone several hours later, tears of uncontrollable delight suddenly overcame me, with the recognition of what the statues were saying—that what they represent can be found occupying any volume of space!
In the gallery, as I half-knelt, half-squatted before the display, wondering benignly if the guard would arrest me, a sweet tenderness filled the room.
My eyes lifted up, curious to find out what one sees when merged, however imperfectly, with an image of the Buddha.
There before me stood the huge stone head of the Bodhisattva, with a faint reflection of my raised face hovering inside it. Through the stone, something smiled with a peacefulness so vast it seemed to hold everything.
I caught the faintest glimpse of how a Bodhisattva might see everyone as a Buddha—perhaps dim and distorted, perhaps barely coming into focus as I felt myself to be—but, still, a reflection of the reality that shines through the stone.
Related writings by Gerald Grow:
Buddhism: A Brief Introduction for Westerners