Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Ordinary Mail

In the middle of the last century, in the West, Buddhist images were few and far between. For some of us, childhood was a struggle to resolve what we saw in our hearts with what we saw by our eyes.

In my own experience, had it not been for a  painter, an engraver, and a postage stamp, I might have easily lost direction for a while. 

Today, among other things, I want to honor the three of them -- this is something I have been thinking to do for what seems a very long time -- and in so doing, it is my intention to acknowledge the enormous blessing associated with Buddhist images.

The French painter Marc Leguay is sometimes called the "Gauguin of Laos." While still in his early twenties, an exhibition of his paintings caught the eye of the then Governor-General of Cochinchine, who kindly invited the young artist for an all-expense-paid tour of Laos.

So, in 1936, Leguay set sail to the place that would become his home for most of the rest of his life. He was so taken with the country and its people, that upon the conclusion of his visit, he literally jumped ship and fled into the jungle! Now wanted by the French police, he managed to hide until 1937, when he was discovered, and through the kind intervention of the Governor-General, allowed to stay permanently, eventually founding the Laotian Academy of Art.

Leguay lived in southern Laos, and thereafter close to the Cambodian border, until in 1945, he was captured by the Japanese and imprisoned. When the war ended, he returned to find his home wrecked and his life's work destroyed. He had no money, and had to support himself by teaching art to the children of the wealthy.

 Marcel-Louis Leguay (1910 - 2001)

So it happened that French rule ended, and a national government came into being. In 1951, Prince Souvanna Phouma invited Leguay to design Laotian postage stamps. In 1952, the first of these stamps came into being -- a collaboration between Leguay and the famous French engraver Jean Pheulpin (1907 - 1991).

The subjects of Leguay's designs and Pheulpin's subsequent engravings were always people in Leguay's immediate milieu. He used his wives and mistresses as models, and also his children. Buddhism was also a subject Leguay visited many times in his works, and his images are compelling.

In the mid 1950s, Leguay painted a Buddhist monk receiving alms. This monk only occasionally came to Leguay's door, and the artist had to sketch him surreptitiously, capturing different aspects during different visits. This painting later became the design of one of a series of stamps issued in 1957, commemorating Buddhism in Laos.

Like many others of my generation, I had a stamp collection.

When this stamp was issued, it became my favorite in all the world. I cannot tell you why -- or, if I could, perhaps it would not be so important -- but I can tell you that I began accumulating this stamp by every means possible. Once upon a time, I had literally thousands of them. I also used to give them away to my friends.

How can I say this? In 1957, that small picture of a Buddhist monk was somehow both a comfort and an inspiration to me. So, I wanted to be surrounded by this picture. A strange thing, isn't it?

By the 1970s, I was professionally interested in South East Asia. How that came to be is, I think, a result of what we call "throwing karma," no less than idealistic decisions by a natural-born romantic. While on one such adventure, I had to visit Paris, to meet with some old French colonialists. 

During dinner one evening, the subject of philately came up, so I told my story of the Laotian stamp. As it happens, my dinner companions were in the business of knowing things and finding people, and they were in a expansive mood.

Thus it came to pass that I was able to meet Jean Pheulpin, and to receive from him a most generous gift of signed, engraver's die proofs of the beautiful designs by Marc Leguay. I have scanned and now publish the proof of the monk -- a 10 kip stamp of 1957. Along with this proof, Pheulpin also gave me the story of how Leguay came to make the painting, from the furtive sketches I describe above.

One thing leads to another. We have all heard this saying, and many of us have experienced this as well.

If it happens you are a Buddhist, and you are also fortunate enough to be born in a Buddhist nation -- or at least a place where there is institutional sympathy for Buddhism -- then your inner experience and your outer visual experience can be in harmony with one another. 

If, for example, you have a dream of Tara, perhaps you will wake up and see an image of Tara, and then you can say, "Oh! Last night I dreamed of Tara!" Your divinity is culturally labeled in just this way. 

But, there is something else at work that is not so easily brushed aside.

When I was a small boy, my father brought home a picture book that described all the world's religions. He said to me, "I want you to very carefully look through this book, and think about what you see. Then, if you can, choose one thing that you want to study, because this is meant to guide you in life."

"[A]ll mundane and supramundane phenomena, without any distinction, are primordially enlightened as the mandala of vajralike body, speech, and mind. Thus [the mandala] is not accomplished through a path." --Rongzompa, Establishing Appearances As Divine
I was quite close to my father, with whom I enjoyed a very good relationship.  He was a most cordial, compassionate, and unselfish man of even, gentle temperament, who instinctively thought of others before himself. It was always my wish to follow his instructions to the letter, because it was my happiness to please him. I readily took up the book, and began to glance through it, when my eye fell upon a picture of Shakyamuni Buddha sitting beneath the bodhi tree. 

I told my father, "I don't want to see any others, I just want to study this one." 

My father was somewhat taken back by this, so he asked me, "Are you quite sure? You haven't even looked at the other ones." 

I was adamant, and replied that I did not feel the need to look elsewhere.

Attraction to that image led me to another image. We had a series of books in the house entitled John L. Stoddard's Lectures, published in 1925. In the third volume, on page forty-one, there is a picture of the bronze Buddha at Kamakura, in Japan. As a child, I loved this picture so much that I have kept it with me even to the present day.

Regardless of this, now you can understand how, when 1957 rolled around and I saw that monk's picture on the postage stamp, the image already seemed familiar to me, like an old friend. 

When, because of imprints arising from countless former existences, we experience an attraction to Buddhist images, these images will gradually begin to multiply, until we see them literally everywhere.

That is one way to view the matter.

Another way to view the matter is to consider that the seeming duration of "time" this takes is immaterial, because apart from being ubiquitous, the activity is continuous. Thus, while this may seem to happen immediately in one circumstance, or to happen gradually in another circumstance, what seems to "happen" has in fact already happened.

Gradually, having experienced the images everywhere, we will experience a cessation of grasping at these images, and our mind will cease naming its own appearances. Instead, we will begin to see all appearances as having the same nature.

Indeed, this has been the case all along -- we just haven't noticed.
As an aside: I know of many, many cases where Westerners have experienced dreams or visions of Christian deities, only to be led to the Dharma in result. This is  something interesting. In our polycultural society, you could say that one has an early and open opportunity to grasp all appearances as the same. You know, it seems that in Bhutan, or Thailand, or someplace similar, one doesn't have much choice. In America, if one actually seeks out the Dharma as a natural extension of one's spirituality, this is a little different.
In some respects, it is a mistake to think in terms of causes, i.e. because of some cause arising from a prior circumstance, we have a resulting attraction to Buddhist images. In an ultimate sense, if this were entirely true, then there would come a time when the results of the causes were exhausted, and the images would cease appearing to us. Yet, when we stop naming Buddhist images as "Buddhist images," and view all images exactly as they are, then all images become thoroughly inexhaustible Buddhist images.

In both their component and established sense.

Whether we perceive them or not.

Only the mind apprehends this appearance and decides, "here are rocks, creosote bushes, joshua trees, and sagebrush in the desert."

Only the mind apprehends this appearance and decides, "here are lurking rattlesnakes, tarantulas, tortoises, ravens, and coyotes."

Only the mind apprehends this appearance and decides, "here are countless buddhas, teaching the dharma, surrounded by the sangha, enjoying measureless offerings, attended by numberless dakinis in the buddhafield."

Only the mind apprehends this appearance and decides, "see the rock that resembles a seated buddha!"

Only the mind apprehends this appearance and decides, "see the seated buddha that has turned to stone!"

Only the mind apprehends this appearance and decides, "see the self-arising buddha having the nature of stone!"

In actuality, what is there before us is the Triple Gem. One can legitimately take refuge right there and then, with full confidence that one has taken refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

But, we do not do this.
"[A]ll apparent phenomena are nothing but delusion and there is, moreover, no freedom from delusion to be achieved by dispelling delusion. Delusion is, by its own essence, completely pure and, hence, enlightened. All phenomena are, in this way, primordially, fully, and completely enlightened. Phenomena appearing as various attributes are, therefore, indeed the mandala of vajra body, speech, and mind. They are like the Buddhas of the three times, never transcending the essence of complete purity. Sentient beings and Buddhas are not differentiated in terms of their essence. Just like distinct causes and results appearing in a dream, they are nothing but perceptions of individual minds brought forth by the power of imputation." -- Rongzompa, Establishing Appearances As Divine
The letter has already arrived for us -- maybe there is a lovely Laotian stamp upon it! -- but we think there is postage due. We rummage around in our pockets and purses, trying to find correct change. Maybe we feel we have to borrow from somebody to meet this obligation. Maybe we feel we have to go earn something. Maybe we feel we have to go down to the post office, and consult with the clerk. What shall we wear to the post office? Where is the post office? How shall we travel there? What must we say to the clerk?

Actually, the letter is already delivered. Absentmindedly, we placed it between the pages of a book, that we put on a shelf, intending to read it later.

Actually, the book is already down from the shelf, open to the correct page, and the letter is reading itself to us.

Rongzom Chokyi Zangpo (1012 - 1088)
Painting by Sergey Noskov

Rongzompa, who was himself a wish-fulfilling jewel, taught about wish-fulfilling jewels.

Rongzompa said that one may find such a jewel, but be unfamiliar with its singular quality.

Indeed, unless one knows of jewels, one may or may not see the jewel as a jewel.

Even if one does see a jewel, perhaps one will see an ordinary jewel, and thus one will not be able to enjoy its wish-fulfilling powers.

So, maybe this jewel is left in a drawer somewhere.

However, someone else may come along who is thoroughly familiar with wish-fulfilling jewels, and begin to point out this particular jewel's qualities. Suddenly, one is able to recognize the extraordinary nature of this jewel, and it becomes an object of veneration.

Rongzompa says:
"Likewise, unless ordinary body, speech, and mind are understood to be divine, and revered [as divine], their [divine] qualities will not be seen. However, it is observed that [divine] qualities manifest wherever [body, speech, and mind] are understood and revered [as divine]."
We do not always need to speak in terms of wish-fulfilling jewels, or other things that seem foreign to our culture and experience. Because we hear of them, and hear of their attributes, such things seem to exist, but whether or not such things exist is immaterial. If we hang on to such things we are hanging on to dreams.

If divinity naturally expresses itself as a primordial continuum of compassionate activity having neither origin nor cessation, then awakened reality already proceeds in a fashion precluding any necessity for fantasy.

That is what I mean when I say one can make the ordinary extraordinary, and the extraordinary ordinary, long enough for both the ordinary and the extraordinary to be ordinary.

For a friend in Athens, and all sentient beings. All photographs copyright (c) 2010 by the author. All rights reserved. Image of Rongzompa copyright (c) 2010 by Sergey Noskov. All rights reserved.

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10 reader comments:

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful post!

It helped me remember my childhood fascination with various things and much more.

When I was a very young child my mother took me to many antique stores and thrift stores while she was shopping. One thing I zeroed in on and wanted was a pair of plaster of paris Snow Lion / Fu Dog book ends. I still remember putting them on the counter to purchase them clearly. I really admired those heavy old book ends that we found in a thrift store and put them in my room perhaps at the age of 7 or 8.

I also had an affinity for purchasing various Japanese items, whatever we found. I think Japenese stuff found its way to where we lived relatively easily by that time.

About that same time one of my first long-term teachers outside of "school" appeared. She was a talented German Jewish piano teacher who had an interesting name that I now see as very meaningful in the symbolism of Buddhism. In the middle of an American suburb with no interest at all in Buddhism (she really knew only about music)she had a large Buddha in her rock garden in the front yard where everyone could see it as you passed to enter her house. Inside the house, she had perhaps half a dozen statues of Avalokiteshvara / Kwan Yin. If asked, she would have told you they were only for decoration. She was in her mid 70's by that time and she had collected these things in the 1950's.

She was like a grandmother to me.

She always drew a circular diagram on the music notes we were studying and said, in order to succeed in learning piano you must practice, have patience, concentrate, have diligence, etc. (the circle had various compartments where she would write these words). She drew this circular diagram many times and told me, "I am not just teaching you for learning music, this is for your whole life."

I now see her as my first Buddhist teacher, when I was 8 and only studying piano in a boring sterile American suburb.

What is really amazing is despite all these wonderful things life sometimes seems so incredibly meaningless at times! At least it used to.

Drums of Dharma said...

This mind sees Bhaishajyaguru Vaiduryaprabha Rajaya Tathagata with Vajrapani on his left side and the remains of a very ancient stupa rising in the background.

Namo Buddha.

Anonymous said...

That is really an amazing photo. I see the Medicine Buddha with three prostrating Sangha on the right. An ancient stupa is behind, or a large stone elephant walking to the right.

I think I see the Kalachakra main symbol on the large rock to the left and above the main Buddha. Also some crescent moon shapes on the rock, such as are near the top on the main calligraphy Kalachakra symobl.

I think this rock is possibly related to one of the Buddhas prior to Shakyamuni.

Cliff said...

Great post!

Anonymous said...

Or, you can see a complete round halo, aureola, aura behind the Buddha's head, a little darker at the bottom forming a crescent, and lighter as it goes to the top and forms a circle behind the Buddha.

Also note how the bottom portion of the aura mirrors the bottom portion of the aura in the beautiful Kamakura Buddha image above in this same post - a synchronistic element that is interesting.

I believe the Kamakura Buddha in Japan used to be in a wooden temple before it was left in the open by a tidal wave that wiped the temple away, leaving only the Buddha.

I believe that in the future California is extremely important for the dharma. There are signs.

I was told that "there is something special" about Southern California by a very well-respected teacher.

Editor said...

In Southern California, all the elements and auspicious geographical signs and circumstances are encountered in close proximity to one another, and virtually every mineral known on earth is also encountered. In Northern California, one finds the American equivalent of Samye, at Odiyan, in Sonoma County, which is by this point one of the most heavily consecrated and empowered sites on the planet. So, in California generally, there are auspicious circumstances and conditions in great abundance, and it has been ever thus. What is often missing is people who are willing to avail themselves of this richness in a wholesome, non-neurotic fashion, for the benefit of all sentient beings. Stopping at the oasis, one offers one's companions the first taste of cool water,and only then should one think of one's own thirst.

Anonymous said...

The power of this piece of writing is enormous. Blessings to you and thank you so much for opening my eyes. You are a great master and I bow down to you. Please remain in this world for a very long time.

Stephen said...

This post reminds me too much of my own experiences. I notice that even as a child, you were already using mudras ! Anyway, Tenpa, what is the meaning of "Tenpa" ?

Buddhist Art News said...

Thanks for the superb post. The personal experience of westerners coming to Buddhism through (seemingly) random images is encouraging, encouraging of the present wide spread of Buddhist images throughout the world. I tend to side with the point of view which claims that any image from Buddhism, even ones in non-religious contexts, can have a positive value.

Jon Ciliberto

Anonymous said...

du-lhe . nam-gyel.thanks.