After bouts of heavy rain, long early mornings of mist and periodic bouts of wind; after freezing and thawing, back and forth, back and forth — this much remains. The chin is just about to fall off. The hands are gone entirely. And the stone pedestal is pooled in wet clay. And yet, a lingering Buddha remains.
For a couple of weeks I forgot about this Buddha completely, taken up with the holidays, out-of-town visitors and a studio sale. And it occurred to me that there are two kinds of disintegrations going on at the same time: the gradual dissembling of form and the mind’s many bouts of erosion.
Well beyond notions of success or failure, there is this: the beauty of fragile things, my own temporal being …. being.
Okay, there’s change, and then there’s change. There’s fast food and slow food. Radical departures from the norm, and then the normative flow of change nearly invisible to the most discerning eye.
But always, change, whether we see it or not, alters everything. I feel it, and am continuously surprised to find it in my aging body.
Nearly a month has passed since I put out my raw, unfired, fragile, destined-to-be-dissolved lump of clay, otherwise known as Buddha. Some days have been wet. Others windy. Some dry. I watched the sculpture dry around the edges, then watched as its surfaces turned to gloss in the gentle rain that our area is so (consistently) famous for. Still, the Buddha sits in its earthy equanimity.
As a dear friend who is about 15 years older than me is so fond of saying, sometimes with gleeful wonder, “I’m still here!”
Features, personality, mood — all grow out of the time spent shifting an eyebrow slightly up here, slightly down there. Equanimity is the basis. Centeredness, and strength, a prerequisite. That extra block of clay at the top? Why, let it be as it is, a crown of sorts. A glory of clay.
Weather has taken the central role in this second phase of Buddha un-making, and it seems that we’re in for a stretch of sunny, windy fall days, with temperatures reaching down near to freezing at night. There was slightly more pooling of liquid clay at the base today, and a few more pine needles glued to the surface. And then there was Maurice, my daughter’s curious dog, that came dangerously close to stepping on it and collapsing the figure all at once. At first, I told my daughter, “We’ll let Maurice do whatever he wants to do; my goal here is not to protect this sculpture, but rather to let it go the way it goes.”
And yet, a moment later I couldn’t help but usher the playful dog to another direction. “Maurice! Over here!”
According to the snippets of history that have come down to us about the life of Buddha, as he neared the end of his life he asked that there be no images made of his face and body. The implication being that these images (like words) would not only be a poor substitute for the living teaching, but would also lead to confusion and error in one’s practice.
And yet, the iconography appeared. And I’ve joined the ranks of presumptuous well-meaning artisans that have appeared ever since. Even now, having made hundreds and hundred of Buddha sculptures — in the image of men and women, old and young, reflecting all sorts of ethnicities — I am a little ambivalent about what I do. Perhaps I would have been better off with just that initial lump of clay. Maybe that would have been a more authentic representation….
Today, day 4 of the Buddha being out in the elements, I celebrated seeing how the elements of nature have distributed themselves and spread their “thusness” around. Pine needles have landed on various parts of the body of Buddha. And Buddha’s body has (with the help of yesterday’s rain) spread itself beyond the stone slab for the first time, bequeathing the nearby leaves with a sheen of gray. Already! A commingling of being begins.
Hammer to clay. Vital force to emotional insecurities and doubts. A bag of overly dry clay. A few free minutes. Add play, and voila, a buddha is being made.
Day 3 of being out of the elements, I see an ecology of creative dissolution. Boldly shaped angles softened by rain. Corners rounding under the weight of water. The thumbs, once so precise in their form, become the first features to dissolve.
This hammering of clay quickly became too much fun. The folded knees developed in a matter of minutes. And then I focused on the center, that area just below the bellybutton, compressing clay in the middle (roughly!). As I hammered away, I could hear my first Zen Master, Seung Sahn, shouting in my ear, “You must keep a strong center! Believe in yourself 100%!” At every blow of hammer meeting clay, I could feel my own center galvanizing, growing warm with energy and playful joy.
The first day, when I set the Buddha outside amidst the fallen maple leaves, it was clear and sunny. But the second day it rained continuously (as it does for months on end here in the Pacific Northwest). I found myself obsessed with looking out the window at the weather, the sculpture. Several times during the day I put on my raincoat and went out to inspect. How was it doing? How long would it last before the Buddha was a pool of mud? A day? A month?
For some reason, I was delighted by the rain. Already, it was changing! A thin glossy film of slurry covered the surface. The first traces of dissolved clay pooled on the slate surface.
Recently I’d led a Buddha-making workshop at a nearby Zen Center, and as I’ve done in the past, I suggested that the makers might consider not firing their Buddha figures. Why not place the finished Buddhas outside and watch them change over time? Wouldn’t that be an interesting exercise in observing change, along with our attachment to our efforts?
I’ve made this suggestion at every workshop that I’ve led, and to this date, I don’t think anyone has ever taken me up on the offer.
So it occurred to me that I should take it on myself. How liberating. Something new….
I had a fairly large amount of clay that had gotten too stiff to throw and shape easily. I’d use that. How to shape? Nearby, on my studio bench, a mallet caught my eye. Then there was that stacked pile of slate that I’d received years and years ago that had never found its purpose.
We began. And by we, I mean the clay and I. We’d been working together for so long, over 40 years, and I couldn’t possibly talk about making anything from the vantage point of myself alone. And are we not, if you were to stretch out time to its farthest imaginable extent, the same material?
What’s statuary combined with luminaries? Imaginaries, naturally. Whatever our faith, orientation, politics, the people who lead and inspire us are, bottom line, still people. It’s inevitable that we might imagine them to live at a “higher” level, but this would be a dangerous, even destructive course to take. So why not call them imaginaries? Calling a spade a spade, we can still love and cherish them, and be just as inspired!
More the essential question: what does wisdom look like? There is a certain amount of lived life….along with a compassionate, hard-won empathetic gaze far, far into the distance. A dose of sorrow for those losses accrued, observed, deeply felt…