Self-blessing and the promise of the bodhisattva

sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness….[to] retell it in words and in touch it is lovely, until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing — Galway Kinnell

The first time I encountered her was probably in the late 70s or early 80s, maybe on a school field trip. There in the Asian section of the art museum was a much larger-than-life Guan-Yin perched in her own cavelike nook. There was obviously some specific point in time when I first stumbled across the statue — with its muted green, gold, and red tones — but I don’t recall that there was. It feels, rather, as if I’ve always known her, as if, from the very beginning, I’ve been visiting an old friend. Even as I knew that she did not belong there, pillaged from China as she had been— I basked in her presence. It’s a refuge that I have sought out again and again over the years. For me, the bodhisattva — both the image in general and this particular statue — has served as a mile-marker, a life preserver, and a teacher.

Maybe it will help if I explain that I was an intense, brooding child, utterly convinced that I did not belong where I had been left. In the early years, I assumed this was a localized problem, that I just didn’t happen to feel belonging in that particular house, with those confusing, loud people, or in that specific town. But as I grew well into adulthood, trading one city for another, and shifting in and out of relationships, I started to conclude that maybe I was the problem, that I lacked an intrinsic sense of “home” that most others seemed to have. Still, there were a few notable exceptions to my chronic, sometimes navel-gazing sense of alienation, including the times I spent in that cool, dark museum at the feet of a transplanted bodhisattva on 45th street in Kansas City.

Not surprisingly, it turned out that the philosophical import and history of “bodhisattva” was initially kind of disappointing to me. It comes from Mahayana Buddhism and refers to beings who delay or postpone their own enlightenment in order to facilitate the awakening of all beings. To oversimplify things, according to some explanations, “bodhisattva” is meant to be a corrective to the supposed over-emphasis on Buddhism as a path primarily for solitary spiritual attainment. With its emphasis on boundless compassion for suffering others, some argue that this version of Buddhism is more consistent with lives of service and compassionate social engagement. To me, though, the explanation has included an emphasis on self-sacrifice that the feminist in me has sometimes found distasteful.

At the moment, though, I am much less bothered by the focus on service to others, probably because I no longer feel at risk of being swallowed by others’ needs and priorities. When I was younger, I was inclined to see such other-oriented generosity in terms of self-abnegation, whereas now I can appreciate that, at least sometimes, it might also be an expression of overflow and plenitude. But so long as I absorbed my ideas of love primarily from popular music and movies — rooted almost entirely in need and lack— I could not have noticed that the bodhisattva’s gift might be something else entirely. Looking back now at a younger version of me looking at her, I can see that I was not simply looking at a beautiful “other,” but an incipient version of myself that I might someday grow into.

My long relationship with the bodhisattva may help explain the odd fact that, although I am not a proper scholar of Buddhism, an article I wrote about Kuan-Yin is one of my most cited. It was published years ago, but every so often, someone still emails me about it, sometimes simply to share that they too connect with the image in ways they struggle to understand. Sometimes they too, like me, are disturbed enough by the colonialist appropriation of her to be uneasy about their attraction.

On my more recent visits to the bodhisattva in Kansas City, I’ve begun to wonder if, instead of stealing comfort from her, I might, instead, actually be in a position to give something back. How on earth had it not occurred to me sooner that her sense of alienation and uprootedness must be far greater than any I had ever known? How is it even possible that it took me so long to recognize that when I have sat before her across the years — greedily drinking in her boundless generosity of spirit — I have actually been encountering a latent version of my own lovely self?

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