While it is hard to relate to symptoms of "folk religiosity" in one's own spiritual tradition (I never got over the shock of seeing the dried-up tongue of St. Anthony on display in a crystal case in his Basilica in Padua, Italy), it might be even harder to relate to a tradition decidedly not one's own. For me, Buddhism and its various Asian embodiments are as foreign as the tongue of St. Anthony.
I understand, intellectually, that people need sacred imagery to have a tangible connection to the spiritual world. Yet, I feel completely estranged from these visual manifestations of what is destined to be "sacred" and portray the hidden and mysterious aspects of life, yet appears to be crass and vulgar, if not downright bizarre. Of course, the core of Buddhism is as "merciful" and "enlightened" as any major spiritual tradition aiming at individual self-improvement and evolution towards goodness.
Here's a poem I wrote about a sculpture of Quan-yin, a Buddist Boddisathva or "enlightened being" associated with mercy, kindness and forgiveness. The golden sculpture with multiple hands handing various symbolic artefacts is found in the permanent collection of the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena. I was trying to reach beyond the surface and get to the meaning of these symbolic objects and the core of the message that the sculpture represents - meditation, prayer, mercy... The poem was written for and first read at the presentation of the "Poetry Audio Tour" of the museum's collection in 2009. It was published in the anthology associated with this event by Poets on Site (edited by Kathabela Wilson). Actually, another poem of mine is a part of the Audio Tour itself - "Illuminata" - inspired by a Buddhist crown from Nepal. That poem may be found on the website of the Museum and in other places.
The "Gates of Mercy," or "Arms of Mercy" or "Hands of Mercy" - as the poem below has been called in its various reincarnations - describes the sculpture, yet seeks a hidden meaning in its multitude of gestures. Above is a reading from 2009 posted on YouTube.
The Hands of Mercy
The golden hands of Quan-yin
embrace the world, point to the subtle
meaning of wisdom, give us tools
for enlightenment – a jewel
to grant all wishes, a rope
to tie us to the rule of the law
– immutable, gentle, persistent –
a globe to remind us that
the Wheel of Fortune is spherical
– so many ways of falling off –
and a horn to call for help in distress
– wait, you are not alone –
Quan-yin smiles with approval.
There is still time for a shy gesture
of affection, reaching out to caress
the cheeks of the loved one
– you are real, you are here –
Light fills me to my fingertips,
circulates through my veins
dhyana mudra – anjali mudra
My palms open and close.
I smile like the Goddess
of Mercy with veiled eyes,
hands clasped in twin gestures
of meditation and prayer
open – closed – open –
NOTE: Quan-yin is a Buddhist deity (bodhisattva) of compassion, sometimes portrayed with multiple arms to represent her various attributes. Dhyana mudra is an open-palmed gesture of meditation, Anjali mudra is a gesture of touching hands in salutation, or benediction.