On the Subject of My Buddha Burning
I remember sitting, stunned, on the sofa. Blank. Even then, even in this moment of clearing and loss, I felt a greater presence than myself reminding me of what I already knew. No image or statue of a Buddha was more important than the teaching and practice of what the Buddha stood for. My clutching hands could not hold the essence of the Buddha.
I don’t know what was driving me. I’m not sure why I wanted to find it or really what I was looking for. Even thinking about it makes me feel stupid somehow. But I was searching for The perfect Buddha to take home from my travels in Thailand. We’d been travelling for months around South East Asia, visiting temples, sacred places, tourist hot spots, ancient Buddhist communities, killing grounds. I didn’t buy a lot of things, but once in Thailand I started to crave the perfect Buddha and the perfect set of prayer beads. I searched in every shop we went past, in every market.
In some big touristy warehouse I found the one I wanted. Its skin was white and it had on a purple robe. It was made of wood. I loved it. All of the statues were slightly different, but this one is the one that I had been waiting for.
We wrapped it well, bought another back pack for it, and lugged it around with us until we finally returned to Barcelona. I have a yoga/meditation/puja room. I take classes in this room and I had a little altar on it with my Buddha, my prayer beads, some of my favourite crystals and some incense.
One day I came home to the smell of smoke in the apartment. I couldn’t discover where the smell was coming from at first, but I realized that it was from behind the closed door of the yoga room. I thought quickly, grabbed the closest blanket like thing I could find (beautiful hand picked shawls from India) and opened the door. There was only smoke. There wasn’t a fire as such, more of a slow ember burning for 6 hours in a room with almost no air. I opened the windows, threw the shawls over the altar (it must have been incense I’d forgotten and left burning that fell onto the cloth, there is no other logical explanation)
There was a lot of smoke. There was no physical danger. It was dirty, with ash and dust everywhere. Neighbours called the fire brigade and police also came to see what the problem was. It was quickly established that I had everything under control. However, the firemen did throw buckets of water over the altar and then proceeded to walk everywhere leaving a much greater mess than there was before they arrived. But considering it was all for the sake of containing fires, one cannot complain about ash being walked through the hall, I guess.
I started cleaning, I would be cleaning for weeks to get the smell of smoke out of the house, and discovered most of my most precious religious tokens broken, cracked from heat, stained black, burnt up and my beloved perfect Buddha with half an arm missing and half his face charred. Not to mention my beloved shawls.
I stared at the wet pile of rubbish on the floor that just a few hours earlier had been the focus of my devotion and attention. While light started spearing into my head forcing space. I didn’t want space. I wanted my Buddha back, with this beautiful arms and his white radiant face. I thought of how I had searched and searched for it and how we had taken care of it on its way to its new home and how I had loved it.
I was left with empty space in my chest.
And just out of mind, just to the back of the space was a deep sure knowing that this experience was deeply symbolic and deeply necessary for my ability to let go of another crutch I had grabbed on to help me on this path of life.
I didn’t need statues, I didn’t need amulets, I didn’t need prayer beads (beautiful glossy red on white string) at all and actually, it was, basically, just rubbish in the big scheme of things. The big lesson. Let it all go. Die before you must die. Stop believing in the structure of things that look like God. You know better than that. All is Divine. There are no exceptions.
I called my partner. He was out with friends and promised to return. He didn’t return for another three hours. He says he didn’t realize just how important the apartment burning and fire trucks and police entering our apartment and checking over my passport and pending residential status was to my state of mind. It was another loss. I had to give up thinking that our values were the same. That he would view important life lessons the same way I did. That he would value me over the group, even though I knew he was bound to life through his group, not through his individuality, as I was.
So I sat on the sofa, having cleaned what I could for the moment, and let the shock of unlooked for loss settle in.
Again, there was nothing. God was no and all structure. God was in no thing and in all things. I knew this, but I was not living it. But then I remembered that I had entered into a sure contract to live through all that I must, to enhance understanding, compassion and to embrace humanity. From the deep levels and prolonged exposure to my own hate that I had experienced as a child and teen I had forged patterns of judgment and criticism that boarded on plain self-righteous arrogance.
Every time I tripped up I won deeper insight into the nature of human being. I could not judge those if I had lived in their shoes. I had experienced the deep need to covet something of value and to hold my own ‘precious’, and I had experienced the loss of it, and I could sit there, on my sofa, and laugh, without humour, to myself.
God is not within the white body of a perfectly clad wooden statue. But at the same time, God was in the burning of his arm and the blackening of his face. And to this day I have my blackened and burnt Buddha sitting at the end of my hallway beside an arm long banner painted with ‘Awake’ – Buddha!
What better way to teach a lesson?