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Small Rituals (Brian L.)

For a Buddhist, it can be disconcerting to walk through the Asian art wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. Eighth-century Bodhisattva statues flank the entrance to exhibition spaces filled with artifacts. Museum visitors stream by on the search for a famous Van Gogh or Matisse, barely turning their heads in acknowledgement of these ancient images. Ritual instruments, deity figures and carefully preserved paintings line the walls and fill the floor space.


These artifacts are, of course, practical in origin. Religiously practical—as opposed to practically religious—these objects were designed and made for personal, communal, and heavenly ritual purposes. Now, they fulfill a different function, serving as examples of cultures and religion far removed from the tall towers and placid lakefront of downtown Chicago.




The Art Institute of Chicago is one of the world’s premier museums, an encyclopedic collection of approximately three hundred thousand objects housed in almost one million square feet of museum space. To be fair, the multiple problems associated with incorporating ritual items into a museum—a particular kind of space devoted to a particular understanding of objects—is by no means unique to the Art Institute, nor are the many Asian art professionals both in the Art Institute and beyond unconcerned with these issues. But the fact remains that the museum’s standard of use and care for these objects is quite distinct from that of the temple or monastery for which many of these objects were first made. Use, in the museum, is defined in terms of contemplation, study, and preservation.




It is safe to say that the majority of people walking through the halls of the Art Institute of Chicago are neither Buddhist nor Hindu. In contrast, the Sarnath Museum, a museum run by the Archaeological Survey of India near Varanasi in the northern part of the country, displays some of the incredible grey schist and sandstone sculptures found at the site. Sarnath is said to be where the Buddha first taught the Four Noble Truths, where the wheel of Dharma began to turn and the Sangha, or community of practitioners, was established. The modern day Sarnath Museum, like the Art Institute of Chicago, aspires to similar museological conventions: careful preservation of the objects for future generations, disciplined study, and visual display.




However, many who walk those halls have a different relationship with these objects. Museum visitors touch the statues constantly, or, to use a better term in this context, the deity-images. Guards appear mildly exasperated, but also unsurprised. It is unclear whether the worn sections at the statue’s base are from the object’s time in temple settings, or from its time displayed at the Sarnath Museum. The Sarnath Museum, far more so than the Art Institute, highlights the differing value systems at work when religious objects are preserved and displayed in museum settings.






What does it mean to remove an object, like a statue of the Buddha, from its context of ritual use? This question has come continually to my mind as I, over the past two years as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, traversed that hallway hundreds of times. My own particular background, as a Buddhist with training in art history, makes this particular point of intersection intensely apparent.


My solutions are small, and personal. I try (at least, when I think I won’t look too bizarre to my companions) to walk to the left of the major, central images, as one would when circumambulating around a ‘real’ Buddhist temple. I have even, on occasion, walked clockwise around the multi-block Art Institute campus, when I had the time. Or, more honestly, whenever I needed to be reminded that these objects and the museum in which they are housed are but one piece of the puzzle, one set of available values. Even though these gestures are tiny—practically unnoticeable—they bring me back, for a moment, to remember the meaning and values these images were originally intended to inspire.




How do we relate to our religion, our practice, our ethical grounding? Should we treat these fundamental aspects of our life like statues in the museum, as objects to be collected, studied, considered, written about and displayed to others? Or are our ethics something to be put into practice, something we have to live with, to touch, to know intimately? It is easy to adopt an intellectually removed attitude towards our practice, analyzing and debating. And it can be just as easy to forget the necessity of living with and through these values, rather than collecting and preserving them for some idealized future. Our ethics, or our religious practice, need to be handled, to be treated both carefully and intimately, in order to function in our lives. If we are too careful with them, placing them on high pedestals behind thick glass, we risk passing them by.


[BRIAN tells us: I am an artist, writer, curator and gallery manager. That is in order of priority. Buddhist is also certainly on that list, though its position is always less clear. Here, I will be thinking about the deep intersections of art and Buddhism, focusing on the personal and observational rather than the historical or technical. Of course, priorities can always shift.]

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Big Ideas (Ian P.)

One of the ways humans make sense of the world is by telling stories—to ourselves, about ourselves, about others. About where we came from and where we’re going. All too often, our focus on story—our insistence that there is one and that it go a certain way—interferes with our ability to experience reality directly.


We’re usually the hero of our life stories, though we sometimes think of ourselves as the villain, or a minor character in someone else’s Odyssey. Whatever role we assume, it’s almost always out of proportion, as the ego, crying out for attention, creates scenario after scenario to justify its existence and reassert its needs.


In his commentary on Geshe Chekawa’s lojong slogans, Chogyam Trunpga calls this “authoring absurd, nonexistent things,” and reminds us, “you are not any of your big ideas.”


No matter what our “big ideas” are—that we’re saving the day or spoiling it; that we’re crucial to our organization’s success or just another cog in the machine; that we can change the world by applying sufficient will power or that our works are empty, uninspired and as insignificant as dust—they only serve to obscure the dharma.


Remembering that we’re both none of these and also more complex than thoughts of “I am important” or “I am useless” frees us of the burden of expectation such labels, proclamations, and assumptions create. In that freedom, we are open, and can relate to others from a position of sanity.


Not being our big ideas is more profound than the contemporary “spiritual” notion of “living in the now,” though mindfulness practice is certainly a part of developing the capacity for freedom. Rather, it’s about cultivating a life that ensures the desires and instincts that stem from an overblown sense of self—which is both cause and effect of our life stories—never trample the rights of others.


We’re not unsuspecting set pieces with prearranged life stories, waiting to see how it all turns out. What we have is life, messy and unpredictable, and the responsibility and joy of living it lucidly as it unfolds.


[IAN wants us to know: I first found my way to Buddhism in my teens, via Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, and studied it in college, but didn’t really start practicing until 2005. “Nondenominational” is maybe just a fancy way of saying I’ve yet to find a sangha, but I’m influenced by both Chögyam Trungpa and Eihei Dōgen, and am most interested in the humanist aspects of Siddhartha’s teachings. Off the cushion (but is there even such a thing???), I run, surf, bake bread, write fiction, work in water, and have a brand-new baby boy.]

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Uncertainty (Joel Q.)

The future is full of uncertainty. I have studied both law and natural systems and think often about the limits of what society will tolerate, of physics, of our biology. Given this preparation, my career will involve working with a series of uncertain outcomes. Whatever predictability once existed in natural systems (a limited amount to be  sure) has been dramatically reduced by our recent activity on Earth. We are changing the climate, reducing habitat for other life forms, and generally carving the world up based on who can make the most money from a particular use of particular area at any given time. As for the law, if the law is clear there is no work to be done. Only when no one knows how the law applies to a situation do we need a judge to decide this on behalf of society.


For natural systems to provide for everyone, including other creatures, we have to know what we are doing and take care. To keep people from harming each other, there must be clear rules that even the wealthiest and most powerful are held to. It is not certain that we as a society will choose to be just or responsible or intelligent. But we each have that capacity.


Buddhism, for me, is a wellspring of hope. It would be depressing, I think, if only certain people could be enlightened. But everyone, each of you, all sentient beings have that capacity. Each mind is luminous compassion and wisdom behind a swirling cloud of confusion. All the politicians, all the children, all the kittens, all the criminals, all the drivers on the road, everyone has a mind that, beneath confusion, is the Buddha. I am comfortable with uncertainty because we go forward together and many beside me may well be more enlightened than I am already.


[JOEL tells us: I recently graduated from law school and live in the Boston area. My intellectual interest is how our social systems operate and interact with other natural systems. I’m working toward a world full of healthy humans and environments. I do Buddhist practices in the Drikung Kagyu tradition.]

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Finding a Fresh Start (Aaron B.)

Kathmandu sure is an interesting place to be learning your way in the world.


Its a Friday afternoon and I’m awfully glad to have just gotten through a long week of school. I’m now about half way through my first semester at Rangjung Yeshe Institute, an international center for Buddhist studies located in the Tibetan suburb of Boudha, Nepal. I’m here to get my “Masters in Translation, Textual Interpretation and Philology” which in all should take about four years, given that I will need a couple years of classical Tibetan and Sanskrit before I can actually start the program. Most of my friends and family gave me crazy looks when I told them how long I would be studying here. Then again, what difference would that make when you’re pursuing something you love?


Boudhanath under repair

Boudhanath under repair after the big earthquake

Sacred & Profane

Where sacred meets profane daily, hourly.



I’m often quite busy with school work, whether its writing papers for my Buddhist history class, memorizing classical Tibetan grammar or practicing my speaking skills in colloquial Tibetan. Its no surprise that its pretty easy to get absorbed into my school life. Granted, Rangjung Yeshe is the most unique atmosphere I have ever studied in. My classmates and teachers hail from Germany, Mexico, Brazil, Spain, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Nepal, Canada, Holland, Norway…sometimes I gaze around the classroom in amazement. To think that we have all come here to pursue our interests in the Buddhadharma is simply amazing.


Rangjung Yeshe Institute

Rangjung Yeshe Institute

But once in a while I able to see the shear magic of my situation. With school it can be easy to believe that my life hasn’t changed much since coming to Nepal. Indeed, Boudha, the neighborhood where I live, must be the most comfortable, modern and quiet (relatively speaking) place in the whole city. I could go to school in the morning, have pizza for lunch and find a movie to watch on Youtube with friends in my apartment. Sounds pretty straightforward.

But the truth is my life has totally changed. And if I hold to this truth then maybe I can make it a change for the better.

This revelation seems most clear when I hang around the Great Boudhanath Stupa, a mere five minutes from my place. Here I listen to languages I could never place; learn village customs; watch people laugh and struggle their way through life. I’ve seen urban monks and awfully poor mentally disabled individuals. I’ve shared benches with a grandpa and his grandkids. I’ve seen young Nepalis with Nirvana (the band) shirts and old friends holding hands. All these things remind me that the world is indeed bigger than the one I brought with me from the States.






This is my chance to look very closely at all the things I carried with me. I can look directly at my habits. I can discern what is really worth carrying around and what should now be left behind.


This of course is no easy task. I can moan about my apartment’s lousy Internet and I can worry that I’m not being social enough with my classmates. I have plenty of materials to craft a mundane life. But the truth is I came to Nepal to pursue the Buddhadharma; I came to pursue a change.


[This is what we know about Aaron B: Aaron is currently living in Kathmandu, Nepal, where he pursuing a Masters of Arts in “Translation, Textual Interpretation, and Philology” at Rangjung Yeshe Institute. He loves learning languages, drinking good tea and listening to or playing music. Aaron aspires to become a teacher and a translator and a decent human being.]

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