Sunday, April 8, 2012

Seeking Shambhala in Gallery 280

During a recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston I discovered a variety of interesting curiosities. One, which I blogged about previously, is the discovery that I don't ever want to own or wear man pants. The main event of this particular trip, however, was the special exhibition in Gallery 280: Seeking Shambhala. The show is up until October 21 so you have plenty of time to catch it.

Shambhala, according to Tibetan Buddhist and Indian Buddhist traditions, is a mythical kingdom hidden somewhere deep within inner Asia. The land is said to be shaped like a giant lotus flower surrounded by eight petals which, in turn, are surrounded by snow-covered mountains. The inhabitants of Shambhala are protected by both the mountains and supernatural forces which ensure the residents are protected from the rest of the world. Those who live here lead an evolved spiritual life and are free from all forms of suffering and strife. Sounds kind of nice, doesn't it?

Prior to this trip to the MFA, the closest I've gotten to Shambhala was a trip to another museum. I think it was in 1997 that a group of Buddhist monks came to the Cleveland Museum of Art and created a sand mandala that was a physical representation of Shambhala. I also got fairly close to Shambhala when a group of monks were in residence at Northeastern University underneath my office in the counseling center. They also were building a sand mandala.

On both occasions I quietly hung out in the back of the room watching the monks carefully build the mandala--sometimes a grain of sand at a time. I also got to watch the ceremony at the end of the creation of the mandala where the sand was swept up and washed away in a body of water.

Impermanence. It gets you every time.

Among the various pieces in gallery 280 I came across this Buddha by Gonkar Gyatso. It was one of those great moments with art--I got drawn into the piece and all the little adornments placed onto the Buddha. Those few moments seemed like an eternity and when I left I saw everything in a different way. I got to thinking of all the little (and big) experiences of our lives that get imprinted upon us and shape our understandings of what comes next. I also got to thinking about the form of what is beneath this surface of impressions.

What might be like to take water and a scrub brush to this Buddha (I wouldn't actually do this, of course, except within my own mind). Might it be possible to wash away these small adornments on the Buddha--these impressions of life--and reveal the true form of the statute? Might it be possible that we can wash away the impressions of life--like the monks wash away the sand mandala--and be left with something pure?

I frequently tell clients who are working through trauma something similar. Trauma work, as I see it, is much like going to the doctor for wound debridement. Every bit of contaminant needs to be located and scrubbed out. I realize that for as many times as I've told a client this, I've never talked about what is left behind.

I'm not sure what would be left. That's probably why I've not thought to talk about it with a client. It's easy to think about what this Buddha would like like with all these impressions washed away. It's a lot harder to think about what people might look like. Maybe we'll figure it out if we ever get to Shambhala.

In the meantime, it's worth it to make a trip into Boston to spend some time with this Buddha. He has a lot to teach.

Curious about Gyatso? You can visit his website or his blog. This blurb, taken from his website, is his artist statement:
My current work comes out of a fascination with material and pop culture and a desire to bring equal attention to the mundane as well as the extraordinary, the imminent and the superfluous. These contradictions are often found in the same painting. The work can be very silly and uncanny and at the same time come out of concerns that are shaping our times. I love poking fun and fill my work with a kind of unabashed whimsy and imagination. As my own experience has been one that reflects a kind of hybridity and transformation my work also holds this quality. We are all repositories of our time and place and I think the work can not help but reveal the politics and cultures that have shaped me. In this way my work has a spatial and temporal component to them; where time and place collide into each other. While in the past I have not intentionally been overtly political, I have explored political themes. And just as the identity of my motherland, Tibet, can not be separated from religion and politics, I think my own sensibility has been shaped by the undeniable bond between the two.


  1. I believe I can answer your question regarding what would be left behind if all the impressions--be they of your clients' trauma wounds or the Buddha that is pictured--were washed away. Pure essence. It is what we glimpse in those brief moments when we can see beyond the veneer of our personality or stand in awe. It is what we touch, if only momentarily, during deep meditation. It is the treasure that is hidden beneath the physical expression of who we are. It is who we become when we arrive in Shambhala. Pure essence.

    1. You heard what Anonymous had to say, start scrubbing! Don't forget behind your ears, too. :-)

  2. Did you recognize who wrote this comment, Jason? Did you guess that anonymous was a woman? (My favorite quote from the hey day of feminism!) Did you guess it was the MIP (Mother of the Irreverent Psychologist)??? 'Twas me indeed! I would love to add this Buddha to my vast collection of Buddhas...can you make me one? If not, I would settle for your windy Buddha!

  3. I meant an actual statue, not a photo facimile! However, I will settle for a facimile because your photograph captures the beauty of said statue. Now what about that windy Buddha in your possession that I have been begging you for? I'll even settle for a picture of it! ...And you didn't tell me if you guessed Anonymous was moi!

    1. Surely you aren't encouraging your son to steal art work from the MFA! Did you look at the links to the artist's website. His blog, I believe, has some nice images of this Buddha. And yes, I guessed it was you.

  4. Surely I am not encouraging thievery...I asked you to MAKE me one, not steal said Buddha from the MFA! I will gratefully accept your offer of a print of your photograph of this adorned Buddha.

  5. *giggles*

    I read this post several days ago, but I can't quite put into words what I think I want to say.

    However, I can't help commenting now because I've got a big smile on my face. Love MIP's comments.

    Mother's Day is fast approaching. I'm thinking a homemade decorated Buddha for your mom would be the perfect gift! *hands you the hot glue gun* ...I wanna make one too!

    If you do opt for stealing the Buddha from the MFA, I wouldn't enlist Maggie's help. After all, she did get caught trying to swipe the flowers!

    Thank you for sharing. I needed something to make my mind wander away from what it was thinking.

    Take care,