The Walking Buddha Beckons

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Date: Spring 2016
From: Southwest Review(Vol. 101, Issue 2)
Publisher: Southern Methodist University
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,024 words
Lexile Measure: 1300L

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Of course it doesn't.

It is completely still, completely silent; as incapable of gesture as of speech. Though finely wrought to mimic the figure of a man in miniature, this piece of metal, ghosted to the shape of something living, is frozen and inert. For all the sculptor's artistry in making a simulacrum of human form, the metal remains mute. This small, well-crafted bronze can no more tell its story than a stone could recite a poem. Beyond the few immediate impressions it lays upon the senses, the metal remains dumb. It yields to perception only a bare list of superficial features: cold, hard, dense, heavy, unperfumed, silent.

Yet, despite this, its muteness can be made to sing. That, after all, is what the artist was about when, more than a century ago, he forged elements from the earth--copper, tin--into this particular shape and tuned it according to a Buddhist score. What songs does the walking Buddha sing? I've come to think of him as having a repertoire that's set in two entirely different keys. The first is the approved one. Tuned to the official note, it's for those melodies sanctioned by tradition. The songs are formal; they give orthodox renderings of Buddhist teaching. The second key is informal, if not illicit. It hums along with, and distracts from, what the walking Buddha is meant to convey. It's not my principal interest here, but looking briefly at the music written in the officially approved key will help provide a picture of the statuette and set the scene for the song I really want to listen to.

Though to casual scrutiny they are invisible--inaudible--there's a swarm of symbols neatly clustered in the metal, each one in its appointed place. These symbols are like notes in a chord that sounds out Buddhist teaching. To take a couple of examples, the stylized swollen point atop the figure's head--the ushnisha --is meant to recall the Buddha's wisdom--too much for an ordinary head to contain without this domed cranial extension. The flame emerging from it represents the radiance of his spiritual energy. The elongated earlobes (stretched by years of wearing heavy gold earrings) remind us of the Buddha's royal birth. The ushnisha, flame, and elongated earlobes are the most obvious of the lakshanas- --magical marks whose presence on a body supposedly indicate a state of enlightenment within. Traditionally, there are thirty-two lakshanas, though often only a few are shown. It would be tedious to run through them all. Suffice it to say that the lakshanas are believed to be like naturally occurring tattoos that appear as a result of spiritual advancement. Each of these little markers--thirty-two variations on an underlying theme--reiterates the idea of perfection and flags up the difference between enlightened and unenlightened beings.

The walking Buddha's left hand is raised, palm forward, thumb and forefinger touching. This is commonly taken as a gesture of peace, though technically it signifies an appeal to reason, or the giving of a teaching. Held thus in the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A453920668