Iskra’s chair

Wanting people to focus on his teachings rather than him as a person or a teacher, Mr Gotama asked that no images be made in his memory. For several hundred years after his death, the Buddha’s life and his teachings were represented by the bodhi tree under which he awoke, an empty chair, by footprints, and possibly also other images.

The statues that are so familiar to 21st century Buddhists have their origin in Greek art from the portrayal of Apollo, with the earliest representations of the Buddha in human form found so far created around 500 years after his death.

These representations of the Buddha in human form were created originally in the Greek-Bactrian kingdom in today’s Afghanistan, from where they spread to Gandhara in what is now the northwest of Pakistan, and then to the Indian region of Mathura. Unsurprisingly, Indian religious art also strongly influenced the Buddha images of Mathura.

Coming from a Jewish family which placed an empty chair and a glass of wine at the Passover table for the prophet Elijah, I smile at the idea of having the Buddha and his teachings represented by an empty chair in place of a Buddha statue, or rupa as they are sometimes called.

Photograph © Iskra Johnson, used by permission of the artist. From Object Lessons: The Television Buddha

Photograph © Iskra Johnson, used by permission of the artist. From Object Lessons: The Television Buddha

In a recent blog post, Object Lessons: The Television Buddha, Seattle artist Iskra Johnson wrote about the statue which sat on top of her step-grandmother’s television that she inherited, and how recently she so wanted another statue of her own, but life sized.

Trawling the city’s Asian import furniture stores, Iskra found what she describes as ‘a graceful, stupefyingly beautiful Thai god’, which at $15,000.87 was out of her price range. So instead, as a reminder to be still, to just sit and be present in this moment, she placed a chair next to the bamboo in her garden.

What brings you back to this moment in the same way as Iskra’s chair?

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One Comment

  1. Peter Goble
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    I use my hands as a prompt to mindfulness. Quite often I “see” them as I’m performing some mundane task with them. For a while I’m mindful of what I’m doing, and sometimes slow down markedly.

    I think this hand-to-enhanced-awareness link was established during my time as a nurse. Nurses are always conscious of hand-use, for several reasons including the need to maintain ‘asepsis’ and to prevent accidental infection by contaminated (unwashed or ungloved) hands. For many years ‘naked’ (ungloved) hands were the clinical norm, hence the need to exercise care and mindfulness.

    I think the habit has stuck. It was the studied mindfulness of professional nurse training that turned me on to Buddhism; that and the courage and resilience of my fellow humans through their suffering and even unto death.

    I’ve always rather liked Buddha-rupas, though, especially the little gold-plated and enamelled statuettes of the adibuddhas (Vajrasattva et al) with their dancing postures and their pretty painted faces. They’re quite collectable, and I’ve had a few but have given them all away (much to my wife’s disgust as she liked them too).

    The rupas never served as a prompt or invitation to mindfulness, though. On the other hand the cross or a Christian religious icon does put me in a contemplative and quiet mind-state. Probably early conditioning too.

    I find that observing two people in (any) relationship often triggers an altered state in me, rather like awe and reverence. When I led groupwork activities as a teacher I was sometimes brought almost to tears by seing two people conversing with each other. The other day I was in a check-out queue behind two very elderly people who were packing their purchases very, very slowly into plastic bags. They were both quite physically infirm, and looked well over 90. The woman was tiny and very thin. She seemed to have very poor eyesight, and wore a white glove over her right hand.

    As they packed the items they occasionally consulted each other, stopping momentarily to look at each other as they spoke. Time seemed to stand still. Each moment spoke of their self-sufficiency, co-operation and determination. All human history was there, or all that is noble and gracious and spiritually uplifting.

    After they moved away, I shared my thoughts on the encounter with the young male checkout operator who had seemed to enter into that wonderful timelessness with us; he smiled and said “they come every week”. His smile and his patience gave me much hope for our collective future.


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