Wednesday, July 25, 2007

secret passage, hidden treasure

The night before I came to visit, the artists at Diving Swallow Tattoo opened their space up for a showing of Tibetan thangkas. One particularly rich, dark thangka was hung up toward the front of the gallery space, on the wall adjacent to the dragon-handled door and the neon flowers lighting the front window. And while Marie Wadman was busy mixing custom inks and prepping her station, I stood magnetized to the painting. Avalokiteshvara was the bodhisattva’s name. I knew just enough about Tibetan Buddhism to have passed my Problem of God and assorted world religion classes at Georgetown, but beyond that could be considered your typical Berkeley dabbler, a spiritual tire-kicker with—at best—an intellectual, recreational interest (though I happened to be midway through a simple, helpful book called Change of Heart at the time).

In the thrall of endorphins that lasted the next few hours, I sat propped on the pillows slung over a pub chair as Marie worked on my back. And I thought about the thangka, about this thousand-armed icon, about the place of spirituality in the world, in my world, the use of it. And I started to turn over and over the outside hope that maybe Avalokiteshvara arrived for a reason, as if he revealed a passage sliding open just as I set eyes on it.

Working at a place like North Atlantic, I walk within so many different communities—martial arts, healing & health, literary, and of course spiritual. The result of having spent my days supporting the work of these folks, so many of them with decades of experience refining their practices, is, in this case, instant, intimate access to the full story of the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

Avalokiteshvara, so disturbed by the depthless sadness of the world, committed to freeing all sentient beings from the suffering of our world. Looking around himself at all the sorrow that persisted despite his best efforts, he fell into despair. In form with the fantastic narrative turns of so many parables, Avalokiteshvara’s head then split into thousands of pieces. When Amitabha Buddha restored him, he gave him eleven heads with which he could hear the cries of souls in samsara. Avalokiteshvara tried to reach out to them all, but his two arms shattered, inspiring Amitabha Buddha to give him a thousand arms, with an eye on each palm, to reach out to those suffering in the world.

I am going today to pick up my thangka of Avalokiteshvara. I am impossibly excited about it, about setting up an honorable little place in my new home for him. My relationship to him, as well as my increasing awareness of respect, compassion, detachment, feels like a smooth rock in my pocket, a treasure for the moment and for the ages. I’m a lucky kid!