We are not Buddhists but we live with three Buddhas - each of them different and each of them on a different duty.
The least fancy is our backyard Buddha. He is a tubby, bare-bellied laughing Buddha, who has the eyes of the Dalai Lama – knowing, forgiving – always faintly amused. He is only a foot high, cast concrete and there are most likely a thousand others in his exact image, who look after other backyards.
It is this very ordinariness I find endearing - a humble and humbling incarnation. He has lost some of the detail of his chin and his left hand over time. But that seems only to set him apart from others, as though cast from one mould, each incarnation seeks only to become itself, as it also works at becoming nothing.
Through the dog days of Summer he sits serenely. After weeks of rain he wears a thick green moss across his head and shoulders and it seems to me like a lesson in being still. Looking at him through the kitchen window I am reminded of the story of the saint, who held still throughout Lent, with a blackbird’s nest in his outstretched hand. St Kevin was fed berries by the blackbird and perhaps my Buddha has a similar gig. As he sits cross-legged in contemplation on his lotus, his lap might seem inviting to a bird. That’s when I think to lift him up and set him in a tree. He is safe there from being lost in the long time unmown grass. He is lifted off the ground, as though in some kind of trace-like levitation.
Our other two Buddhas are both Thai and live in the bathroom - one reclining and one walking. Recently a friend asked, why is it that our ears grow longer as we age. And without really thinking, I said, because we are better listeners now than when we were young. Now we have less to say and more to learn and less time in which to do it. But before bed as I stood cleaning my teeth I looked over at the sleeping Buddha. He has the longest ears in the world. Perhaps our earlobes hang lower as we age because we all becoming Buddha.
I had always assumed that the Buddha’s ears were long because he listened to the whole world’s worries. But today I read that his princely beginnings weighed on him and as royalty he would have worn gold ornaments in his ears. In the eighties we all wore large earrings – perhaps our earlobes are longer now as a warning to others of fashion’s follies. I stopped wearing big baubles on my ears when I had a baby. He reached for and grabbed at them, lying in my lap as fat and happy as any Buddha.
The bathroom Buddhas are both painted gold – the larger reclining one covered in mirrors. If you bend towards him you can see yourself reflected in him a hundred times over. Perhaps the idea is that, if we see ourselves in him, we will see him in ourselves also. The sleepy Buddha is cracked through from breast to thigh. He was originally a shop fitting - perhaps from a restaurant. Whether he was dropped or split in the sun I’m not sure – but he was no longer wanted. He was greasy and his gold paint was peeling when we took him home. Now he is dusted clean and spoken to but we have not mended him. A friend of my son’s got a fright seeing the Buddhas in the bathroom. She felt watched, though both have their eyes either closed or cast down. She asked him later why they sit on the side of the bath and he was not sure. Neither am I really. It seems fitting though to see the Buddha at our most naked and innocent. There is no hiding from the Buddha and no hiding from our true selves in the bathroom.
We had a fourth Buddha but I broke him. I bought him some months after Tiananmen Square, with illegal currency in a shop in Shanghai. We were allowed only to have the mostly useless FECs in the 1980’s, to be spent at designated government stores. But I was trading Australian dollars with the hotel doorman.
There were so few Buddhas to see in Shanghai at that time. We saw only the Jade Buddha in his pavilion. But he was billed as an artefact - something to see which was extraordinary because of his size. A week later walking through the French quarter I saw a ceramic Buddha. Sitting atop a pile of printed papers, he was green and white - a smiling rather than laughing incarnation – rosy cheeked and red lipped, with ears that touched his shoulders. He was dirty - as though he had been pulled out of the earth – a fitting image for someone who sits astride a lotus. Perhaps he had been squirreled away while the Revolution raged around him. Later I was told that that was unlikely.
His grubbiness was most probably a clumsy antiquing process, applied just prior to sale. I carried him carefully home in my hand luggage wrapped in brown paper. The newspapers were still pasted up on pillars in those days in Shanghai – not commonplace enough for wrapping. He sat on the kitchen dresser for a year or two but I dropped him trying to clean some cement-like grime from his fingers. Some of the Thai and Indian Buddhas have evenly lengthed toes and fingers. Some even have slightly webbed hands. Perhaps washing the Buddha’s hands was a little presumptuous. I might have loosened the webbing and left him less capable of catching reincarnating souls.
Today when I pass the Buddha in the tree he looks a little uncomfortable. I have no lotus for him to sit upon but I cut him a cushion of moss.
Perhaps I am too much taken by graven images but this is not a lesson. I like to think that the backyard and bathroom Buddhas live with us as friends.