Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Face of the Buddha vs The Face of the Christ

The image of the Buddha greets one regularly in my neighborhood. Not just at the vegan restaurant on the corner, but even in less likely places such as gas stations and even the local hardware store. I've noticed that even Walmart is offering Buddhist inspired decor. A local furniture store is named, The Eye of Buddha.

Back in the late 50's, when I was a kid, there seemed to be an island craze which swept, if not the country, then at least our city. Tiki torches were ubiquitous. When I was about fourteen, I carved, from an 8-foot section of palm, a tiki to go by our backyard pool. It had big pukka shells for eyes. I remember my dad completing the exotic ambiance of our backyard with a one-foot high cement Buddha placed on a little pedestal. This Buddha was fat. It seems fat Buddhas are out of fashion these days.

I find the image of Buddha attractive and interesting. The perfect serenity and calm of his features has, I think, a universal attractiveness and appeal. Who among us has not gazed upon the soft and somewhat feminine features of the Buddha's placid face, with those smooth and relaxed eyelids so calmly and completely closing off all the stress and care of the outer world, and not longed to somehow attain this same deep inner peace and detachment from all worldly cares?

This stress-free Asian face reflects a deep peace which shields its soul from all the clamor and strife of the material world. It's the face of determined and disciplined detachment from a tumultuous and tragic world. The Buddha sits there silently and serenely inviting us to join him in that place where all earthly care has ceased and no striving disturbs the glassy stillness within. In this unlined face it is evident that all wants and desires have been released and all mental and physical tension have drifted away like some wispy vapor. This face silently whispers that all is--or at least can be--peace and perfect harmony.

Christ's face is portrayed most often as reflecting some deep emotion. He is either seen in anguish as he himself suffers upon the cross, or weeping in sorrow when at the grave of Lazarus. His face reflects protective concern for the woman about to be stoned. This is not to say that images of Christ cannot be found depicting him in relative ease, it's just that images of him in some sort of sorrow greatly outnumber the others. There is indeed the Prince of Peace aspect to Christ, but it is not the peace of detachment from the world, but a peace which comes at the cost of first engaging with and overcoming evil.

The Christ we find depicted, whether in the Bible or in art, is a Christ who is fully engaged in the world. We find him hotly debating opponents one minute, then dramatically delivering a demon possessed man the next. He makes no effort to shut himself off from suffering and pain around him, instead he seems wade into it and absorb it. Isaiah tells us, "He is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." This is the face of a man who feels deeply an inner grief over the plight of our struggling and suffering humanity. He weeps over Jerusalem. He gets angry and overturns the tables of the money changers. He cries out to the multitudes. He rebukes the pharisees. Christ is anything but placid and calm in the middle of the mess of fallen humanity.

The two faces reflect two ways of being in/coping with the world around us: We can, like the Buddha, shut it out and retreat inward to a serene and silent reflecting pond deep in the tranquil inner monastery of our souls or, we can engage the hurt and struggles happening around us and "weep with those that weep" allowing our souls to both confront and mourn for a broken and wayward world.