Identity, Confinement, and Love: Reflecting with the Bodhisattva

by Yuka Hayashi

With the sturdy, smoothly-chiseled wooden columns, the translucent shoji windows, and the uguisu-bari, or nightingale floorings, the dimly lit gallery resembled a temple in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. The moment I stepped into this unpopulated section, I felt a shiver run down my spine, and I knew immediately that I wanted to escape here as soon as possible. I felt a dull pain somewhere deep inside my skull, and my heart seemed to have shrunk and shriveled. I didn’t know why I was feeling this way, but I knew that I was greatly affected by some kind of unknown presence that forbade me to return to the jolly state I was in when I was strolling through the galleries of Sargent, Kahlo, and Bauhaus at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. 

With every step, the silent room filled with shrill chirping noises. I felt like an intruder and desperately wanted to take my shoes off. I was even more self-conscious about the noise I was making when I approached the lines of the Japanese Buddhist sculptures. The pang of fear struck me again as I faced the Buddha, the Bodhisattva, and the Guardian Kings. I wanted to scream out, “Why are you here?” Then, it struck me how odd it was that these deities were displayed in this fake, mock-up environment―did people even realize the brilliant craftsmanship behind those screeching floors and how it served as an automated security alarm to avoid spies, thieves, and assassins? How could these deities tolerate the degradation of having tourists, academics, and children scanning over their bodies, or even just passing by without a glance? It was extremely uncomfortable to find them here, seemingly unattached to any kind of temple, people, or belief. Perhaps the oddity derived from the fact that a large segment of the gallery was under construction, and that the space lacked unity unlike the high ceiling salon-style gallery of the 18th-century European painting section. However, I knew there was more to it. 

Feeling nauseous, I left after only a short stay. As a student inspired by learning how Louis Agassiz insisted that students repeatedly observe the specimens before them, I was aware that for a developed understanding, I had to return. Along with agitation, I also felt a tinge of excitement, curious to know what was making me feel so tense. Hence, I returned to search for a specific artwork that I wanted to interact with. My eyes caught the standing Bodhisattva. I was fascinated by this tall, reddish, grey-black figure. I somehow assumed that it was made of metal―the red stains a mark of corrosion―and was surprised that it was made of wood. It was constructed, carved, and refined from a single piece of Hinoki, or Japanese cypress. Standing at the foot of this Bodhisattva, who was as tall as an NBA player, I felt its might and authority pushing me down to the ground. Restless again, I retreated to safety so that I could have some space to reflect.

In another part of the Museum, one dedicated to contemporary art, I sat on a couch and took a deep breath. Despite being far away from that treacherous room, I could not get it off my mind. Then, I suddenly had a flashback: I was at my grandmother’s funeral. As a fidgety, curious eight-year-old, I was unable to fully understand the connections among the black outfits, the wetting handkerchiefs, and my grandmother. I became bored with the monk’s interminable and monotonous chants and ventured out to explore. I remember being excited―it was my first time entering the hidden inner-rooms of the temples―and having lacked any sort of Buddhist education, I was always a confused child celebrating Shinto (traditional Japanese religion) events with my family, making Easter eggs with my English-speaking friends, and noticing the Butsudans (Buddhist altars) in my grandparents’ houses. I felt like an adventurer in a foreign realm. I found a sliding door with beautiful gold embroideries on it and entered to find myself in a long room filled with shimmering Japanese Buddhism sculptures. My mouth dropped when I saw the enormous, golden Buddha in the center, with vibrant flowers and glamorous tapestries surrounding it. At the foot of the Buddha were my grandmother’s picture and two sticks of holy incense held by the ashen sandbox. Seeing my grandmother here, with these unearthly figures, in this overly-embellished room, I felt sick. I didn’t want her here, but back in her traditional Japanese house on the steep hills of Iida, Nagano, where she would listen to me sing and chatter, treat me with rice-cakes and green tea and tell me that I was her favorite grandchild. I hated seeing her confined and unreachable―forever. 

I visited the Bodhisattva again–realizing how awkwardly proportioned it was– and read the information panel to find out that its arms are replacements. When a restoration was carried out in the nineteenth century, the statue was given shorter arms. The Western standard of aestheticism had unintentionally disfigured the Bodhisattva. It also robbed the Bodhisattva of its  ability to “reach out to those in need”. What is the role of this Bodhisattva if it cannot achieve its purpose? Caged up in a glass enclosure far away from its homeland and its people? Similarly, like the first time I entered the gallery, I desperately wanted to scream, “Why are you here?” I also felt a personal attachment, pity, and anger towards this Bodhisattva. Its shortened arms triggered memories of forceful assimilation to foreign cultures when I moved to Singapore at age 5, returned to Japan in 7th grade, and now, in my decision to navigate the U.S. as a Boston College student.

However, the Bodhisattva’s gentle expression and attitude of reaching out despite its crippled state also reminded me of my grandmother, whose back was hunched so low because of the long malnourished years from war and poverty, but who was still always the one who ran around the house taking care of the household and spreading love to everyone around her.