Buddhist Votive Stele, Art Institute of Chicago
In the Asian gallery, a slab, monument to repetition, solidly meditative: immortal souls seated on lotuses. My friend remarks on the tedium--do you suppose the guy carving this went home each night and reported his progress to his wife?
The sculptor, out of sorts and aching, complains while she steams the rice, “Today I managed only seven Bodhisattvas. Two hundred seventy-two to go—what a grind!”
We calculate: eleven souls down by twenty across times two, minus one row on one side plus two narrow sides eight down, three across…though the stele’s broken, missing a few of the blessed, we figure the figures although we know that an accounting (or counting) is not the purpose. Nor is art the purpose; repetition a form of discipline, contemplation via uniformity, surprise residing through near-indiscernible differences.
The sculptor’s fist warm and human, the chisel handheld, handmade.
Maybe the purpose was reverence, or reminder, maybe the stonecutter had no wife or was, grieving, a widower repeating sutras to empty his mind of sorrow while chipping away one bodhisattva after another. 300 niches harbour 468 reminders of one immediate present. The joke’s on us:
Bare trees, marble stairs--
in this temple to art
500 Buddhas laugh…
Ann E. Michael
Ann E. Michael grew up loving art and art museums but, after many years of art school, realized she lacked the temperament and ability to be an artist. She also loved literature and writing, however, and is now writing coordinator at DeSales University and author of several chapbooks and the collection Water-Rites.
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