My first Buddha encounter involved a figurine of the legendary “Laughing Buddha.” I don’t recall exactly how or when he landed beside the cardboard cigar box I kept on top of my dresser, but I was sixteen at the time. It was a carved-wood rendition of the famous monk, both arms stretched upward with open palms cradling the sky. His bald head was tilted to one side giving him a diagonal smile with just a glimpse of a tongue. Keeping with tradition, his belly bulged over a simple sash and the draping folds of an open robe. I don’t know who told me, but I knew it was supposedly good luck to rub that belly. I probably did at least once.
What I clearly recall were my attempts to photograph him. I had this vision of looking up at him with a bright halo framing his euphoria. Photoshop and any idea of special photo-effects were still decades away into my future. All I had to work with was the family Polaroid camera, the lighting within my attic bedroom, and a near total lack of photographic know-how.
Undeterred, I assumed that the good fortune this little guy supposedly guaranteed would carry me to immediate success. I stood him on a small inverted gift box in front of the dresser-mirror, left on only a reading lamp in order to at least see what I was doing, and assumed that the reflected flash would provide the halo I envisioned. I positioned myself and the camera below his feet in order to peek over the dresser’s edge and fill the entire frame with his life-size eminence. Holding my breath to steady the camera, I clicked the shutter. The flash went off like lightening. I immediately thought, “YES!” I paced the room waiting for the photo to materialize. “It’s gonna be great,” I whispered. However, as I stared into the rigid 3 by 4 Polaroid photo-frame, all that emerged was a white sheen engulfing the faint outline of a head beneath upright arms reminiscent of a referee signaling a touchdown. “No way!” I thought to myself.
This scenario went on for hours until I wasted all of the film packs. I tried every which way to capture the exotic joy the little monk embodied. I spent subsequent afternoons reviewing where I went wrong and contemplating future fixes. Eventually the memory of this string of photographic mishaps faded away. But my introduction to a Buddha stuck with me. It didn’t take long for me to find traditional images of Gautama Buddha. Far from the jolly smile and Santa Claus physique of my first encounter, this Buddha sat cross-legged in serene stillness. I later flirted with the practice of yoga and read sections of The Tibetan Book of the Dead as I began to search for a shortcut to nirvana. Still in my twenties, I lacked the patience that I later learned was a prerequisite to any journey.
When I was 62, my girlfriend and now wife gave me a cross-legged, stone monk the size of a small child for Christmas. We both thought of him as a young Buddha. His shaved head and body are golden. His eyes are closed and his face reflects the comfort of meditation. He’s dressed in a red robe with a studded sash draped over one shoulder. I placed him on top of a wooden chest facing the area I used for my morning yoga routine. I’d look into his stillness before starting my daily series of asanas. Later in the day I’d pass by him as I came and went from my home office.
Living alone, he became my quiet companion. I have to admit that it was a bit spooky at first. There were times that I expected him to relax his legs over the edge of the chest, stand up, and join me for lunch on the garden patio. I never expected us to have a conversation. It would be enough to share his company as we silently noted recent changes in the fig tree as the flapping buzz of a hummingbird simultaneously caught our attention. I eventually created a permanent spot for him in the shade of the plum tree. He’s become part of his surroundings.
Today I’m quickly approaching the threshold of my 65th birthday. The word Buddha conjures a variety of memories for me. It also evokes a symbolic lifeline from my past into my future. For me, within the central stillness of the meditative Buddha there’s the reality of constant change – an inevitable evolution. That’s why in the latest photo of my symbolic Buddha, reflected light is combined with the movement of water. A flash of stillness discovered in any given moment reminds us that nothing remains the same.