Several years ago, the Unitarian church across the street put up this bigger-than-life bronze statue obviously representing Buddha brought into our modern times and culture, which is a worthwhile goal since Buddha, as most often represented, is a concept, not a person, a concept that lies within us all, and is accessible by all with a little searching internally. You don’t become enlightened. You uncover what has been there all along. It just gets covered up with the dry leaves of disappointing desires.
The artist is Charles Parks, a local Brandywine artist, respected world-wide for his realistic bronze statues. It was said Parks’ works are to sculpture what N.C. and Andrew Wyeth’s works are to painting.
But this statue is an expensive blunder that misses the point. I would roughly guess it originally cost something well north of $100,000 to have the famous Charles Parks make the model and then have it cast in bronze, but his family donated many of his statues for public display as part of liquidating his estate, and this may have been one of them. Unitarians, like the rest of us, do not look a gift horse in the mouth, especially a valuable gift by such a well-known artist. They tastefully display it among shrubbery on the side of their building, although I find it is spooky and startling as it looms out of the bushes on a moon-lit night. My grandson will not look at it.
On a recent Sunday, I was talking with one of their parishioners, an elderly lady, who was very enthusiastic about the statue. If only one person is inspired by it, she said, and they got it for free, it is all worthwhile. I have to agree with you, Granny.
The typical Buddha statues the Unitarian’s statue is based on are not meant to depict the actual, human, historic Buddha. The Buddha statues we often see are called “meditation Buddhas,” and are to aid in meditation (“worship” would be the wrong word). They represent the state the practitioner is trying to reach. The practitioner is meant to identify with the statue, so the true meditation Buddha purposely presents a blank slate, vague on the details.
The meditation Buddha wears an unadorned robe that can be of any time or place. His age could be anywhere from his late teens to his fifties. What is his race? And is he even a “he?” (The women’s rights groups could stir up publicity by claiming the historic Buddha was a woman.) All of this vagueness makes it easier for the practitioner to identify with the statue and the state of enlightenment it represents where all differences fade away.
(The long earlobes are an artistic shorthand to indicate a holy figure, much like Western art uses a halo. The hairstyle indicates the Buddha. There is no record that the historic Buddha had long earlobes, was plump, or looked anything like this.)
The Unitarian statue, however, is of a very distinct, modern hippy. It is definitely of a young man, perhaps still in his teens, not someone I would identify with for deep existential understanding. True, he is only wearing jeans that could be of any culture, but his features mark him as northern European, certainly not Asian or African. He is physically in exceptional shape with a mop of curly hair. He is in his prime of life and has yet to deal with any decline (which is a big part of life for those of us experiencing it).
I would like to know more about this statue. Why did Charles Parks still have the statue? Was it rejected? Can you do that with a commissioned statue by a famous artist? Perhaps it was rejected by Parks, himself, but couldn’t he see the flaws at an earlier stage of production?
I just don’t know.