A year or so ago, when I went to the Norton Simon museum for a completely non-Buddhist reason and found a basement full of Buddhist art, I had three main questions:
- Should I be bowing or not bowing? Is it disrespectful to bow to a Buddha image that is not in a place of honor?
- Does it get any cooler than seeing that Buddha from Wikipedia?
- What should I make of the Buddha Torso?
I had to research this image for the blog so I could remember exactly what the placard beneath the torso read – I had recalled it to read “Maitreya Buddha,” but as it turns out it actually called a Shakyamuni torso.
But that is the heart of the question, really: what is the difference?
Amongst all the other noble images I saw this one – without a head, without a face, without arms or legs. Academically, I’m sure that it was identified as a Buddha statue by the location from which it was recovered, but I looked at the statue as it was before me and wondered what part of this was worshipped.
There was a time when it was complete, I am sure. Standing in that way that standing Buddhas stand, lightly but with dignity. There would have been homage, offerings, it would have been cared for.
And it is this content – the worship, the spiritual reverence which found its way into the stone, that places this nondescript torso in a museum. It contains what all of the other statues have, but what can be missed when obscured by iconography: this was bowed to and valued as a precious jewel, the Buddha, the awakened one.
Though I was puzzled for a good long while when I stood before it, looking at a religious icon deconstructed, impermanent and empty like so many things, in the end, before I left and rejoined my friends on the floors above, I bowed.