by Wayne Ren-Cheng
Wade didn’t get the vibe he wanted from it. Molded with fabulous detail from a synthetic white material it accented the Chinese design of the statue but it was missing something. Wade liked the Dharma Wheels, one of the 32 Marks of a Great Man, shown in each palm, hands held in the Varada Mudra of compassion and generosity. The Buddha sat in the full lotus position on a lotus throne . . . but Wade didn’t like the expression. The mouth was tiny and it had the eyes of a life-long stoner. Definitely wasn’t the image Wade wanted for his home spiritual-space altar.His Shi had suggested that he create a meditation or spiritual space of his own at home. When asked just how one figured out where that should be Shi Chusheng (Rising Moon) just smiled and said, “It will exhibit emptiness.” Three years of study and practice and Wade still didn’t get all the Zen speak. He’d sat motionless in every room of his apartment hoping to feel whatever emptiness was supposed to be. Settling finally on a corner of his bedroom he reverently placed his well-used black zabuton and grape purple zafu on the rug and sat down. Images of temples, zendos and stupas flitted through his mind and created a need that he properly decorate his new spiritual space. He began by hanging a 5×7 photo of his Shi handing him his black practice robes. He didn’t think he was experiencing emptiness so he figured it needed more.
The next weekend, at a local flea market Wade found a low black wooden table. It was dinged up and missing some paint and with a little tender loving care it became his altar. Over it he draped a white silk scarf he originally bought it to offer to the Buddha statue at a local Thai Buddhist temple but never got around to going back. Now it would serve as his altar cloth. At another booth he found a cast pot-metal Buddha head among some toys and a bust of Che Guevara. Wade turned it over to find a Pier 1 store sticker inside the hollow neck. That wouldn’t do. Made for the home decorator market it wasn’t what he wanted for his spiritual space.
Wade stopped sitting in meditation in the middle of the living room floor and instead sat in the new spiritual space. Over the next week he added three candle holders to burn tea lights to the altar. A raw clay dish his mother had made in a pottery class he filled with rice kernels and used as an incense burner. Twice a day, morning and evening he lighted the candles while reciting the Refuges and a stick of incense while reciting the Three Refuges. Then he proceeded to “just sit”. During those weeks his meditation practice just wasn’t what it had been. Wade’s eyes would rise and he’d find himself staring at the unfilled spot on the altar where he wanted a Buddha image to be. He promised himself he’d keep searching until he found the right Buddha.
During a session with the sangha Shi Chusheng commented on Wade’s noticeable lack of focus. Wade replied, “Not sure what’s causing it. Guess I’ve hit a plateau.” Shi smiled and bowed, “That’s why it is called impermanence.” Wade thought, ‘Oh goody more Zen speak.’
That weekend Wade was thrilled to find a three section folding screen with hand painted Chinese characters that the woman selling it said was the text for the Heart Sutra. It was just what he wanted. Dividing his spiritual space from the rest of room would help him regain his meditative groove. He asked her if she knew of anyone with a selection of Buddha statues. She, Darlene, said she practiced the Gelug Tibetan tradition same as the Dalai Lama and told Wade of a store downtown that had a great selection of statues. Later that day Wade stopped at an antique mall on the way to the downtown store. There in found a booth packed with Buddhas. Most of them were the fat smiling Hoi Toi images. Some lounging with kids crawling all over them, one inch high images with walking staffs, and red composite image that looked like Buddha was dancing. Wade knew that the Hoi Toi image was originally from China but he wasn’t a fan of their big smiling faces and protruding bellies.
The Heart Sutra screen was nice but Wade didn’t notice his meditation improving. He tried looking at Buddhas on the Internet but there wasn’t the physical experience he wanted in choosing the right one.
Darlene wasn’t kidding. The shop downtown had a wide selection. Wade looked at Taras, green and white in bronze and wood . . . Manjushiri with monstrous face and brandished sword . . . many armed Avalokitesvara . . . blue-skinned Medicine Buddhas . . . and found the Tibetan style too ornate for what he wanted. There was a replica of the Kamakura Buddha so famous in Japan and around the world. On a shelf in the very back of the store a Shakyamuni cast in bronze had Chinese features. Wade took it down and tried to imagine it on his spiritual space altar. It just didn’t seem right. Wade left the store in a state of anxiety. He couldn’t seem to find the the perfect Buddha.
Days later during a meditation session with Shi Chusheng, Wade said, “Shi, my meditation practice is suffering and I don’t know why.”
Shi replied, “Is it only your meditation practice?”
“No, actually it is the entirety of my moment-to-moment practice.”
“And do you think you know why?”
“I can’t seem to find the perfect Buddha for my spiritual space at home. The one I want I can’t seem to find.”
Shi inclined his head toward the altar there in the temple’s meditation room. “What do you see on the altar?”
Wade stared not realizing what Shi meant for him to see. “I am unsure.”
“When you recognize then you will realize.”
The following morning Wade sat in his spiritual space. Looking at the empty altar he imagined the various Buddha images he’d encountered and then he had an enlightening moment. Smiling he made his way to the temple. Shi Chusheng met him at the door to the meditation hall and bowed. “Now you realize. It is the Buddha-nature, not the perfect Buddha.”
Wade bowed deeply to the altar in the meditation hall. The altar with no Buddha.
There is an ending to Wade’s search for the Perfect Buddha. Months later he was taking a shortcut home through an alleyway and saw a man struggling to put some trash in a dumpster. Wade stopped and helped. The man thanked him and introduced himself, “I’m Harold.” They chatted and he told Wade he was moving and getting rid of some stuff. Pointing into the yard he said, “Still got all that to load in the dumpster.” Wade offered to help Harold finish. Picking up the last box Wade saw what he thought was a Buddha tucked in the shade of some honeysuckle vines. He asked, “Harold, what’s that?”
“Oh, I’d forgotten that was there. It’s an old plaster Buddha that’s been slowly disintegrating away in the weather. That can go in the trash.”
Wade looked at it and realized he’d found the Impermanent Buddha.