Here’s a pondering from the other day that involves symbols. On the bookshelf at home I have one of those gold, happy and fat Buddha figures. He came from the home of a grandfather who was known to be rather eccentric (even by Southern means). I looked at this Buddha and wondered why he was fat. Isn’t the Buddha one who practices moderation and balance? If so, why was he overeating and so gleeful? And why am I so drawn to this overindulging, grinning fellow?
Turns out this “Buddha” is really not the Gautama Buddha, but instead the Laughing Buddha or Budai. Nice to know, right? But think about this: you grow up in one faith, and your exposure to another (and your own for that matter) comes first from a symbol. A picture, an object. Then you attach attributes (whether accurate or prejudiced or objective or not) to this symbol. Poof. You have (possibly) an inaccurate or shallow understanding of such symbol, as I initially did of the Laughing Buddha (whom I still adore).
What’s the first image you see when you think of Christ? I was raised a Methodist and for me it’s a dead heat between the cross and the beatific white man with flowing hair, gazing into the distance. Unfortunately, the cross became for me (as a terrified child) a sign of torture and of guilt. The cross represented the fact that a man was murdered for ME. That scared me, because I knew even then I could never live up to such a gift, such a sacrifice. So the cross brings guilt and a reminder of my ever and ongoing imperfection. Yes, maybe my outlook is flawed, but you can see why when I look at the Laughing Buddha, I’m much more attracted.
Even images of the Gautama Buddha are appealing, as here is a man who is slender and has reached nirvana. He has no wants, therefore he suffers no more. He has let go of desire, materialism, ego and rests in a perfect posture. Even though he also reminds me that I am far from nirvana, he serves as a positive example, not as a symbol of guilt.
To create some resolution for my inner conversation(s) (that are on-going and sometimes quite circular), I’ve decided that the images of Budai, Gautama, and Jesus represent (in different ways) what I’m to accomplish — to seek (and maybe find) nirvana or the “path of righteousness.” The symbol I select, in the end, makes no difference. What make a difference are my actions and, quite likely, an ample dose of grace.