Author: Ken Chitwood
Photo: Tri Hoang
With a smile like Mona Lisa, the face stares out with a subtle serenity, a gentle, yet influencing, contentedness. It invites the viewer to wonder what inner joy produces such penetrating tranquility. Is it a new painting at MFAH? An installment at Rice University? No, it’s a large and impressive new statue of the Buddha being installed at Chua Phap Nguyen and monastery in Pearland (a.k.a. Dharma Spring Temple).
The statue will be 29 feet tall and be one of the largest erect Buddha statues in North America. Crafted in Vietnam, the statue was recently shipped via Hong Kong and will be open to the general public at Dharma Spring’s Zen Park in 2013. Buddhist statues serve as important mediums for meditation and are highly symbolic. However, Buddhist leaders are careful to point out that these statues are not idols. “The statue is not an idol, but we use it as an object for meditation,” said Venerable Thich Tri Hoang. “We hope it will move people to have the inner peace and joy, which is evident in the statue itself,” he said. To help individuals move from one state of being to another the statue bears rich symbolic meaning, evident in many Buddhist statues throughout the world. Sculptors often include artistic elements such as hand positions (mudras), accessories (such as prayer beads or a lotus), body type (skinny or plump, long earlobes) and signs on the Buddha’s face to help Buddhists engage in mindful meditation. This statue is a representation of Amitabha Buddha, or the Buddha of the Pure Land, who symbolizes mercy, wisdom and enlightenment. Gazing upon the statue is meant to steer devotees away from the desires of this world and towards enlightenment. In particular, this statue’s subtle “Mona Lisa-like” smile is meant to serve as a symbolic pathway for meditation. Not only that, but its particular design also bridges cultures. While the statue contains some of the typical Asian stylizations mentioned above, the statue also has a distinct Western flair. “It is much different from typical Asian stylizations of Buddha,” said Hoang, the priest of Dharma Spring. “The smile is something light that makes you think and wonder and ponder, but it also looks quite American” said Hoang, “it should appeal to both Western and Asian Buddhists.” Buddhism in the West is flourishing both among Asian immigrants and native Western converts. As it does so, there are both tensions between groups of different backgrounds and degrees of collaboration. As Buddhism takes on the flavor of the land in which it is planted, statues that integrate Western and Asian style might become more common and might provide not only pathways for meditation, but collusion between different Buddhist cultures in the United States. Alison Steele, who runs the website for South Houston Sangha News, believes the statue will do just that and successfully connect two distinct, and at times disparate, Buddhist cultures. “In American Buddhism, we often see a stark division between so-called ‘ethnic’ Buddhists and English-speaking western converts,” she said. “In this temple, both English-speaking and Vietnamese adherents are collaborating and cross-pollinating,” said Steele, “the statue provides yet another common touchstone to which all members can relate, regardless of culture.”