Facing my bed, on top of the tall cabinet that holds the television and the drawers with various nursing supplies, is a photograph I took of a statue of the Buddha at a monastery in Myanmar. I wrote the name on the back of the photograph: it is called the Bagaya Kyaning monastery; it is in Inwa, near Mandalay. I took the photograph on Wednesday, December 19, 2007.
The monastery was first built in 1593, but the part has survived various moves and fires is from the 19th century. It is made entirely made of teak: 286 huge logs support the roof and other parts of the structure, and very dark panels form the walls. When I walked into the empty room where the statue was kept I was stunned by its beauty and dignity. The Buddha figure sits on an elaborate throne covered with gold leaf, under a tasseled canopy of silk, but the figure itself is remarkably simple, self-contained, seated in a posture of perfect meditation with the right hand in an iconic gesture, reaching downward to the earth. The figure itself is made of translucent alabaster, a work of transcendent beauty.
It seemed then that this was what I had been looking for throughout the entire trip we took to that country, the former Burma. I snapped a couple of photographs of the statue, the way a tourist might, but there was something more, something compelling and absorbing, deeply engaging, about this image. One of the photographs came out almost perfectly, and I had it enlarged and gave copies to a few friends—the ones who might tolerate or even understand my interest in Buddhism—and of course kept a couple of copies for myself. One still hangs on the wall near our kitchen, and one had hung from the door in the attic room I’d used for meditation, but is now on top of the television cabinet in my room at South Davis. It’s not framed, but rather pinned to the back cover of Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder with a small butterfly clip; the book is fanned out half-open as a kind of makeshift support for the photograph.I have an uncanny feeling about this photograph now, as if it had been taken in order to preside over this room I’ve been living in for the past six and a half months. The photograph doesn’t picture me or any other people, just the Buddha figure, but just the same it allows me to remember myself then, so different from what I am now. I was healthy and strong then, moving like everyone else unconsciously in my body, instead of now being paralyzed still almost completely and undergoing perhaps the most difficult exercise I’ve ever undergone in my life—learning to breathe again, to strengthen lungs that have atrophied during almost a year on a ventilator. But it’s not the physical capacities that I remember as much as the moment when I was transfixed by this small alabaster statue. It’s still almost the same, the effect that this figure has on me. The contrast between myself then and myself now is so stark to me, so weird, but that’s not what creates the feeling of uncanniness. It’s rather the weird, counterintuitive, utterly irrational feeling that I somehow took that the photograph then because it would be so important to me now. It’s important now partly because I read it as reminding me that the Buddha never gave up—a sense that’s crucial when I’m doing the trach mask trials. I look up from my bed and see it during the day; I look at it in the low yellowish light of the ventilator the middle of the night when they turn me, or at four in the morning when I’m lying awake. Perhaps I need something like this—maybe that’s my background childhood Catholicism speaking, as if this Buddha image were some kind of Asiatic crucifix. But that’s not it, exactly. Rather, it’s the uncanny feeling of prescience, as if I took this photograph in order to give myself a gift for enduring what I’m going through now. Logically, of course, this can’t be the case; I took the photograph first and then the accident happened later, almost two years later. Just the same, it feels that way to me, as if I were preparing for something momentous, something in my future I couldn’t possibly anticipate but was nevertheless working toward, and this feeling is somehow consoling as I work my way through four hours of breathing in silence.