The Buddha sat in a yogic posture, cross-legged, his left hand on his lap holding a bowl. His right hand, however, rested on his right knee, his forefinger pointing to the earth; his arms were well-molded with his long fingers clearly delineated. A replica of the 2,250-year-old image at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, it was hand-carved out of pure gem-quality jade. In the candlelight flickering at its base, the image shone clear and translucent; the glow from the cleverly positioned ceiling lamps shone into the emerald depths of the exquisitely carved image. The Buddha, seated on a giant lotus flower that was oddly not pink but blue, gazed down in benign splendor at the profusion of fresh marigolds and carnations bedecking the platform.
The backdrop behind the Buddha was a scene out of rural India. The spreading branches of a gnarled tree, symbolic of the Bodhi or peepul tree beneath which Prince Siddhartha obtained his enlightenment, stood at the edge of a stretch of water. A cluster of half-open pink lotus flowers floated on the surface beneath the blue blaze of a tropical sky. In another room stood the image of Kuan Yin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy, her right hand raised, her middle finger and thumb in a “blessing mudra,” her left arm cradling a pitcher.
The entire image appeared to be carved out of white marble, and at the base of her creamy, flowing robes lay an abundance of roses as well as red and yellow marigolds. To one side of the image leaned a golden fringed parasol on a stand painted in red and gold. The Mahayana tradition draws the distinction between the historical Buddha and Amida Buddha who is the eternal Buddha. Depending on the specific tradition, Amida may appear in many forms, male or female, and so too can the Bodhisattvas who are incarnations of the Buddha.
The event, organized by the Vietnamese Bhikkuni Buddhist Congregation of San Jose, seemed to attract people from all over the world. In an adjoining room, near another large image of the Buddha, I saw people crowding over a glass case; as I approached I saw a container surrounded by candles and beside it was a hand-lettered sign which read “Maudgalyana.” These were no doubt relics of one of the Buddha’s earliest disciples and seemed to emanate a mysterious glow. Members of an Indian extended family hovered by the display, a Japanese-American lady inched closer to catch a glimpse, Cambodians and Laotians approached the altar, whereas elsewhere, Americans strolled around the cavernous building soaking in the atmosphere.
Behind the building, stalls were laid out rather like an Indian mela selling food, clothing and jewelry. Piqued by the aroma, I paused by a booth selling teriyaki chicken. I bit into the teriyaki leg and to my surprise discovered that it was tofu disguised as chicken. The server, with a twinkle in her eye, informed me that no meat could be served at a religious celebration.
Chanting began early in the morning on the final day, and the closing ceremony gathered steam close to noon. A procession led by saffron-robed monks and nuns, the leader beating a gong, followed by another carrying a tray of lit candles, filed past the serene jade image. They were followed by women dressed in the traditional Vietnamese ao dais, long bright green tunics over yellow satin pantaloons, while the rear of the procession was taken up by once again by monks.
Memories of poems on Buddha’s life by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore that I had heard recited as a child came to mind, including the poem “Kanakdarpan,” where Tagore describes the welcome offered Buddha as he enters a city. Craning my neck to obtain a better view, I overheard an Indian woman talking excitedly to her husband on her cell-phone urging him to come quickly from work or else he might miss seeing the majestic image. A flat-bed truck waited outside to transport the Buddha and his message of harmony to other parts of the country and eventually to Europe, Asia, and Australia, while inside, the chanting flowed like a gentle wave over the murmur of many tongues.
Apala G. Egan is a teacher, translator, and writer.