Head of Bodhisattva. Limestone. Northern Qi Dynasty. 550-77. Sackler Gallery.Sackler Gallery. Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York. [Sanskrit bodhisattvah, one who has attained perfect knowledge or enlightenment, from bodhih, perfect knowledge + sattvam, essence, being].
New York is full of places that restore the spirit. For instance, the parks are quite beautiful here. Riverside and Central Parks are the best known and the most sprawling. But there are smaller parks throughout the city, beautiful green gems that break the city rhythm with the comfort of a park bench, the chatter of a fountain, the unexpected intrusion of grass and trees.
Nature is a great healer and she has many temples. But art is a great healer as well and in a city full of museum-temples, the Sackler Gallery in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a personal favorite.
My first visit in October 2003 is not particularly vivid in my mind. The museum is so immense and its treasures so rich that only a few individual pieces secured a place in my memory. Perseus with the head of Medusa. A bronze Florentine mermaid. Shiva dancing in the ring of fire at the far end of a darkened gallery. But somewhere in my cluttered remembering there was also a place for one specific gallery, the Sackler Gallery, a vast open room with veils of white light and a massive weathered painting.
I have revisited that room about a half dozen times over the past four years, usually when I needed a place to clear a troubled mind or to reflect on an important choice. But it was only when I visited the gallery two days ago that I took the audio guide with me and learned the significance of The Pure Land of Bhaishajyaguru, the painting which spans one wall of the gallery.
When a bodhisattva attains enlightenment, he or she does not leave the world and its suffering but chooses to stay and bring enlightenment into it. These bodhisattvas emanate a radiance which forms a pure land or world which fosters enlightenment. The pure land of each Buddha, however, is not a separate place but is found embedded in it. Therefore, Bhaishajyaguru, who is the Buddha of medicine, creates -- in this world -- a place for healing and enlightenment.
The Pure Land of Bhaishajyaguru and the Sackler Gallery are in perfect harmony. Though vast and bright, the room feels so intensely intimate. I have shot many photographs there but to date have never been able to duplicate what the experience is like. My present attempts are on a sketching pad as I try to capture the relationships between space and healing art and afternoon light.
Whether or not I am ever able to express my vision of this place through art, perhaps these words will carry the healing energy of Bhaishajyaguru and his pure land out into the world instead. That is my wish.