Friday, November 18, 2011


I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of aesthetic experiences that one would willingly call life-changing—and I have a full set of fingers. One of these occurred a few years ago, on a visit to the great thirteenth-century temple in Kyoto called the Rengeōin or, more popularly, the Sanjūsangendō, which means the temple of the thirty-three bays. This enormous, plain, shoebox-shaped wooden building houses a colossal statue of Kannon, the feminine manifestation of Avalokiteśvara, the seated bodhisattva of infinite compassion. She sprouts forty-two arms, and a forest of hands. An eleven-foot high masterpiece of Japanese sculpture of the Kamakura period (1185–1333 C.E.), Kannon is gloriously flanked by her heavenly cosmic guardians or attendants, the twenty-eight so-called bushū, and 1,000 life-sized, eleven-headed, “thousand-armed” standing statues, representing different versions of herself, carved in cypress-wood, then gilded. Each statue is carefully differentiated from the next, and like its larger prototype, has dozens of pairs of hands, the fingers painstakingly crafted into a bewildering range of delicate gestures. These statues fill the temple, and are carefully accommodated on a gigantic altar consisting of ten ascending steps which accommodate these seemingly numberless ranks of statues. It is said that all Japanese pilgrims should be able to discover their own face peering back from this host of silent bodhisattvas, who, like them, await a higher incarnation. Their fingers are exquisite.

1 comment:

  1. uncanny, i was just musing over the beauty of human fingers, mine included, just last night!

    landed here from the Paris Review... and just to reiterate - from the word go, i am in love!! :)

    p.s: why isnt there a india/asia/apac edition of your book?? jus sayin...