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Documenting a period in my development that could become pivotal

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Meaning of Aracapana for the descendants of Silk Road Jews

My kyadga sword spits rays of fire from the pointed tip. I am a six inch tall kyadga sword brandishing Aracapana like millions of others. My forerunners were first made in the 3rd Century from Persia to Nepal and later up into Tibet and China. But I am from 18th Century Nepal.
The Widlers owned me for generations. Each had different ways of seeing my kyadga.

If I were a being with awareness, I would have stories to tell. Well, just suppose for a few minutes that I could tell all. My stories would be of how I came to be a Buddhist religious statue. Then from my point of view I could tell the story of the Silk Road Jewish merchants and all the yearnings of the Widler family ancestors who owned me.

I was made in the style of a Nepalese monastery in the 18th century about the time of the formation of the United States of America. I was first made in wax and then covered with clay. When I was fired in a kiln the wax melted and the clay hardened into a mold. Then molten metal was poured into the clay mold. When the metal cooled and solidified the clay was hammered off. I was polished. Then my kyadga blade was soldered into my left hand. Mine is missing so there is some question as to the shape of my sword. In some paintings the sword is straight and others depict the sword with curves depending on the style of the art. But always the sword is the first thing the viewer notices with good reason.

My sword is not a physical weapon but is depicted as actively firing like nervous system cells in the human brain. Or my sword as understood by the Buddhist who made me, was magically giving off rays of fire as a spiritual force destroying the darkness of ignorance! There is no need to be Buddhist to think of questioning as cutting or burning. “Caustic questioning” is an example of cutting into false information. The kyadga can be seen somewhat like the light saber in science fiction Star Wars. The Widler family had other ideas.

The bun and the ancient mantra scripts and lotus completed my identity as the protector of scholars as intended by my Buddhist makers. Possibly these additions would be just ornaments to the Jews on the Silk Road - the ones who owned me. Put suppositions aside maybe I could make an educated guess as to what they thought of me. Please be convinced by comparing me as the teacher of Buddhist wisdom with Jewish scholars and teachers.

Shortly after I was made in the early 19th Century, a turban wearing Jewish rabbi who carried the wares of a merchant visited my Nepalese monastery. He had left his wife and family in Jerusalem for a year to search for the lost tribes of Israel. He must have been on a highly motivated mission to risk his life in route across high Himalayan passes where his steps were slowed down as his breathing was difficult in the oxygen thin air. The once well beaten path was along the steep denuded slopes of scree where virgin forests had been cut. Erosion was taking over. Streams flooded over roads. Landslides were sweeping away or obscuring the path at regular intervals. If the physical challenge wasn’t enough, there were young men who could not make a livelihood in these highland deserts. They joined the bandits who robbed just about all travelers.

The Jewish rabbi continued on motivated to find a place on earth that was more accepting of Jewish ways, a place where Jews could come and live in peace. He wanted to find a place where Jews had been respected in the past. Even with the discouragement of the difficulties of the road, he held on to the single most compelling rumor he heard in his home Jerusalem. He heard that there was a place where the lost tribes lived in harmony with their neighbors. He was disappointed but still a little hopeful when he arrived at my monastery.

The rabbi excited the monks. They were welcoming as soon as they tried the eye glasses and found reading far easier. Some were amazed at all they had missed. They marveled at the smooth and sharp needles. And the dyes were of shades they hadn't seen before. They couldn't remember the last time a merchant had stopped at their monastery. The Silk Road trading that was strong between 250 BCE to 600 CE had been in decline for 1200 years. Most trade between East and West was by sea. Nepal, however, was isolated from ocean ports so it was unusual to be visited by a merchant.

The monks were ready to give their most valuable religious art for what they needed. They showed him an early Aracapana. He was fleshier than me and the features were more distinctly Jewish with a long hooked nose. He was made in the 3rd Century CE when merchants on the Silk Road not only traded goods but also exchanged religious ideas and craft technology as far as Persia and China. The rabbi said he didn’t want to take their ancient treasures but wanted a humble memento of what Judaism had in common with Buddhism. Some recent Aracapana like me would demonstrate our common roots from a time when the arts of our two great religions were dependent upon ideas they traded. Maybe even ideas from crafts people who were members of the Lost Tribe of Israel!

The rabbi thought the lotus plant that wraps around my left bicep was like tefillin when he repeats his prayers during the week days. Both the tefillin and the lotus vine hold a script close to the heart. Jewish men wrap the tefillin around their bicep. The tefillin represents symbolic emphasis to the verse “And you shall place these words upon your hearts” (Deut 11:18) Their tefillin held leather boxes holding scripture - one bond to the hand and one to the head. The Buddist Aracapana’s lotus holds the mantra of the Heart connected to the left bicep.

The rabbi merchant understood the “ah ha” smile of Aracapana’s face as he cut what is real from the babble. He also noted the bun on the head being like his own turban. Aracapana was originated in the 3rd century when Buddism was transformed by new renovations called Tantra. Like Jews of the time period they recognized the importance of having teachers and practiced chanting mantras.

The monks handed me over to the merchant because I was light weight and easy to carry. I was hollow and my body was slender. I was made hollow because the forests of large trees were gone and fuel for the smelter was fed by small sticks. Less precious metal was available. Buddhism was on the decline and the monasteries were poorer.

All Aracapanas like me are proof of our religions’ common exchange of ideas. Our relationship of sharing ideas on the Silk Road is well known, but the comparisons are rare and not in detail. If our similarities were more widely appreciated, our differences would be more easily bridged enabling an era of peace. The rabbi and merchants Widlers had the idea of selling art to museums all over the world so people would come to understand each other.

The turban wearing, Jewish merchant carried me back towards Constantinople. When the bandits overtook him, luckily he had removed all my semiprecious stones and more precious metal ornaments. In his religion I was a graven image and he was not allowed to keep me unless he broke me in some way to destroy any mystical power. He really didn’t want to hurt me. He tried to be careful with his file when he removed the kyadga.

Nothing of value was left of me when the bandits stopped him. When they didn’t find anything valuable, they pushed him on the ground where he hit his head on a rock. They looked at me over and said I was too common. Every Tantra Buddhist owned a figurine of Aracapana. Aracapana was very popular as a bodhistiva, the ideal teacher, who could be a Buddha but wanted to remain a teacher on the tenth final level of becoming a Buddah. The ideal bodhisativa (teacher) to Buddhists is like Jesus is to Christians. Nestorian Christianity had been one of the other religions that developed from Constantinople along the Silk Road into India and China.After one bandit gave a disgusted examination of my broken body, he threw me on the ground at the rabbis’ feet.

The rabbi lay in the road unconscious until he was found a short time later by young Yitzhak Widler, who carried him to his home where he cared for the rabbi who suffered from amnesia for the rest of his life. He never was able to recall who he was or who his family was or where he was from. The rabbi never returned to his Palestine family.

Yitzhak was a merchant and so was his son David who married Ethel. They took me with them when they set up a home in Shanghai at the end of the 19th Century.

Ethel was widowed in 1904 and she kept me on one of her fire place mantels in her dining room.
Ten years later she was challenged by her youngest grandson a three and a half year old by the name of George. He could only speak Russian. Her English was the best in the family because she spoke English daily to her sailor boarders. So she became George’s head start helper. She allowed little George to play with me while she served him hot chocolate from the Chinese export silver dragon server into a child’s silver cup. She pealed one after another of the mandarin oranges and told little George my story in English. She then played games with him. Thus he was well prepared to adjust to Shanghai and attend the Church of England Cathedral School.

George likely forgot the details of my journey, but understood the Jews of Shanghai believed they had an ancient connection to the Far East which made China an ideal new home forever. He thought the situation out for himself: his confidence came from playing with me like I was a doll. He had confidence to question and to develop ideas on his own. George learned to think with a sharp wit. He did not believe everything he was told. Although his parents wanted him to stay in China, staying in China, he did not.

In 1940 George’s mother came from Shanghai to San Francisco bringing me among some keepsakes from his childhood times with his grandmother Ethel. George was a scholar. He kept me on his three legged table along with his math notebooks and textbooks, mechanical pencil and eraser. It is interesting that he spoke or wrote little but when he did he was very clear and succinct. He cut away all verbosity. He did not think of me as a protector of scholars, I was just a memory that reminded him of his dear grandmother. He was not swayed by any magic from me. He looked in the mirror as he shaved each morning and on his face was the same contented smile I have as he repeated "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

George didn’t allow his daughter, Diane, to touch his math books, pencil and eraser but he allowed her to play with me all she wanted to. She and her girlfriend gathered all their dolls together for my coronation as Queen of England. She made me the queen of her doll family. She spoke as though I was speaking to her dolls, “Now, Raggedy Ann and Andy; you too Jamaican Negros; and you Bozo the Clown, Davy Crockett, Jenny June China Doll, and all of you story book dolls and even Madame Alexander, Heidi, listen to me. Stop fighting all the time and just make peace.” I was among her smallest dolls but I was so powerful the way I held myself with my right arm up. Later I became the Statue of Liberty welcoming the downtrodden of the world.
Playing with me as a doll added to her developing ability to visualize. She felt special because she was connected to the exotic Orient.

Then in 1962 when Diane was a student at Portland State College in Portland, Oregon, she studied me for a research paper in Survey of Visual Arts. She learned my identity as intended by my makers. I was not a goddess but a male. In her college days and for years afterwards she thought of me only as a possibly valuable art object and I was locked up in a safe.
If I were alive my right arm held high could not remain still for any length of time. I do not hold a dagger. I still hold the handle to a missing kyadga blade. My wrist is half way through a flick inwards or half way back up straight. If my sword was whole, I would be moving it up or down in a motion that says “No, no, no.” It would be pointing to my head. I would, however, not be physically threatening to myself or anyone. My non aggression is in my body language. My right hand is in the sign of a consoling OK. My face is calm and smiling. My grip on the sword is firm but not strained. I could not give much of a physical blow. The pinky finger that once was straight up is now entirely gone. One of the grasping fingers is also broken off. If they still remained they would call attention to my relaxed grasp. My sword has another particularly interesting reason for being my most striking accessory. No pun intended.

Then in 2009 she observed the intensity of little boys who enjoy kicking balls, hitting with sticks or playing video games where they can feel the thrill of being a superhero. She realized scholars had the same joy and “ah ha” moments as Aracapana does when he flicks his kyadga. He enjoyed studying like winning a fencing match debate. Amazingly she understood that her family would not exist, except for what they learned from my being their toy. Diane does not owe their thinking skills to my being Buddhist. The way I hold the kyadga is a model for the boyish thrill of proper critical thinking. Diane is still thinking about the sword. The critical brandishing of my sword saying "No, No, No" is not like she played it with her dolls. The intention of my makers was to show the sword points to my own mind not others.


Parapluie said...

This story of course has some truth even with the devises to make it a story. Having the figure describe himself, is stronger than a dry basic design analysis.

Rain said...

A very interesting story and an illustration of a broad swathe of history. Good job

Parapluie said...

The general idea is well accepted that trade on the Silk Road brought about exchanges of ideas between many peoples along the route. This fact is supported by experts but was not part of what I remembered from history classes. So to make sure my grandchildren will benefit from my recent learning, I have begun to document the exchange of ideas on the Silk Road.
Vincent-Paul Toccoli has documented 1st and 2nd Century Afiganistan standing Buddhist stone statues done in the style of Hellenistic Roman and Greek styles.
He writes, "Nations and people are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they weill suffer the fuure consequences of these lies. If they tell themselves stories that free their own truths, they will free histories for future flowers." "Budhhism, The genesis of a fiction, an essay on art and spirituality" Has som very good quotes but most of the esay is lost in the translation from French. www.a-nous-dieu-toccoli.com/publication/2005/the-buddha-revised.pdf

Parapluie said...

Studying the new Tibetan brass figurines of Manjushree (another name for Aracapana) I have changed my thinking on the body language as a universal teaching doll. The fire tipped khadga points to the forehead. First, The face features are now more rounded and less Jewish.
Second, the way the wrist is bent in a half down or up possition the point of the sword would be moving between the ear and the temperal lobe forehead. The pointy finger is not at all noticeable, unlike my broken one. So my childhood fantasy of a goddess telling the world how to act is even farther from the reality of the intentions of Aracapana's makers.

Time for rethinking my log/story.