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Documenting a period in my development that could become pivotal

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

update on Aracapana (Manjushri) heirloom story

My kyagda sword was tipped with rays of fire. I never had a power grip on my kyagda and long ago two of my fingers were broken and the solder that held my blade was filed away. I remain brandishing a handle.

I was a bronze Aracapana about 3 5/8” tall. There were millions like me complete with swords. My forerunners were first made in the 3rd Century everywhere between Persia to Nepal and later up into Tibet and China. But I am from 18th Century Nepal.

Diane owns me now and I remember when she shed tears over me. Her xenophobic high school art teacher thought she should not try to become an artist because she didn’t understand his assignments. For one of these assignments she drew pictures of me as an object from her home environment. He said she shouldn’t draw images from another culture. He could not accept that she felt connected to Asia.

Diane was right more than she knew at the time.

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. When I was casted by the lost wax method, the metal cooled and solidified. The clay mold was hammered off. Then my kyadga blade was soldered into my left hand. In some paintings the sword is straight and others depict the sword with curves depending on the style of the art. But always my sword is the first thing the viewer notices with good reason.

Diane was very uncomfortable with my sword and could not believe I had one. First, she drew me with a dagger pointed up and outwards exactly as I appear in my broken state. Then she made analytical drawings of the angles of each part like drawings for making a sculpture of me. One of the drawings had a very shortened form of my sword like a bigger dagger pointed towards me. In recent years she painted me as a scholar in cap and gown replacing my sword with a chalk and my books with an eraser.

In 2009 she learned that my sword is a mental weapon. It could be 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 wit. My kyadga can be seen somewhat like the light saber ignited by the Force in science fiction Star Wars. The Widler family who passed me down from generation to generation had other ideas. I will first relate how I became a Widler family heirloom. And then from my point of view I’ll reveal what I meant to each generation – finally with how Diane changed.

Early in the 19th Century, a turban wearing Jewish rabbi carried the wares of a merchant to the Nepalese monastery where I was made. He had left his wife and family in Jerusalem for a year to search Northern India and the Silk Road 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 he breathed hard 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 bandits. Young men who could not make a livelihood in these highland deserts robbed all the travelers who passed in their view.

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 monks welcomed the rabbi. They were excited to please him 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 was thriving between 250 BC to 600AD. Then trade was declining for 1200 years. Most trade between East and West was by sea. Nepal, however, is isolated from ocean ports so it was unusual to be visited by merchants. Very seldom pilgrims came with goods to trade.
The monks were ready to give their most valuable religious art for what they needed. They showed the rabbi an early Aracapana. He was fleshier than me and the features were distinctly Jewish with a high forehead and long hooked nose. He was made in the 3rd Century CE when merchants on the Silk Road traded goods, religious ideas and craft technology as far as Persia in the West and China in the East.

The rabbi said he didn’t want to take their ancient treasures. They were too heavy to carry. He wanted a humble memento of what Judaism had in common with Buddhism. One made recently 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 Tribes of Israel!

The rabbi thought the lotus plant that wraps around my left bicep was like his leather straps called tefillin that he wears when he repeats his prayers during the week days. Both the tefillin and the lotus vine hold a script close to their 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) Aracapana’s books were scripture mantras of the heart. They also both wore a shawl or draped cloth over their shoulders and arms when they chanted. To the rabbi the sword was like the pointer used to point to the words being read in the holy poetic scriptures always with a questioning mind.

The rabbi merchant understood the “ah ha,” “Yureka” smile of Aracapana’s face as he cuts what is real from the babble. The first Aracapana was made 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.

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 thought.

When the turban wearing, Jewish rabbi approached Constantinople, 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. Removing my ornaments also destroyed my monetary value. He really didn’t want to hurt me. He tried to be careful with his file when he removed my kyadga blade.

When the bandits didn’t find anything valuable, they pushed the rabbi on the ground where he hit his head on a rock. They looked me over and said I was too common. Every Tantra Buddhist owned a statue of Aracapana like me. 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. The Buddhists who made me knew about Christ. Nestorian Christianity had been one of the other religions that developed from Constantinople along the Silk Road into India and China. The early Christians knew the Three Wise Men from the East.
The rabbi lay in the road unconscious until he was found a short time later by young Yitzhak Widler, who carried the rabbi and me to his home where he cared for us. The rabbi 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. David 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. She sold her property in Palestine while she kept me on one of her fire place mantels in her dining room with her Oriental treasures that reminded her of the Mediterranean. The rabbi and merchant Widlers had the idea of selling art to museums all over the world so people would come to understand each other through the emotional body language of art. The Widlers wanted to see museums of Oriental Art in the East and the West. Ethel encouraged her children to take an interest in the arts and thus in the wild Shanghai of globe-trotting opportunists, the Widlers consistently promoted the arts in their adopted country.

One son had the Fine Arts Store where he exported handcrafted embroidered linens. He collected bronzes and cataloged them for a museum of their dreams. His sister brought about the opening of the Shanghai Art Museum of Chinese and Oriental Art.

Ten years after the death of her husband Ethel was challenged by her youngest grandson a three and a half year old by the name of George. He was a typical active little guy who spent his first years in the Channel Islands. He could only speak Russian. The family decided no more Russian, because they would settle in Shanghai. He needed English to succeed. Ethel’s English was the best in the family because she spoke English daily to her sailor boarders. So she became George’s head start helper.

Ethel 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 for him 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 they believed made China an ideal 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. 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.

George admired my contended face and being inventive he found if he chanted some words he would be calmed like me. He used to chant “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” every morning as he shaved.

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 polished me before reading that my black patina was prized by collectors. The patina is an indication that I am truly old. 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.

Then in 2009 she observed 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” “Yureka” moments as Aracapana does when he flicks his kyadga. He enjoyed studying like winning a fencing match debate. Studies were like a martial art. She remembered studying with her father. Every multiplication fact correctly answered was followed by a swift chop of the hand to the arm rest of our living room couch.

If I were alive, I would tutor the same way. My right arm held high would not remain still for any length of time. 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 is not a power grip. I hold the sword firmly but 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.

Diane was bothered by my sword that was pointed to my head. It must have been curved strangely she used to think. But now as she painted a picture of me a new idea materialized, not exclusively Buddhist.

The way I hold my kyadga is a model for the boyish thrill of proper critical thinking. My critical brandishing of my sword is aimed at my own thinking and heart. The other hand over my heart has three fingers extending out in a quiet reaching gesture while the thumb and forefinger make an “o” shape saying Shalom.

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