Thursday, May 4, 2017

Crow 31 Days: What Asian Art History Taught Me About Prayer

May is Asian-American Pacific Islander Month, and for thirty-one days I am chronicling the stories of places, people and experiences that frame my personal inquiry into the Asian-American experience. Today this inquiry looks into the practice of prayer.

Five Crow Collection staff members, all part of our newly formed Happiness Committee, joined the union of interfaith leaders, city leaders, congregants and seekers at Eddie Dean's Ranch in Downtown Dallas. We are Texas, after all, and the best unions happen best here over a bold spread of BBQ and cole slaw.

The picnic-style atmosphere humanized us all. Everyone loves a picnic. Everyone loves having a go-to place to pray or meditate--with God or god or simply The Great Mystery. This relationship to prayer brought us together today: Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and those without a belief in God. In prayer, all were welcome.

What has a study of Asian Art and Art History taught me about prayer?

1. It Takes Time: Our collection, by culture and nature is contemplative. Studying the sculptural, gestural forms of a Buddha takes time, and takes you from the constraints and structures of time. Images of the Buddha are generally calm, perfectly symmetrical, a balanced landscape of lowered eyes, cheek, ear, garment, hands, and feet in the lotus pose. The Buddha, so rooted in his own capacity for calm and reflection, brings the viewer just that. Looking at a Buddha or Vishnu or Agni, is a place to pause, be quiet and just be. Time stands still.

2. The Art of Practice: Ideas become intentions, intentions become promises, promises become action, and the repeated action become ritual and ritual builds a practice. This aspect of praying and being is in all religions, but my study of mindfulness and meditation (based in Buddhist traditions) has revealed the hard work of intention. Intention leads to existence, and existence makes it real. This realness, this "being" in the world leads to becoming, transforming.  It happens because we, the human, say it is so, every moment we chose to create a mantra, a moment a prayer.

3. Namaste: I see the light in you and you see the light in me. This is the language of the sanskrit word namaste. My inquiry into the cultures and histories of Asia taught me of the deep compassion asked of us in prayer. By knowing more about the devotional practices of a Tibetan Monk (mandala), A Hindu Priest (pooja) and a Muslim Imam (evening prayers) I've become more aware of my own prayer practices: how prayer manifests, how we bless a space and how we close the day. As a cradle Episcopalian, I am versed in the rigors of the Book of Common Prayer and an Episcopalian made stronger from my journey learning about other religions.

4. One God/god: As human beings we really are all just the same: the same human born to our first teacher of compassion: our mothers. We have needs and desires for self but we also have needs and desires (both innate and learned) to relieve the human we see of their suffering. We have the capacity to be cruel and we have the capacity to love. We get to make the conscious choice of compassion. Scholars like Karen Armstrong believe it is compassion and the altruistic wish to do unto others as you would have them do unto you is our most unifying principle as humans. Art and spirituality invite us in.

5. Pray from the Future: I have the capacity to pray and meditate from the future I want to be inside of. The lessons of meditation reveal reflection and quiet. Reflection and quiet reveal the space for joy, happiness and possibility. That prayer, for that future, puts me there: in a future that is possible, joyful, true. When I was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, I prayed (a lot) for healing. I prayed for peace in the dark spaces of waiting for test results. I prayed the radiation treatment was going to Every. Last. Cell. I was in that future, prayerfully and wholly. I was healed.

It's not easy--it takes hard, intentional work to slow down and be quiet, and I am just a beginner in this world of seeing something new. But it's all there: the places to be quiet (churches, museums, nature); the body to still and the mind to calm. And it's all up to us.

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