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On Beauty
"Sunset Dance" © Eric Vallin

On Beauty

“To feel beauty is a better thing than to understand how we come to feel it.”
                — Santayana

I can think of two specific times in my life when I’ve felt truly beautiful, not just attractive as I did at prom, salsa dancing, or on dates in fancy restaurants. These were times when I felt completely infused with beauty, shot through with it, as if I were actually participating in its being.

The first time was in Bodh Gaya, India, when I was 22. I was visiting the Mahabodhi Stupa, where the Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment.

Bodh Gaya is a city of beggars, of long-haired yogis, their dreadlocks piled on top of their heads. Lepers sit on street corners with their metal begging bowls. Temples from Thailand, Japan, Tibet, and Burma crouch on the flat jungly land, roofs golden and curving up to the sky. Dogs nose through the garbage on the roadsides, and pilgrims trudge barefoot along the dusty streets. Some of these visitors are Western: hippies in torn tee-shirts, shaved European monks in leather sandals, heavyset Americans with strings of crystal beads around their wrists. The town mixes tea huts, restaurants boasting French fries and hamburgers, Internet cafes, ayurvedic pharmacies. The air is thick, burgeoning with the smell of rotting oranges, incense, and mustard-seed oil.

Street vendors hawk sunglasses, cassette players, copper butter lamps, strings of lotus seeds, and dried heart-shaped leaves. These aggressive entrepreneurs clutter the pedestrian pathway running along the perimeter of the Mahabodhi compound. Inside the walls, a sea of grey-green leaves tosses around the Stupa, an elongated pyramid piercing the sky. These ubiquitous trees are called Pipal, or ficus religiosa, commonly known as bodhi trees, which in Sanskrit means awakened or knowing. The largest squats behind the Stupa, a grandmother spreading her arms over the ground. This tree supposedly sheltered Prince Siddhartha Gotama 2,500 years ago as he touched the earth in confirmation of his enlightenment.

In 2003, I was a new practitioner, traveling with a group of Buddhists. In Bodh Gaya, I learned the Ngo practices, or preliminaries in the Tibetan tradition, which include repeated prostrations. One afternoon, I walked from our hotel, past the garbage dump and swampy grounds from which white and pink lotuses sprang, slipped off my shoes at the temple gate, and entered the compound.

The stone felt cold and dusty as I walked around the temple, scoping out a spot behind the building, looking up at the towering tree. Its leaves clacked in the northern Indian breeze. Several white silk scarves lay draped over the branches as offerings, and when the wind blew, all the leaves lifted their underbellies to reveal silvery venation shimmering in the heat. I had a long, narrow pile of texts, translated from Tibetan to English, and a small pile of rocks with which I was going to count my prostrations.

All around me, monks, and lay people were performing their devotionals, some wearing thick leather to protect their bodies as they stretched out on the hard ground, rose up, bowed, and stretched out again, faces down in supplication. I vowed to practice with the same kind of devotion and diligence.

I chanted and bowed, counting slowly, for about forty-five minutes, concentrating on the visualization and the meaning behind my words. It felt good—body flat on the wooden planks, my mind full of dedication. The air buzzed with sound, the whirring of the cicadas, the clapping leaves; even the fluttering flags seemed to mutter prayers. The sky held all of us pilgrims, different and yet the same.

In that moment, I was only aware of feeling delight and gratitude, present in this sacred place, doing this practice of humility and refuge.

Afterward, walking back on the rocky road, I met Lama Lodhe, a Tibetan teacher traveling with us on pilgrimage. He told me he had seen me doing prostrations before the tree. “You looked beautiful at the temple,” he said. “So much devotion, so very beautiful.”

It was a strange comment. A man, 63 years old, also sitting under the tree, fingering his prayer beads and watching a young student begin prostrations. If this had happened in the States and the comment had come from another man, I would have been offended. But I didn’t feel any of this resentment. I was happy he’d seen me, happy he’d thought I was beautiful. I had felt beautiful in that moment. The atmosphere had exuded beauty, the sky wefting between the silver branches of the grandmother tree. But the feeling had been internal also; the beauty outside had entered me—I wasn’t just a witness to it but a living part of it. I saw myself and the scene around me from a religious man’s perspective, the magic of beginner’s mind, a devotee discovering devotion, learning how to love.

Prostrating on that worn wooden plank in Bodh Gaya also taught me about desire. I know I want refuge, I want freedom from suffering, I want peace and bliss and enlightenment. But I also want beauty.

Sometimes this seems superficial. I want to be beautiful, and surround myself with beautiful things: trees, sky, water, bright silky cloth, big smiles, sparkly jewelry, ruffly peony petals, blue morning dew on blades of grass, birdsong, strappy red shoes. My senses delight in it; I live better if I feel beautiful. However, the essence of the Buddha’s teaching is that all suffering comes from desire—my attachment to material possessions, sensations, beauty.

I’m reminded of a Tibetan silk painting detailing the Buddha’s life. The lower left-hand corner of this late nineteenth-century scroll shows the death of Gotama Buddha. He bids goodbye to his disciples in an achingly beautiful garden, the outlines of bodhi leaves etched in gold. Looking at this painting, I understand the great pain and the great beauty in leave-taking. Gotama Buddha is calm, but the monks around him are not; they have not yet internalized his central message of detachment. This painting shows us the world made beautiful by the fact of leaving it, which transcends sensed beauty. This, which we see before us, is what we must learn to distance if we wish to be free. I agree with the idea that attachment causes suffering and pain when I yearn for beauty, I feel trapped, gluttonous, insatiable. I am merely sensing it, feeling separate and estranged.

But there’s another aspect of beauty that is transcendent, non-sensory, expansive. Perhaps beauty is that which inspires a feeling of wonder, an experience of the sacred. Though we perceive beauty through the senses, beauty can, in the end, transcend the senses. Perhaps this kind of beauty can even transcend my longing; in the act of becoming it, I am no longer separate from it.

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The second time I truly felt beautiful was also while I was traveling, this time in Tibet, three years after visiting Bodh Gaya. I was camping in a remote corner of the Himalayan plateau, outside the capital city of Lhasa with twenty-nine other Western students of Tibetan Buddhism on another pilgrimage.

All around us, mountains sprang up like iron walls, cutting the horizon in jagged lines. We drove along the Yangste River valley, then crossed the green water on a cement bridge draped in red and yellow prayer flags. At each mountain pass, we stopped and sucked the thin air, stretching our arms to feel the gales. We took pictures of ribboned cloth that snapped and twisted in the wind.

Late in the afternoon we arrived at Samye Monastery, the oldest Buddhist monastery in Tibet, built in the eleventh century by the Indian yogi magician Padmasambhava. In the courtyard, we packed our bags into open-backed trucks and crowded into the largest, squeezing onto benches along the inside edge of the wagon. Some of the older women pulled on face masks that looked like girl’s underwear to protect against the dusty road. For an hour and a half, I tried not to breathe the dust, gripped my wooden seat, and winced as my tailbone jammed with the dip and jounce of the wagon. It wound up a small road through foothills spotted with green sagebrush and skittering lizards. We were headed to Chimpuk, a small valley surrounded by cliffs studded with meditation caves where Tibetan yogis have been practicing for nine centuries. Just as light was beginning to fade, we arrived at our campsite and looked down from the road onto a small valley with a mumbling creek running through the rift in the hills.

For three days, we watched pilgrims climb up through our campsite toward the caves, bearing barley flour and water and salted meat for the yogis. I sat on the short spiky grass and meditated, cleaned the dust from between my toes, rubbed cream onto my dry, cracked heels. The second day, we hiked up with the pilgrims, bringing food and offerings to the monks and nuns. Every evening we were served meals of rice, curry, peas, and yak meat—miraculous concoctions considering the rustic cooking tent set up on the edge of camp—but I ate nothing. My fasting wasn’t out of a sense of devotion. I had the worst case of diarrhea ever.

I became sick the day we’d left Lhasa, where we toured the Dalai Lama’s monastery to make offerings of gold paint for the Buddha statue in the main shrine room. As we pushed through throngs of Chinese tourists, I’d felt a shift and a gurgle. I was so desperate for a toilet that I accidentally squatted in the men’s room and had to shoo away two curious onlookers. The toilets were long narrow holes, suspended thirty feet above open sewer gutters. Peering down at the poop below, trying not to breathe the stench, I was reminded of medieval castles, the horror stories I’d heard about those unsanitary centuries. I cleaned myself with my last piece of Kleenex, wiped my hands with Purell, and hoped I’d get better for our day-long bus ride. All day, I didn’t eat and I wasn’t hungry; all I did was poop every time the bus stopped for bathroom breaks, my body expunging wicked-smelling liquid.

My sickness continued during those three days of camping—I returned almost hourly to the hand-dug holes we used for toilets, covering the reddish ooze with handfuls of dust, shooing away flies, trying not to get too dirty. But despite my sickness, I still felt euphoric.

I was traveling for the summer, free from the small twelfth-story apartment I’d lived in for the past year with Ral, my college boyfriend. We’d broken up the week before I’d left, after three years of desperately, doggedly trying to make this work. In Tibet, I was far away from our suburban space pod, free from annoyance at unfolded clothes, unwashed dishes, unspoken frustrations. As I squatted in the Himalayan dirt and swatted Asian flies, I felt my body discharge all the pent-up anger, the used-up hopes I’d been trying to digest that year. I felt cleansed of bacteria and parasites and inner demons, purifying old karma, the heaviness of doubt and indecision. I could bury it under sand, leave it to be transformed into earth.

Those days were three of the happiest days of my life. I felt light and free, not hungry for food or love or beauty, not separate from any of it.

On the last night, I hiked up to an open meadow near the meditation village with two others from the group and watched the full moon rise. We whooped and called, and then spun in circles until we fell to the ground. We danced, moving like wind and water in the milky moonlight. I leaped, my stomach empty and light between my limbs, held by a curious and airy buoyance.

I understood then the yearning to shed our bodies, these heavy tools for eating and shitting, eating and shitting. I wanted to be finished with it all, to float and be held, suspended in the night air like the moon. But even as I felt the heaviness of my body, I felt joy in it. There was less separation, less distance between myself and the quiet evening all around. I felt beautiful and true and good. I was filled with space, wide as the full night sky.

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Dancing in the night with a full moon and an empty stomach, I’d wondered if some of my euphoria wasn’t just an old neurotic voice rejoicing in my ability to not eat so I would be thinner. But those three days hadn’t been hard; they hadn’t been a test of discipline and willpower like my college days of rowing in crew and eating only one protein bar for breakfast and lunch day after day. In college, I’d yearned for beauty in the form of thinness, and I’d felt satisfaction in denying my hunger for food. In Tibet, I didn’t feel hungry at all. Instead of yearning after beauty, I was fully in it. When I long for beauty, there is pain in my desire and I feel hungry. There’s an ache in the pit of my stomach and I want to swallow the sky whole.

The night I danced under the moon, I felt as if I embodied beauty, participated in its being. I did not desire it because it was not separate from me.

But yearning for beauty still infuses my life. During those times I’ve felt filled with beauty, I was in a foreign land, practicing an esoteric form of Buddhism, dressed in red Tibetan clothing. I was thousands of miles from American cosmetic counters, lingerie stores, beauty parlors, waxing salons. I find beauty in the exotic, that which is different from my native culture’s definition of beauty, the culture I have to return to at the end of the trip. How can I bring the beauty I experienced away from home back to my home? How can I find beauty that is universal and human?

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I don’t understand how our yearning for beauty became so different from what nature would deem beautiful—ample hips for childbirth, wrinkles showing experience and wisdom. In asking why thinness is so alluring, I came across Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In the novel, Kundera defines our being as full of lightness. He says the transitory and ephemeral quality of existence lends an insignificance to each decision, each life. Since decisions do not matter, they are light. However, the female protagonist Tereza feels weighed down by the world, and yearns to be pure soul unleashed from her body. Life can be unbearably heavy when we are faced with important decisions, and since Kundera believes we live only once, each decision takes on enormous weight. Tereza longs to feel the lightness of the untethered soul, yet she cannot escape the weight of her jealousy, her relationships, her responsibilities.

When I read about Tereza’s longing, I recognize her. I, too, understand this longing to be light, both in body and spirit. This story might offer an explanation for why were all yearning after the kind of beauty that comes with diets and skin-tone. We feel weighed down by our bodies, frustrated by lower back pain and indigestion. Perhaps if we ate less and exercised more, our bodies would feel lighter, suffused with endorphins, more ready to dance and leap and cartwheel. My longing for this lightness used to drive me to run and diet, but now I think this desire-filled pain is inherent in our existence. I still yearn as I prostrate every morning, but this longing feels different, and sometimes leads to less suffering. The lightness I felt under the bodhi tree and dancing in Tibet was less a physical lightness and more about a lightening of the soul.

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My experiences of beauty, however foreign they may seem, feel like a merging with that which is larger than I am. Perhaps this is what we’re all striving for. I do think we are beautiful more often than we think—in just a simple breath, a Zen view, a bite of pumpkin soup, we merge for an instant and become beauty, creation, and manifestation. The Buddha taught that we can experience this all the time. Our feelings of separation, of being distant from beauty are merely illusory, and by just ceasing to grasp, we realize that we already are that way all the time, even in a culture with radically different ideas of the beautiful. The heaviness we feel is less true than our inherent lightness.

So perhaps by going in search of beauty, I perpetuate the illusion of my distance from it. Sure, it is easier to feel beautiful under a sacred tree, a sacred moon, a sacred sky, but ultimately the ceiling and light fixture above my head are no less sacred. This kind of transcendental beauty is available in every moment, to the trained yogi.

But I’m not quite there yet. The sensory kind of beauty is much easier for me to realize. So I hang my walls with silk, set large green plants around my desk, look out on a window full of sky. And try to remember, even as I pass glossy pictures of white-toothed, twig-thin women in line at the supermarket, that I am it, all the time, with everyone, everywhere.

Copyright © 2008 by Devon Ward-Thommes

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Devon writes:
“On Beauty” is the result of ongoing meditations on what beauty means from a variety of cultural and global perspectives. As an enthusiastic traveler and student of Tibetan Buddhism, I’m interested in the question of how we experience beauty, especially because I grew up and live in a culture that highly values a certain external physical aesthetic. Through my travels and explorations, I have come to realize the inherently subjective and impermanent nature of each individual’s definitions of life and its beauty.

A native of Ashland, Oregon, Devon Ward-Thommes has published in Willamette University’s Precision Munitions, a journal of French poetry called Rien Rien, Spirituality and Health magazine, and buddhadharma. Her translation of Véronique Tadjo’s Halfway is due out by HOST publications in 2009. At George Mason University, she was nonfiction editor of So To Speak, and taught courses for the English and Honors departments. After finishing her MFA, she moved to Colorado, where she is program manager at a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center. Eventually, she plans to teach and write in Asia, and live in Ashland as a creative writing instructor. She can be reached via email at devonanna@gmail.com.


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