Rubin Museum // Reflection

My first trip to the Rubin Museum was with a group of acerbically-minded third graders. I immediately felt comforted in the quiet, deep-gray and gilded red space. The low chanting in the galleries and the soft faces of many Buddhas struck me as a warm greeting: kind and impersonal.

The kids gravitated almost immediately to the happy belly of the earthy stone Ganesh. Maybe it was the recognizable value he had- the cash at his feet, in his trunk, tucked into his palms and balancing on his round thighs. The rest inspired them to solemnity. They were downright cautious. This was a huge shift from their usual giddy, openly judgmental way of assessing the world around them. I was fascinated by their collective transformation and wondered how long it would last. Medicine Buddha and Guhyasamaja forms had them staring, quiet and thoughtful but unsure of what to ask. They were no longer assessing. This new world had them doing something single digit aged people usually don’t have the chance to do, which is to reassess what they know.

The most notable moment of reassessment was when we went to sit in the temple room. The tour guide asked who had questions. The bluntest student in the class said “Why is the room so scary? Why are there monsters?” Good question. The guide answered as though this was a common question: “those are some scary faces, yes. But they are guardians, not monsters. You see, in Buddhism, the monsters in a prayer room are there to protect the spirits of the people who live in the house or temple. They are supposed to scare away the bad thoughts.” The kids were still scared, but it’s that kind of reversal of symbols that forms healthy perceptions and even an individual’s ability to perceive meanings with flexibility.

If I had gone by myself into the prayer room, I would’ve gotten half as much out of it as I did by sitting there with the kids, who felt unsettled enough by the darkness, the cluttered Buddha’s, and, of course, the painted monsters to question their existence: why would anyone pray with these things around them? I’m scared of other kinds of monsters. We all have monsters to explain to outsiders. The lesson is to always see the other side to move deeper into and inform your own.

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