John Lee Pendall
I live in LaSalle County, Illinois. It’s a land dominated by cows, cornfields, American Legions and giant churches.
There is a bar for every corner, two churches for every bar, and 20 banks for every church. My neighbor’s rooster sometimes wakes me up in the morning, and last week my mom had to usher a small herd of cattle off the road.
The Insight Timer app lists a handful of local meditators, most of them using guided meditations to focus and relax. None of them are Buddhists. To catch a sit with a Buddhist Sangha, I’d have to call off work, take the hour and a half train ride to Chicago and book a hotel room (since almost all of the Chicago groups have evening sits that end long after the Southwest Chief has started its next journey to the desert).
I live in a village of a 150 people.
It was settled in 1834, and it is half a mile long and a fifth of a mile wide. It’s surrounded on all sides by 10 miles of grazing pastures and open fields. Two creeks (Indian and Crooked Leg) mark its northern and southern boundaries. In 1886 (100 years before I was born) there was a small general store, a blacksmith, two churches, a one room schoolhouse (which was allegedly on the same lot that my house is on), and a shoe and harness shop.
Now there’s a grade school, cemetery, two mechanics, a pop machine and a Methodist church. This is where I live, and for 20 years—ever since my parents fled from the Aurora ganglands when I was 10—this has been my county.
This is my home, but I’ve never felt at home here. I’m a heathen in God Country, stranded in prairies when my genes yearn for the cool, hilly lakelands they set out from long ago.
So, I was shocked (almost profoundly shocked) that I met a Bodhisattva in a local restaurant. The diner is off the interstate in a small city/large town that’s the County Seat, but it’s still salt-of-the-earth rural.
I was taken to a corner seat and ordered some coffee and water. As I was digging through the menu (everything comes with a side order of grits and a complementary shotgun shell), I saw a splash of color out of the corner of my eye. “What? Nooo… That can’t be,” I thought as Garth Brooks sang about friends in low places from the overhead speakers. “It is!” Nestled by that small table in that odd corner there was an original painting of a Bodhisattva.
What the fuck, right? What events transpired to get that painting on this wall in this land devoid of Buddhism? And even though the Christianity is implied in this restaurant, it isn’t explicit. Of all the haphazard pictures and rural artifacts on the walls, there’s not one crucifix or painting of white Jesus.
Even stranger, there were old ads for seeds scattered around the painting.
I’m not sure how familiar you are with Buddhist philosophy, but seeds (bija) play a prominent part in the Mahayana—especially Yogacara, which is the school I draw the most from.
Everything we experience is the sprouting and blossoming of latent conditions and potentials in the mind—aka seeds. Our thoughts, words, and actions plant more seeds that determine how we’ll perceive, view, and feel about future events. The Bodhisattva’s duty is to plant and water seeds of wisdom and compassion in themselves and all beings.
A painting of a Bodhisattva surrounded by advertisements for seeds seems way to relevant to be a coincidence. But, it has to be a coincidence, because if the owners knew that they had a religious (and non-Christian) painting in their establishment, I guarantee they’d take it down in a heartbeat. So it can’t be deliberate either.
“What do you know about this painting?” I asked the waitress. “I like it a lot.” I didn’t want to say anything more than that because I didn’t want to tip her off that it’s a Buddhist painting.
“Nothing, really. There used to be a sheet with information on it a long time ago, but they lost it. It’s a good one, though.” She filled up my cup and walked away. I did an image search of it when I got home, but Google didn’t have anything on it, and I can’t really make out the artist’s signature. It looks like it says Finhin. When I search that, I get a bunch of links on ice fishing. Judging by the Bodhisattva, the painting looks either Korean or Chinese in origin.
I don’t even know which mythical Bodhisattva it is. It looks like Guanyin, but doesn’t have any of the usual adornments that she has.
This painting is a landscape of unanswerable questions. The who, what, when, why, and how are totally concealed by the past. I don’t even know how long it has been there. I only know the where. This is very appropriate since—through practice—everything is allowed to be as it really is: unknown.
I want to ask the owners if I can buy the painting from them, but I like the idea of it staying put even more. I like that it is sitting by hundreds and thousands of people who are totally unaware that they’re dining with a Bodhisattva. And it’s a nice painting in general. You can tell that the artist really cared and put a lot of time into it. It’s comforting and pleasing to look at. The longer you gaze at it, the more subtleties you see, much like how it is when we concentrate on the breath—or anything else—during meditation.
It’s enough for me to just know that it’s there, a five minute walk from where I work, perused by loners, friends, lovers and families who don’t even know that it represents a being who vowed to nourish people with the wisdom and kindness even as they nourish themselves with food.
It’s not the best seat in the house, but from now on, I’ll ask to sit there whenever I go out to eat.
Editor: Dana Gornall