The following is an interview between Loeb docent Magdalena Ramos Mullane ’22 and Religion/Cognitive Science major Benjamin Haffey ’22.
Benjamin Haffey, enrolled in a course on contemplative practices (CLCS 151, taught by Associate Professor of Psychological Science Carolyn Palmer) is tasked with beholding a piece in the Loeb for an extended period of time. For this project, Haffey has selected Multi-Arm Avalokiteshvara, a Vietnamese work from the 17th century which entered the Loeb’s collection as a result of the Embodying Compassion exhibition in 2015 (https://pages.vassar.edu/embodyingcompassion/). This lacquered wood sculpture depicts the figure of Avalokiteshvara in seated meditation, arms extending radially from the body. Through “beholding,” a conscious action of “slow looking,” the viewer is able to connect with the artwork to reveal that which is not easily accessible from a superficial glance. Museum educators regularly practice and encourage this means of seeing as these interactions serve not only to illuminate the created work but also to allow personal connections to emerge for the viewer. By way of meditative looking, we can come to connect with these pieces, not as frozen within the museum space, but instead as living emblems throughout time and humanity. In this discussion, Haffey generously reveals the impact of this prolonged looking both within the visual parameters of aesthetic vision and alongside more personal reflections of his own spiritual practice.
What are the parameters of the assignment?
The assignment is very individually mediated. Each student picks their own contemplative practice that they work through the month of November. I chose art beholding, which we discussed in class, while others chose Tarot reading, or doing embodied work alongside various different practices.
What made you choose art beholding?
It wasn’t my initial pick actually, which is kind of funny. I’d done an earlier research project on Tarot reading and interviewed a few people, and I was going to do an autoethnographic approach with that. But then as a class we all went to the Loeb and did a day of beholding. My experience with that was surprisingly very profound and really connected me to some memories I’d had that were very spiritually significant. So I really wanted to follow that where it took me.
What attracted you to that piece in the Loeb?
That section of the Loeb [the Asian Gallery] really feels most resonant for me. I’ve worked with pieces in there in the past for research projects. There’s a draw I feel to be in that space as someone who’s grappled with a kind of Buddhist identity. It’s a good space to be in passively. And that piece specifically—it was a bit of a tossup—but there’s something about how it sits: its placement and orientation. It’s lifted up on a pedestal and I would look up at it and feel oriented towards it. And then when I sat with it I was like this is perfect, this is exactly what I want. I had already read about and was aware of Avalokiteśvara and her associations with Mahayana Buddhism in general as one of the most known bodhisattvas, and so I had all of that going into it.
You describe this process as beholding. Can you elaborate on that a little more?
The commonality in all beholding practices is that it involves sitting with a piece of art or even a piece of nature and just witnessing it. It’s a kind of mindful seeing or observing, and from there it can differ in that some beholding practices are based on sitting with the thing and orienting your attention back to it. It’s similar to breathing meditation in that way, breath counting. Other practices are more involved, which is to say sometimes you have practices where you’re looking and at the same time you’re drawing. Or you’re looking and writing some kind of reflection, so you’re jumping back and forth between observing and reflecting. I’ve mixed it up across my different days of practicing in the last two weeks. Some days I feel more drawn to do one or the other, which is interesting. But basically I’ve been taking notes and reflecting on the experience in a meta sort of sense in this time. And what I’ve come across is that there’s an observation period and a reflection period. Sometimes there’s observation and reflection, sometimes its reflection and then observation and they sort of cycle, and what observation and reflection look like can be different.
I love how you describe it as a form of witnessing. I’m curious about the different ways you’ve entered into spaces of observation and reflection. Can you speak more to the process of sitting for this period of time? Has it changed for you? Is it something you’re discovering within yourself as well?
Definitely. A lot of layers there. One thing that I’ve noticed has changed over time is that early on I had a lot more strong and profound feelings and ideas that were elicited from the experience. I would look at it and I would immediately think “oh right, of course, the arms are representations of Avalokiteśvara’s compassion that’s expanding out to all sentient beings” and that’s a kind of philosophical take. But then I would also have experiences where I would look and feel, in whatever sense that one can “feel” these things, a kind of aura-like presence that emanated out from this object. And part of that is just that if you stare at something that’s reflecting light enough, eventually the imprint of that thing is going to burn on your eyes (in a safe way). And I ran with that a few times and used a technique I borrowed from Trataka Practice, candle meditation. Staring at a candle flame for a long amount of time and trying not to blink. I applied that to my practice a few times which was interesting. But that’s tangential.
Jumping back, those strong emotional or spiritual feelings were very prominent in the beginning. That’s what drew me into the practice in the first place. But as I went more, it was interesting to notice that that transcendent feeling did go down, but what went up was a kind of familiarity and approachability. I was talking with my mentor for this, Professor Schneiderman who I approached earlier. And I expressed it to her as a mundane thing, but she was talking about thinking about it more as familiarity, as being able to attend more to direct observation, and I think that’s interesting. Coupled with this is something I didn’t expect at all, but is very tied to going there and the physical practice of sitting. It’s this social element that comes into play. I’m going to the Loeb every day of the week, talking to a couple people I haven’t talked to in a while that are there. I reconnected with someone who works at the Loeb, a student I went on a Monastery retreat with, and the guards, Matthew and Dominick. I talk to them every day and they’re like “hey, see anything new?” and I’m like, “You know?” That’s a whole dimension I didn’t even expect. I was thinking it was going to be very mental and very spiritual in the sense of a transcendent exercise. At the beginning it felt like I was sitting beneath this great bodhisattva. But as it went on I felt much more like I was sitting and having tea with a friend.
I think it makes a lot of sense when you put it into context. The act itself isn’t in a vacuum, this isn’t just me looking at a piece of wood. This is me looking at a representation of Avalokiteśvara, which I have knowledge of. She’s very associated with the heart sutra which I’ve practiced with through recitation and reflection in the past. So bringing into that context of compassion and inherent emptiness is a sense of potentiality. Form is empty and empty is form; it makes sense that there’s this disillusion of grandeur of this bodhisattva. That grandeur is something I’m putting out into the world and it’s not something that’s there inherently. All that’s there is this figure, and me, and we’re sitting here.
Sometimes it’s felt like we’ve traded places, which is interesting. If you sit and you don’t move and you just stare at something for long enough it’s like looking at your reflection. And eventually you dissolve and it gets uncanny. If you ever stare at your reflection in the dark long enough it eventually gets to be really unsettling. Like, “is this me? What’s going on? Am I on the other side of the mirror?” It’s kind of like that actually!
Would you say you can feel this proliferating into your own personal practice as well?
Yeah, I definitely feel like I’ve been making it my own, which has been good. It’s motivated me to want to continue doing this, even outside of the confines of a project. To some degree how you connect with an object, whether it’s spiritual or not, is a function of yourself. I’m a religion major so it’s interesting bringing a lot of top-down knowledge into this: the material dynamics of religion and metaphysical experience. But ultimately for myself the metaphysics of it I really don’t care about. I haven’t really investigated if this is me communing with Avalokiteśvara as some kind of intentional being or if Avalokiteśvara is a representation of ideals I want to strive towards. Ultimately I think the intellectual separation of the two is kind of pointless. It’s whatever is an expediated means, to use the Buddhist terminology, towards enlightenment in awareness.
Has the representation of Avalokiteśvara changed in your head? Going along with the familiarity you’ve spoken of, do you feel like you have an established relationship with the sculpture?
I do feel like when I go in it feels like my connection is different than everyone else’s. I feel a kind of recognition in some way from this object. Especially because the construction of its face is such that the mouth is either neutral or smiling depending how you look at it. And I really like that because it feels as though when I’m on the right track she’s smiling, and when I’m not it’s neutral. And I use that to orient myself back. If I were to explain that on a physical level, it’s like when I’m not paying attention to it, when I’m not projecting my ideas and thoughts onto it, I see the sculpture with its constructed, neutral expression in serene meditation. But when I’m really looking at it and I think “Avalokiteśvara, I’m looking at you,” then there’s a smile; I’m recognizing the face of another person.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about this process?
One thing I thought was really interesting, which is tied to the physicality of the thing, is looking not just at the object but at the shadows. Where the shadows fall has been really interesting. One of my first observations was how the object projects layers of shadow, and how this is a really good allegory for our existence through time: shadows layering through the past and forward through the future. Little moments that are layered one after the other.
I have the privilege to work with this piece outside of its original context, but it’s interesting because this piece is out of place. If I may talk about myself in this way, my relationship with my spirituality has always also felt out of place. I was raised Jewish and I went through phases of Satanism, Wicca, and some atheism. And I’ve now looped back around in some ways, trying to reconnect with my Jewish heritage and culture and childhood. It’s difficult to reconcile not having that religious orientation while still having that cultural background,. Now I’m a Buddhist studies scholar in religious studies, but at the same time I’m a practitioner; I believe a lot of what I’m studying. And so I feel a kindred spirit feeling with this piece. It’s out of its home and I’m trying to find my home with it.