Buddha their god

In Brief

Bloom has seen a Burmese statue of a reclining Buddha in Dublin's National Museum. This lovely marble carving appears to have made a powerful impression on him, and he has taken Molly to see it, lecturing her on how popular Buddhism is in Asia. But his knowledge of east Asian culture is very slight, and the iconographic significance of the statue is lost on him.

Read More

At the beginning of Lotus Eaters Bloom thinks about "Those Cinghalese lobbing about in the sun in dolce far niente, not doing a hand's turn all day." Inside St. Andrew's church he returns to his fanciful speculations about life in the languid Far East, thinking first of Chinese people blissfully stoned on opium and then of the statue: "Buddha their god lying on his side in the museum. Taking it easy with hand under his cheek. Josssticks burning. Not like Ecce Homo. Crown of thorns and cross." He seems to make little differentiation between Ceylon, China, and Burma, and Buddhism, which does have deep roots in each of those countries, impresses him mostly as a spiritual practice that values relaxation instead of the agonizing tortures that inspire Catholic devotions like the Stations of the Cross.

The contrast has some validity, as far as it goes. But the Buddha is not a "god," and the statue certainly does not depict him "Taking it easy." He was a human being who attained insight into the causes of suffering, and how to overcome it, by dint of nearly superhuman mental concentration. The reclining posture of the statue is entirely consistent with this practice of spiritual discipline. According to tradition, the Buddha ate some tainted pork, knew he was dying, and lay down to await the parinirvana or final release from suffering that death brings to someone who has attained nirvana during life. The pose, then, conveys the spiritual focus of someone leaving the body behind. It is common in the Theravada cultures of countries like Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, and Cambodia, with their transcendental emphasis on achieving liberation from the karmic cycle of birth and death, and less so in Mahayana cultures. A proper Christian comparison might be to Jesus' resurrection from death.

After seeing this marble sculpture in the National Museum, Bloom was so impressed that he came back with Molly in tow. In Penelope she thinks, "look at the way hes sleeping at the foot of the bed how can he without a hard bolster its well he doesnt kick or he might knock out all my teeth breathing with his hand on his nose like that Indian god he took me to show one wet Sunday in the museum in Kildare street all yellow in a pinafore lying on his side on his hand with his ten toes sticking out that he said was a bigger religion than the jews and Our Lords both put together all over Asia imitating him as hes always imitating everybody I suppose he used to sleep at the foot of the bed too with his big square feet up in his wifes mouth." Molly perpetuates the fallacy of the Buddha as a "god," manages to inject yet another country, India, into Bloom's geographical jumble, and reduces the spiritual transport conveyed by the gilded statue into an impression of a man dressed in a yellow "pinafore" who might kick out his wife's teeth because he doesn't have enough sense to cover his "big square feet" with a blanket.

The sculpture came to Dublin in 1891 as a result of imperial conquest and pillage. According to John Smurthwaite in "That Indian God," James Joyce Broadsheet 61 (2002): 3, Sir Charles Fitzgerald, an Anglo-Irish colonel in the Indian Army who led a regiment in the campaign to seize and subdue northern Burma starting in 1885, gave the National Museum this marble statue robbed from a Burmese temple. The figure is 1.4 meters long (about 55 inches), and exquisitely executed. Today it is held in the Decorative Arts and History division of the Collins Barracks on Benburb Street, run by the National Museum. Ireland should consider giving it back.

JH 2019
Painted marble sculpture of reclining Buddha, originally housed in a Burmese temple, now held in the National Museum, Dublin. Source: www.irishtimes.com.