boston: a day at the museum

As many may know my sabbatical journey has taken me to Boston, or more exacting the greater Boston area. I arrived here on the 28th of June. Since then I have been going around to the various sanghas and sitting groups. So far I have been to eight or nine groups and I gave a talk at the Boston Center for Contemplative Practice in Newton. The topic was Cultivating the Boundless Field, a theme I have been exploring (sorry, no recording). I also have had some downtime to do some tourist stuff. My first excursion was walking the Freedom Trail in downtown Boston. It is a marked path through the city that takes one to various historical sites. I posted a bit of it on my facebook page, which are photos of early tombstones which I find fascinating. The carvings on the stone show that they didn’t shy away from the idea and reality of death. 

The other day I had another free day in my schedule so I thought I would go to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. I have been to many museums over the course of my life and I have to say that this museum is pretty fantastic. A must go for those who vibe with museums. Taking the T, I arrived early, before the museum opened so I hung out on the lawn. I have to say, any museum that has colorful Adirondack lawn chairs sitting around the grounds under the shade of the trees gets an automatic two thumbs up from me.



The museum building was built in 1907 and is made out of typical carved block granite one would expect from such an institution. The style is, of course, Neoclassical with its ancient Greek elements: There is the triangular pediment sitting upon the four Ionic columns, this makes up the front entrance. The entire building has this massive sense to it, like it isn’t going anyplace soon, and this is the idea. Neoclassical architecture is about the monumental, the enduring, the everlasting, the sense that it is a permanent fixture on the landscape. This is why it has been so popular for government buildings, to remind us that the institutions housed there will be there throughout time, which could be good and could be bad, or sometimes oh so bad. Hitler relished the Neoclassical. For the museum, however, I think it is a good thing.

Not only does the building have this essence of perceived permanence but so does its basic mission – to gather and preserve artwork and craftwork. Basically, it is the museum’s mission to basically stop the aging process of the collection of work, which this museum has about 450,000 pieces to attend to. Why do this? So that the works will be there throughout time. So that future generations can witness and experience the collection of what humanity has expressed over centuries.

As I walk and meander through the galleries and halls of the museum, knowing what the mission of the museum is I certainly touch the sense of permanence. This certainly rings true when I view the historical, such as the Renaissance or Colonial American, as well as, the pieces from ancient Egypt, Central American, and China, just to name a few. All the works of art of the past collected are here before me on this very day at this present moment. The sense of permanence also rings forth even with the modernists of the early twentieth century, such as Pollock, Picasso, Moore, and countless others. This period also happens to be my favorite. No so far back but certainly before my time. This sense of permanence as I experience it also provides me with a sense of time and place of my own being. Experience the works of the past in the contemporary and knowing the museum staff is working for the future and if I come back in, say, fifteen years it will all be here.

This sense of permanence, as wonderful as it can possibly be, is a sense. Just a sense. For what is everlasting and eternally enduring? I cannot think of a thing. Even the tallest mountain was the ocean’s floor at one time and it still is in motion. The world and the sun both have shelf-lives and we, of course, will one day pass. Impermanence, as I witness it, seems to work in scales. Even though we can say the earth is impermanent it certainly has a very long life compared to the life-span of the Homo sapien, for example. The life-span of the species Homo sapien certainly has a longer life than my own life (I give myself an optimistic seventy-five years based on family genetics and modern medicine). The Monarch Butterfly lives two to six weeks. Momentary mental formations – faster than a snap.

This illusionary sense of permanence seems to also offer a sense of continuity. Looking inward I find this sense of self I experience, a manifestation of the sense of permanence. It was “me” who was born, “me” who grew up and it is “me” who is now writing these words and it is “me” who will get old and eventually die. It’s, you know, me, but a changing “me,” like a flowing river. The river is there before us in all its changing form. What is that saying: “you cannot bath in the same river twice,” or something like that – continuity and change, the sense of permanence and the realities of impermanence.

This too is the story of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It certainly has that sense of permanence and continuity but it too is subject to the laws of impermanence. I can speak to fading paintings, crumbling artifacts of the past, the wearing down of the museum’s granite walls but I want to go in another direction. Impermanence is about flow, about change and this is also the mission of the Museum – to offer these exhibits in order to expose us to new vistas about our humanity. It is about education and awareness which is about a change, a widening in one’s perspective, one’s view. This is a change, an alteration, in the conscious flow, going from one place to another, and to another, and so on: Impermanence in the midst of a sense of permanence.

As I continued to walk through the museum I certainly was not alone. There were a multitude of people doing what I was doing, each one having their own experience of impermanence in the midst of a sense of permanence, and having their own reactions. One of the more heartfelt moments is when I came upon a gallery with a group of school kids sitting in collapsible chairs. They all had large sketching pads in their laps and pencils in hand. I’m assuming their assignment was to pick an object and draw it. I came across them in the Mesoamerican collection, which makes sense because it is rich in forms. They were probably middle-graders and they were all really getting into it. I subtly, and with much-attempted stealth, peaked at their work, so I know. What a wonderful opportunity for them. Impermanence in the midst of a sense of permanence, change, and continuity: The flow of life.

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