There is a fantasy to flight, of lifting off the ground and escaping gravity through your own strength and will. There is the illusion of freedom, the idea you can go anywhere carried by your own wings, the idea of self-sufficiency. Everything a bird does, wherever it flies—how high and how long—is its own doing. Maybe that independence is what calls to me the most.
Before I visited the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, I studied the materials given to me and was immediately drawn to a bookmark enclosed in the folder. The bookmark detailed the forth panel of the Four Great Kings C.2007.10.1 (HAR 81835) by Pema Rinzin. There were three birds perched on a tree branch, each looking in a different direction. They reminded me of sentries—guardians looking down from on high among the clouds. I thought of the role of John Jay, a school that educates for justice, a school that I attend. I thought of what it meant to be a guardian of humanity and how this tied to the concept of justice.
I was also drawn to the birds themselves.
It was pouring the evening I went to the Rubin Museum of Art, and I was exhausted, but stepping into the museum was like being transported out of space and time. There was a group of musicians playing beautiful Tibetan music in the lobby and patrons mingling in the café. I walked up the grand marble staircase, noticing that the museum is built like a spiral, ending with a glass dome. Branching off the central spiral were rooms with exhibits, forming an outer ring. The spiral—surrounded by an outer ring and divided into sections—reminded me of a dharma wheel, a Buddhist symbol which represents the path to enlightenment.
That evening, the museum muted their lighting. The music flowing up the open stairwell set the pace for my walk, my pulse, and my mind and I found myself slowing down from my hectic day. I began my journey at the Gateway to Himalayan Art exhibit located on the second floor. While I was eager to find the Four Great Kings depicted on my bookmark, I wandered slowly, absorbing information on the art and the figures and the symbols featured in them.
It was further up the stairs in the Masterworks collection that I first saw Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in the Tradition of King Songtsen Gampo C.2003.50.5 (Har 271). Something about it arrested me. It was the antithesis of what I’d been looking for in the colorful Four Great Kings. Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in the Tradition of King Songtsen Gampo is ancient, from the 13th century and the only colors are red and black ground mineral pigment on a faded cotton cloth canvas. The most dominant feature is a pair of footprints.
I stood staring for a long time; it could have been two minutes or twenty. Eventually I continued on. At the end of the spiral, was an exhibit on the Lukhang murals of the Dalai Lama. This room sized exhibit was amazing, and I stood transfixed before the murals. The colors were similar to the Four Great Kings, but there the similarities ended. I found other painting with birds, but the Four Great Kings eluded me.
Birds have always fascinated me. The concept of flight, of escaping gravity calls to me for all the times in my life when I’ve been stuck, trapped on a path without a means of escape. A bird can simply fly away, where we humans cannot.
I thought about what this meant in relation to justice. There is the obvious: birds represent freedom, but there is something more. A bird carries itself using its own strength and will, but they also fly in a flock. Birds fly in a V or J echelon both to conserve energy—taking advantage of the “upwash vortex fields created by the wings of the birds in front”—and to communicate with others and coordinate flight paths and patterns (Batt). The role of lead bird is distributed throughout the flock (Batt). This connects to the concept of distributive justice, where rewards and responsibilities are distributed among members of society based on each person’s abilities.
I left the Lukhang murals and continued in my quest to find the Four Great Kings. Back in the main gallery, I found myself pulled back to Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in the Tradition of King Songtsen Gampo. I studied the painting, intrigued for a while longer, puzzling over why this painting kept calling to me. Then I continued up the staircase to the next floor. Now, I was confused and looked at my guide. The exhibits on the fourth and fifth floors were devoted to Tibetan medicine. The sixth floor contained a Sculpture of Devotion exhibit from the Brooklyn Museum. I hurried through these exhibits, fearing I was not going to find the Four Great Kings. At the top I studied the bookmark again, and then retraced my steps backwards, double checking the names of the paintings I passed. Back on the second floor I found a museum guide and learned the Four Great Kings was not currently in the exhibit.
You do not always find what you are looking for, but sometimes you find what you need. My feet were already guiding me back to the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in the Tradition of King Songtsen Gampo. The footprints drew me to the painting. I stood there, transfixed and realized what they represented. They were wings.
Our feet are our wings.
They are our means of escaping gravity, through our own strength and will. They are what carry us down a path, or help us turn around.
Staring at this painting, I realized my wings had been with me all along. I just had forgotten about their existence.
Between the footprints stood the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. Bodhisattvas are awakened beings who put off their own enlightenment to remove obstacles from the paths of others, and guide them toward enlightenment.
Avalokiteshvara is a significant one. The patron bodhisattva of Tibet and the bodhisattva of compassion, he took a vow to forsake his own enlightenment and focus on helping others achieve their own (Himalayan Art Resource). However, after “continuously witnessing the misery of beings in various states of existence,” he grew discouraged and thought of his own enlightenment (Himalayan Art Rescource). His head then split into ten pieces and his body into one thousand (Himalayan Art Resource). He called out to the Buddha Amitabha, who put him back together, reforming him with ten faces—each facing one of the ten directions and with one thousand arms, each with an eye of Buddha in the palm—so that he could see everyone suffering (Himalayan Art Resources). He then placed a replica of his own head on top, to enable Avalokiteshvara to help all of humanity at once (Himalayan Art Resources).
Avalokiteshvara’s tale is like that of all humanity. Avolokiteshvara was fractured into many pieces for only thinking of himself. Humanity is fractured for all the times we have looked the other way, pretended we could not hear, and have remained silent. For all those times when we thought of only ourselves: the Holocaust, the genocides of Russia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Darfur, Bosnia and many, many others.
We all fracture when we remain silent, when we do nothing.
During his Nobel Peace Prize speech Elie Wiesel said, “The world did know [about the Holocaust] and remain silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation” (Wiesel). We are all one. Our suffering belongs to us all. We carry the burden of one another. Elie Wiesel turned his pain and grief into advocacy. He became a bodhisattva, a crusader for justice. When Elie Wiesel was presented with the John Jay Justice Award on May 6, 2014, he said, “We are not alone in the world. None of us are alone and therefore we are responsible for one another” (Wiesel). We will all splinter into a thousand pieces if we think only of ourselves, remain silent, and pretend we cannot see or hear.
I thought of the motto of John Jay: “Fierce Advocates for Justice.” We study to become lawyers, police officers, and writers—advocates for social change. We study to give voice to the voiceless, compassion to the less fortunate, and a helping hand to those in need.
I thought of what it means to need a helping hand, of all the times in my life when I felt trapped, when I needed a helping hand, guidance, someone to show me the way out. This is why birds speak to me so much.
Birds are independent, weightless, yet they travel in a flock. If a goose becomes sick of injured during migration, other geese will stay behind, guarding it until it recuperates or dies (World Animal Foundation). A crow’s distress call will bring other crows to their aid; even unrelated crows will defend a crow in danger (PBS). They help each other.
When I was trapped, in an abusive relationship, unable to see a way out, there were people who helped me escape, who removed the obstacles from my path—bodhisattvas. Then there were others who stood in my way, who held out a helping hand and then betrayed me. I remember feeling anger towards these people, wanting retribution for the ways I had been hurt and betrayed, compensation for what I had lost. I wanted justice. Then I realized they were fractured and broken people and pursing this form of justice would only inflict more injury on myself. So, I let go of my anger and forgave them, allowed compassion to overtake me.
I now try to help others. I do not look away or pretend I cannot hear. I offer compassion, support, and guidance. I try to show them the way out.
I have become, in a way, a bodhisattva. In doing so, I have found my wings.
“Avalokiteshvara (Bodhisattva & Buddhist Deity) – Namka Gyalpo (Gaganaraja)” Himalayan Art Resource. 2014. Web. 1 May 2014.
Batt, Bruce. “Why Do Migratory Birds Fly in a V-formation?” 1 October 2007. Scientific America. Web. 9 May 2014.
Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in the Tradition of King Songtsen Gampo. n.d. Ground minteral pigment on cotton. Rubin Museum of Art, New York. C.2003.50.5 (Har 271)
PBS. A Murder of Crows: Introduction. 2014. Web. 9 May 2014.
Rinzin, Pema. Four Great Kings. 2007. Mineral Pigment on wood. Rubin Museum of Art, New York. C.2007.10.1 (HAR 81835)
Wiesel, Elie. “Acceptance Speech”. Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2013. Web. 12 May 2014.
Wiesel, Elie. “Acceptance Speech”. John Jay Justice Award. John Jay College of Criminal Justice. 6 May 2014.
World Animal Foundation. Goose Fact Sheet. Web. 10 May 2014
About the Author,
Aimee Estrada is an observer, wanderer, and writer who believes the journey is more important than the destination. She grew up in Beacon, New York before it was trendy, knowing Pete Seeger as “that old guy who played the banjo at my elementary school.” She lives with her husband and Pokemon-obsessed son in a work-in-progress farmhouse with a backyard full of deer, wild turkeys, coyotes, and the occasional bear. Her work also has appeared in the Quill, the Sentinel, and the New York Times.