Filed in Mahayana, Science

The Matter of Truth

The heavy cost of literalismRita M. Gross

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AvalokiteshvaraYears ago, at the Brooklyn Museum, I was looking at a Tibetan statue of a multi-armed figure when a middle-aged white couple stopped to view the statue, and as they did, one said to the other, “What is that about? Do you suppose they were trying to portray a freak who was born that way?” Then, before I could say anything, they moved on. As I, or anyone else familiar with the Indian cultural milieu, might have told them, the multiple arms were not intended to be a photograph-like portrait. Their intent is symbolic not literal. They symbolize the deity’s multiple abilities and capabilities. Only if one were completely blind to symbolism could one so completely misread the meaning of the statue’s multiple arms, imagining that they were intended to be an accurate physical representation of an actual person born with many arms.

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