Sunday, May 3, 2009

Afterthoughts: Third Mind (2): Eleanor Roosevelt & Buddha

Separated at Rebirth?


It’s hard not to be moved by Eleanor Roosevelt. She had her flaws, even as a humanitarian, but there were two stories from the early volumes of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography that I really loved.

One was the story her attendance at the 1938 Southern Conference on Human Welfare, which was held in segregated Alabama. Eleanor sat down with the Negroes, but the police informed her that she would have to get up.

Rather than return to the whites, she picked up her chair and sat between the two races. She made a vivid statement without forcing a confrontation.

I didn’t think of it at the time, but that act now seems very Buddhist to me. (It might be anything else as well—all I mean is that it could easily be used to illustrate the approaches described in all those bestsellers by Western Buddhists that I read.)

The other was a story of her transformation. In their early years in Washington, before FDR was president, Eleanor discovered that Franklin was having what would prove to be a very long-lasting affair. Over and over she visited Rock Creek Cemetery and communed with the Augustus Saint-Gaudens statue popularly known as Grief.

When the mourning was over, she had let go of her old self. She was still a partner to her husband, but she also forged a life of her own, becoming an activist for the poor, for women, for civil rights, and for peace.

As Wiesen Cook put it in a PBS interview, “Ironically, the years of her greatest despair become also the years of her great liberation.”

As a tale of letting go, this seems very Buddhist, too.

At any rate, one of the things I was surprised to see at the Guggenheim’s Third Mind exhibition on American artists contemplating Asia was a replica of that sculpture by Saint-Gaudens, the one that he himself never gave a name.

I hadn’t remembered that it was created in honor of Clover Adams, a noted Washington hostess who was reputed to have committed suicide after discovering that her husband had had an affair. The husband, Henry Adams, never mentioned her name again, but did commission this sculpture.

Adams asked Saint-Gaudens to look to Buddhist sculpture and Eastern philosophy for inspiration. One of his specific references was to Avalokitesvara, also known as Kannon, a bodhisattva of compassion with androgynous qualities.

Another of the monuments that influenced Adams and Saint-Gaudens was the immense bronze sculpture of the Buddha in Kamakura, Japan. To my amazement, this was the very Buddha whose photograph I had used to illustrate my Valentine’s Day post about opening one’s heart to others and imagining that they can actually feel it.

There I had it—an indirect and imaginary point of contact with Eleanor Roosevelt.

That was cool, too.


Joan said...

Wow. Just wow.

Coincidences, or maybe convergings, like that leave a thrill that can linger for weeks...

Jennie said...

Did you read No Ordinary Time? If you like the Roosevelts, you'll like that one too!

Separated at rebirth -- that's pretty great. Were you once a print journalist? (was there once print?)