Dealing with Beauty

1. The Woman from the North

I was tired and it had been a long week. We were a huge group, attending one of the interminable post-retreat “tea parties” in the monastery dining room. Person after person was getting up to speak: words of appreciation, problems, little anecdotes about the past week. After a dozen or so of these my concentration was flagging; I was hearing & not hearing. Then a beautiful woman came up and took the microphone. I began listening to her in an idle way, but only because she had caught my eye. I looked at the monks’ reaction. They sat at their table, eyes downcast, listening to her in exactly the same way as they had listened to the other participants. I listened too, but she was saying nothing of particular interest, so I began, out of curiosity, to study her. What made a person beautiful? I asked myself. Her hair was abundant, dark and thick, tied back  without much attention. She wore no make up, and her eyes & brows were large in proportion to her face. Her figure was, in many ways, typical of healthy people of Northern Chinese descent: She was somewhat solid in build, taller than average & well proportioned. Her face was symmetrical; a pointed oval with the high cheekbones giving her dark eyes the slight almond shape characteristic of the region of her ancestors. I began my cold Darwinian analysis. Smooth, white skin, so she is evidently free of disease. Symmetrical body, so she is free of injury or genetic defects: a good prospect for easy reproduction. The large eyes would always make her look more youthful than she was. (This is called neoteny, the persistence of infantile characteristics in the adult animal.) I was in a room full of flat noses; her nose had a bridge. Her mouth showed a calm, good natured temperament. Each of these characteristics was unflawed in itself, and compounded and organized together they produced the one descriptor: beautiful.  Aristotle wrote: “a concept of beauty occurs when all parts work together in harmony so that no one part draws unjust attention to itself.” He saw beauty as outside of mathematics, but today plastic surgeons reconstruct damaged faces using a grid representing the “perfectly proportioned face.” When I see Angelina Jolie has dieted herself down to a raw bone and has injected her already overly-full lips with who-knows-what expensive filler, I wonder if exaggeration might now be the order of the day. Her concept of “how she looks best” differs from mine–had I been her, I would have left well enough alone. I might, in fact, have used a make-up trick to minimize the lips a bit. But that’s just me, thinking like Aristotle!

2. A Renaissance Angel

More recently I saw that rarity here in California, the “beautiful Caucasian” waiting in line at Trader Joe’s. She looked bored and blank. How many times in the past had she been stared at? You could hardly blame her! Not long to study this one: Shoulder length brown hair, entirely natural face, but what made this one beautiful? A round babyish swelling of the forehead above the eyebrows that related harmoniously with her strong chin and short, straight nose. The face had interesting little angles that interacted pleasingly with the full curve of her forehead. Renaissance painters used such women for their conceptions of angels….worldly yet detached.

3. “He could be a cult leader!”

I had not been at the monastery long, and had not seen or noticed all the monks there, much less being able to pronounce their difficult names. Seeing this one for the first time startled me. “Whoa. What have we here?” I thought. “A young aristocrat.” He was tall and unconsciously elegant in bearing, as handsome as a film star, and he smiled at everything and everybody* in the most natural manner. Most disconcerting was the odd quality that made him seem to pop out of his context–what I call “luminescence.” At least one other friend recognized what I saw: She said he had a “glow.” Later that evening, describing him to my husband, I said, somewhat cynically, “With only a little effort that sort could have his own cult with people throwing rose petals in his path!” I generally avoid such people, and I planned to keep my distance from this one as well. But fate determined that I ended up working for (not with) him. I had chosen the lowest and most isolated voluntary job in the monastery so that the Chinese people didn’t have the hassle of translating everything into English for me. The beautiful monk’s English was only so-so. He wouldn’t be teaching any of my classes. The Abbot does that. But my feelings sometimes take me unaware. Once I saw him walking across the parking lot, chatting good-humoredly with  a Chinese American girl. I suddenly felt a pang of sadness. I would never be able to converse that way, or even to sit in one of his classes and guiltlessly observe him for an hour. Once in a while he would tell me to do something relating to my work. And that would be all.

*including the computer screen while he was working in the office. I peeked.

4. A Buddhist Meditation

(This is what you’re supposed to do when you see someone attractive. It’s a meditation on fighting lust.) First consider what we see when we look at a person: The hair of the head, the hair of the body, the skin, the teeth, and the nails. According the the writer of the sutra, that’s all. What you do is to imagine all those “attractive” elements separated from one another, and in little piles: teeth, hair, little pink nails, etc. Not so ‘attractive’ that way, huh!? But frankly (and I guess it’s my “Western-ism” talking…they all laughed in class when I said I “just have a romantic spirit!”) I would never vivisect some beautiful person in that manner. In a thousand years it would never occur to me to do that, because it would mean that I personally devalued and invalidated the pure alchemy that produced them. Yes, they are “perishing composite phenomena”…but what joy they give me when encountered in the here/now.

So–How to “deal with beauty?” How to “deal with” a cloud or a flash of lightening, or a flower that blooms for only a single day? Somehow Zen seems connected in people’s minds with wet leaves, rocky cliffs and trickling streams, but couldn’t the steel caves of the Manhattan financial district or the chaos of a school playground or a hospital emergency room represent Zen just as well? I have no answer. With a laugh, let me tell you…women can be friends with monks! But only if they realize that, depending on how you are dressed and made up that day, you resign yourself to the fact that they are, or will be, visualizing you as either their mother…or as a  putrefying corpse. That is how “attractiveness” is dealt with in the Buddhist world…or at least, in the world of monks!

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