Ocean of Belonging

Aisan temple frame in the ocean.

Posted on February 23, 2024 by Jenn Zatopek

Is it inevitable that I’d embrace Zen, given that I’m a Native North Texan? I’ve been reflecting on the nature of choice, especially after returning home a few weeks ago from visiting Mountain Cloud Zen Center in Santa Fe where I met many of my online friends IRL and walked the mountainous terrain behind the zendo between dharma talks and short periods of silence. How did I get here? Days after returning home from the retreat in Santa Fe, I have a sudden urge to write at the Kimbell Art Museum and head out the door with my purse and notebook in hand. A part of me suspects the museum holds a key to my inquiry.

I’m lucky to live just minutes away, in a tree-lined neighborhood off Camp Bowie Boulevard, the red-bricked street leading directly to the arts district where the Kimbell stands as a well-known focal point in Fort Worth. A thing of beauty itself, the museum is a large and elegant concrete building roofed with six arches made of steel and aluminum, allowing sunlight and artificial light to mingle together softly inside the main floor and the two permanent art collections. 

When I arrive today, I park in the back and miss the glorious front of the building, where a grove of manicured trees stands between the arches which act as huge porches flanking either side of the entrance. Near the glass doors, you can sit on the cool concrete benches and admire the water flowing in the rimless pools nearby or gaze outward at the rolling green acreage. I’ve seen lovers embrace and weddings here too, so it’s always a mystery what you might see.

I don’t have time to consider mystery because I’m hit with it soon upon arrival. After greeting the staff at the back door, I walk up the double staircase with the smooth steel banisters and jolt in surprise. There she is, the dusky brown Venus de Milo statue, regal in her nakedness. She used to be in the tiny courtyard on the other side of the museum but now lives in this one by the cafe. Suddenly I’m awash in memories of visiting here as a child with my father, the museum a refuge from the chaos of living at home with my father and his untreated mental illness. Shy and awkward, I desperately wanted to belong and feel beautiful, something I won’t feel for decades, but I don’t know that yet. I just remember the statue being gargantuan as a kid, looking up at Venus in wonder, and now here I am, a beautiful woman myself, seeing Venus almost like an equal, an old friend. Shunyu Suzuki wrote “each one of us is in the midst of a myriad of worlds,” and I stumbled into one of mine today. 

People are behind me so the reverie is only seconds long, but that world I touched is as close as my heartbeat as I head into the Asian art gallery where the lighting is dim and the people are few. Walking slowly around the room with the tall vaulted ceilings, I admire an old terracotta Buddha statue that once adorned a monastery in India and smile at my good fortune. Feeling grateful, I drift over to the twenty-inch bodhisattva Aviloketeshvara, the compassionate one with many arms who holds tools and gifts to be of service to the world, the placard reads. I smile again as I plop down on a plush bench and stare up at a gorgeous Japanese panel depicting life in Kyoto, the gold background highlighting the delicate paintings of villagers hauling water, cultivating gardens, farming animals, worshiping at the temple. I don’t know how long I stare up at the panel, but I write quickly, overjoyed to recall the marvelous time I had at the Santa Fe zendo with new friends and old, the museum’s quiet nourishing me the same way my Zazen sits do. 

A possible answer arises from my subconscious, on the Zen path I’ve chosen. Visiting this museum since childhood, I feel as if these concrete walls, shiny wooden floors, gorgeous paintings, treasured relics live inside my bones too. Perhaps the gradual exposure over the decades to the glories in the Asian art collection have softened my heart to the path. And while I’d prefer easy answers, I let myself bathe in not knowing the exact causes for why I’m Zen now as I walk around the gallery.

What I can know and trust is the transformation of my heart that’s taking place. Becoming Zen feels like a crossing over, a homecoming, a sense of being called to through the eons of time, perhaps from this Asian art gallery or elsewhere, the Zen practice alive in mystery. Does that make any rational sense? Probably not to anyone outside the path, but it does to me, a Jewish forty-something woman who stumbled finally into a deep and nourishing ocean of belonging.

Image: Photo by Takeshi Yu on Unsplash

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