Next To (and Above) Godliness

My family and I recently discovered a neighborhood gem mere blocks from our apartment, tucked away unbeknownst to us amid eateries and storefronts jostling for space on 17th Street.

Specializing in works from the Himalayas, India, and surrounding regions, the Rubin Museum of Art is a true oasis in the chaos. Midtown Manhattan's cacophony of traffic noises and human commotion melt away upon entering, and in the tranquil dimness, one imagines a single, smooth "om" chant reverberating through the space. The gleaming deities greeting wanderers at every turn emit an aura of serenity. They seem to validate that there is balance in the universe.

I caught a tour just as it was beginning to ascend the spiraling staircase into the museum's installations. Our first stop was in front of an early 20th century painting depicting the Wheel of Existence, a ubiquitous visual in the Buddhist world that explains the cyclical process of life, death, and rebirth.

In the center of the wheel, a pig, a snake, and a rooster chase each other's tails. These unlikely playmates -- also known by their more technical identifier, "spiritual poisons" -- embody the origins of suffering: ignorance, anger, and desire. They cause the perpetual cycle of suffering composed of birth, death, and rebirth.

Surrounding this inner circle is another divided into white and black halves, depicting monks, ascetics, and lay people ascending contentedly into superior rebirths on one side, while slumping figures descend with their accrued bad karma into lesser rebirths on the other.

A third concentric circle is fragmented into six segments representing the various realms of existence: those of the gods, demi-gods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hell. A fearsome figure known as the Lord of Death dominates the periphery, peering wrathfully at the wheel clasped in his claws -- a reminder that all life is conditioned by death.

Our tour guide, chirpy and well versed in his Buddhist teachings, posed the question of which realm would be most desirable to exist within. A hand immediately shot up. "The god realm, naturally," its owner responded.

When prompted to further explain his answer, the man shrugged and offered in the way of elaboration, "Well... who wouldn't want to be a god?"

A knowing smile darted across the guide's face, suggesting this was a reply he was quite accustomed to hearing. He appealed for alternative thoughts.

After a moment of hesitation, a quieter, more timid voice than the first piped up from the back of our small gaggle, and a finger pointed to a slice of the wheel directly beside the one populated by godly entities previously indicated.

"The human realm?"

The guide's mouth was possessed by a less ephemeral beam now as he nodded vigorously and affirmed the cautiously delivered response.

According to Buddhist philosophy, our spiritual savant explained, the human realm is the only one in which control can be exercised over the endless cycle. Our actions -- both virtuous and wicked -- will determine our fate in the next life. We choose whether we will be met with reward or retribution upon our earthly deaths.

One can view these laws of karmic cause and effect as a blessing or a burden.

Perhaps it would be easier to subscribe to a more fatalistic philosophy than to accept this formidable responsibility over where we next find ourselves on the wheel. All is predetermined; all destinies have already been written. So whatever happens happens. Whatever is meant to happen, will happen. If the tide does not flow in my favor today, some higher power was not willing my success. Maybe tomorrow it will turn. Maybe not.

Contrarily, rather than daunted by the duty to design our destiny, one may feel empowered by it. We exercise free will. We are masters of our own fates.

Perhaps all humans, regardless of their faith or lack thereof, would like a divine intervention every now and then. And perhaps we are granted a handful throughout the course of our existence. But overwhelmingly, whatever one makes of ceaselessly swirling circles or gods and ghosts and sources of grief, we must take the reins of our own lives and actively seek understanding of the weird and wonderful world we inhabit.

Buddha found his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. Where might I find mine?

What a blessed burden it is to be human.