“Which you like most?”

Yang Longming pulls out from his collection a bronze Lohan, a porcelain Kwan Ching, and a miniature Buddha. He sits back with a half-smile and observes me, as if there is an obvious right choice between these three artifacts, and after having spent a week with him traveling through the sites and museums of Shanxi province, I should know that choice.

“So you say this is from the Ming dynasty period?” I ask, reaching out for the miniature Buddha.

“Ming da” replies Yang Longming in painfully sharp syllables.

“What was its original purpose?”

He pronounces a few more syllables to our translator, who replies, “Contemplation, like the small Christian icons that can be taken on journeys and used for worship.”

Yungang-BuddhasThe colossal Buddhas we’d seen in Yungang flash through my mind, identical in shape to the miniature nestled in the palm of my hand, though opposite in size. It had occurred to me that the miniature’s colossal cousins were carved to convey the scale of Enlightenment: it towers above and lasts beyond everything else. But even the devout worshiper who visited every day would still lose sight of this scale and significance in the simple domestic moments that comprised her life. After all, spending an hour a day visiting the Yungang temple meant spending the other 23 hours away from its message.

How to bring the reminder of the colossal Buddha into one’s small home? How to shrink the magnitude of its message into an effort applicable in this very moment? How to encapsulate a giant truth into a pocket-size idea? You couldn’t take the Yungang Buddhas on a journey, but you wouldn’t need to if you could encapsulate their significance in a portable miniature. Ming da dates this piece at around 400 years. Who knows, but that 400 years ago someone commissioned it for this very reason, traveled with it in their pocket from Yungang to Beijing, and pulled it out for occasional contemplation?

“I like most the Ming Dynasty Buddha.”

Yang Longming nods in approval. I have made the right choice.

“Keep,” he says; “Yours.”

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