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The Thousand Golden Buddhas of Staten Island
Best School Trip Ever
When I was in grade school back in the 70s, in New York City, we went on a lot of field trips to some pretty cool places: the Metropolitan Museum (for the hieroglyphics and mummies), the Planetarium (constellations projected onto the ceiling, neck at strange angle for hours), and the Bronx Zoo (tigers, lions and eating squashed sandwiches outside in 90 degree heat). But the best trip? No question. As soon as we were told: "We're going to a Buddhist monastery on Staten Island!" - well, that was going to be the Best Trip Ever.
We were pretty tired when we got to the old house because the bus driver got lost and drove all over the island for a long time. And we'd been on the Staten Island ferry from new York before that. And a bus trip from school. So we were all really tired. And to me, the place looked like an old stone house on a hill. Not a monastery.
It was dim inside, and looked a bit uncared for. There wren't any other visitors, and the caretaker was a tiny old lady with long white hair, who looked like my great aunt. Though, unlike my great aunt, who was a scientist, the caretaker was volatile and passionate and a little bit scary.
She took us into a dark room that glowed with hundreds of golden Buddhas. And that was more like it for me. This was what a monastery should be! The old lady tried and tried to tell us about Buddhism, and the Ineffable. But we were nine years old and really tired from going around in circles on the bus (the bus driver had got lost for an hour and a crossing guard kept waving to us as we sailed past, three times at least) and - we just didn't get Buddhism. or the Ineffable. At all. So she tried shouting at us: "You cannot SEE it! You cannot TOUCH it!" We all got a little bit scared then. I think our teacher was a little scared too, because we hurried outside pretty soon after that.
Time to go out and eat in the gardens! Yes, what a great idea. Only...they were kind of overgrown. I think there were nettles and things. Our teacher thought we'd better just get back on the bus and the ferry after that. We had our peanut butter sandwiches on the road, while our poor driver tried and tried to find the ferry docks again.
On the Columbia University Tibetan History wiki (link 2, below) there's a photo of Ms. Marchais in front of "the three-tiered altar" - that's the room I remember. But it was absolutely full of Buddhas. And it was dark, too. I can close my eyes and be back there right now.
The dark strange room, and the statues glowing golden in the half light, and the little old lady who was so impassioned (not Jacques Marchais, by the way - she died in 1948) have stayed with me. They moved me even then, in a way I didn't totally realize (because I was also scared and exhausted - and when are we getting back on the bus anyway?).
I know that someday I will use it in my writing: that moment, and that place. And I'm so glad I was able to go to the Marchais Museum in that lull when it was in a sort of suspended twilight, half asleep, a little overgrown and neglected and with an extra layer of mystery cast over it like a veil. And in retrospect, I think maybe we did understand what the old lady was trying to tell us - just a little, without really knowing it. Like I said, best field trip. Ever.
The Marchais Museum
The Marchais Museum is located on Lighthouse Hill in the town of Egbertville, on Staten Island. It was opened in 1947 by collector Jacques Marchais, a lady who was fascinated with Tibet though she had never been there. In the 1970s, though, it was open "sporadically" (according to the Columbia University Tibetan history wiki (link 2 below) - and wasn't really revamped until the 1980s. And in 1991, the Dalai Lama visited the Marchais Museum and was delighted by its authenticity. We were pretty lucky to go there, really.
- The Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art
The Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art, located in Staten Island, NY and built to resemble a Himalayan monastery collects, preserves, and exhibits Buddhist art, such as statues of lamas, arhats, buddhas, deities and Thangka paintings from Tibet,