The Faces at Braga
In monastery darkness
by the light of one flashlight,
the old shrine room waits in silence.
While beside the door
we see the terrible figure,
fierce eyes demanding, “Will you step through?”
And the old monk leads us,
bent back nudging blackness
prayer beads in the hand that beckons.
We light the butter lamps
and bow, eyes blinking in the
pungent smoke, look up without a word,
see faces in meditation,
a hundred faces carved above,
eye lines wrinkled in the handheld light.
Such love in solid wood—
taken from the hillsides and carved in silence,
they have the vibrant stillness of those who made them.
Engulfed by the past
they have been neglected, but through
smoke and darkness they are like the flowers
we have seen growing
through the dust of eroded slopes,
their slowly opening faces turned toward the mountain.
Carved in devotion
their eyes have softened through age
and their mouths curve through delight of the carver’s hand.
If only our own faces
would allow the invisible carver’s hand
to bring the deep grain of love to the surface.
If only we knew
as the carver knew, how the flaws
in the wood led his searching chisel to the very core,
we would smile too
and not need faces immobilized
by fear and the weight of things undone.
When we fight with our failing
we ignore the entrance to the shrine itself
and wrestle with the guardian, fierce figure on the side of good.
And as we fight
our eyes are hooded with grief
and our mouths are dry with pain.
If only we could give ourselves
to the blows of the carver’s hands,
the lines in our faces would be the trace lines of rivers
feeding the sea
where voices meet, praising the features
of the mountain and the cloud and the sky.
Our faces would fall away
until we, growing younger toward death
everyday, would gather all our flaws in celebration
to merge with them perfectly,
impossibly, wedded to our essence,
full of silence from the carver’s hands.
David Whyte, currently living in the US (he is of English and Irish background), is a poet and writer-philosopher engaging the various issues his diverse life experiences have opened up to him. (A concise biography can be accessed at davidwhyte dot com.)
“The Faces at Braga” originally appeared in the poet’s collection, Where Many Rivers Meet. I have encountered it in his recent (2009) book, The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship, where it appears as the Poetic Conclusion: Or What Really Happened in the Mountain Temple in the chapter titled, “Alone in the Struggle: Turning to Face the World”.
Initially I identified “Braga” as a city (also district) in northern Portugal which is home to many churches and monasteries. In the above-named source, however, the author has encountered this tableau in a Buddhist temple in the Himalayas.
UPDATE 30 September 2015: A reader who has been in contact with David Whyte has very kindly sent an elucidation. Please refer to Allen’s comment (text below), in which he provides a link to the images.
Braga is a town/monastery on the Annapurna loop. Just saw David last week and he told this story, of hiking the loop and stopping in at this particular Gompa; finding an old monk with the key, and persuading him to unlock this room full of carved faces.