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Deity, Demon, and Teacher :: Thoughts on an Intervention with Michael Zheng

If you’ve visited BAM/PFA’s Deities, Demons, and Teachers exhibition recently and have noticed someone mediating next to the bronze Prajnaparamita statue, that’s Michael Zheng. The conceptual and performance artist, who is “influenced by his interest in Ch’an Buddhism’s notion of intrinsic nature of all things,” is staging a series of all-day meditations in the galleries each Wednesday through the conclusion of the exhibition on September 14, 2014. Zheng’s purpose is “to play with the notion that everybody has Buddha nature and one finds his Buddha within instead of without. Inserting a live person into a curated exhibition of Buddhist artworks creates an intellectual conundrum as to what actually points to Buddhistness, and, in turn, to the nature of spiritual practice in general. If it is successful,” Zheng continues, “I could be a deity, a demon, and potentially a teacher all at the same time.”

Zheng recently recounted his very first performance experience meditating in the BAM/PFA galleries:


Ten minutes into it, a group of kids came by. One of them was so curious that he reached out to touch me, only to realize that something wasn’t quite what he expected and he abruptly withdrew his hand. A second kid asked the adult, ‘Is that a statue?’ So it started out very warm and light for me and I enjoyed that a lot.

Later I heard from some of the people who were there that the presence of a live person meditating in such stillness in the midst of statues had a certain raw and weird and awkward quality to it. And the prolonged presence in one posture felt ‘powerful’ and ‘beautiful’.

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The rest is mostly my own inner experience. I went into the performance with only one thing in mind: that I would remain completely open and ready to receive anything that might come along.

I spent the first two hours fidgeting, in response to the discomfort in my body. It was a constant battle which eventually made me feel that it was a trick that my mind played on ‘me.’ I was led to believe that the discomforts that I felt were my mind’s cry for attention, to fulfill its function to be in control of my action, perhaps through my body. I used all the techniques that I had learned, counting breaths, etc., to calm my mind. They each did their job but didn’t last long. I started to try to satisfy its small demands, such as switching my palms (just one palm resting on the other became uncomfortable after a while.) And it had an immediate effect on calming my mind. But it didn’t last long before the body cried for change again. I decided to resist the strongest demands from my body to switch my legs (I was in half-lotus pose.) After about two hours, I lost the battle and switched them. And here’s when the first surprise came. Very soon, I felt fatigued and drifted into a half-conscious mode. Soon I heard footsteps and the clicking sound of the shutters from cameras. It brought me to full consciousness and—I felt no pain any longer!!! It felt as if my body had disappeared, hence the pain in the body. There was also a sense that my body was floating in the air, not supported by the actual body parts. It was incredible and incredibly easy for me from then on to hold an upright posture for such a long time, with only normal breathing. By that time, I started to have a sense that the people who were taking pictures included one of my assistants, since the clicking lasted a long time (I had my eyes almost closed all the time). And then came the second surprise: I started to feel emotions, the most fleetingly short and exquisite emotions. Then I felt a person sitting down in front of me, and I felt an incredible connection from my heart directly to her heart, so strong that it brought tears to my eyes and the tears streamed down my cheeks and I couldn’t stop them. Then I saw a bright light, from the side of the white wall under a skylight, lit from the sun (I knew beforehand and after the performance that there was no skylight in my view from that gallery.) It was so brilliant that I felt a sense of elation. I felt a connection with the universe with no reservation. And I heaved my chest, raised my spine, and opened my heart to the world with such benevolence, tears continued to stream down my face. Such pure emotions and feelings: no thoughts, all within myself, triggered by who knows what. Truly remarkable and took me completely by surprise.

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This lasted what felt like a good two hours. Then the surroundings became quiet and I realized people must have left. I started to feel my body again, and the pain again, this time even more agitating because I was mentally fatigued and no longer had what it took to come up with ways to battle the demands of the mind. I started to think about what time it was. I started to fidget. I was tempted to ask the guard what time it was and thankfully I succeeded in resisting it. I became acutely aware of the fact that the crux of the battle was with what the mind demands, through the bodily discomfort and the sense of excruciating need for stimulation and for being in control. I was hugely intrigued by that almost mystical feeling during those middle two hours when somehow the mind was quieted, and the sense of incredible connectedness that ensued. I left with a sense of trepidation about the power of the demand from the mind and a curiosity of what might happen next week when I subject myself to the challenge again.”

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