the many faces of god and man

Bayon Temple, Angkor, Cambodia

When I walk down a city street, find myself in a crowd, an over-filled subway car or visit a foreign land…. my favorite activity is not people watching, but face watching. There’s nothing like looking at the face of a stranger.

I am drawn to the fact that I have never, and most likely never will again… see that face. I am fascinated by the infinite diversity.  I imagine a story, background and trajectory of each face I view.  If there is a G/god, and if S/he creates every human being then the infinite variation of our face is the only proof I need.

Of all the anthropomorphisms in the Hebrew Bible, the least bothersome to me,  is the first… God’s image .  Twenty six verses into the Bible we hear God say: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness;

נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ

Writes Rashi on the next verse:

And God created man in His image: In the form that was made for him, for everything [else] was created with a command, whereas he [man] was created with the hands (of God), as it is written (Ps. 139:5): “and You placed Your hand upon me.” Man was made with a die, like a coin, which is made by means of a die, which is called coin in Old French. And so Scripture states (Job 38:14): “The die changes like clay.” – [from Letters of Rabbi Akiva , second version; Mid. Ps. 139:5; Sanh. 38a]

ויברא א-להים את האדם בצלמו בדפוס העשוי לו, שהכל נברא במאמר והוא נברא בידים, שנאמר (תהלים קלט ה) ותשת עלי כפכה, נעשה בחותם כמטבע העשויה על ידי רושם שקורין קוי”ן בלע”ז [מטבע] וכן הוא אומר (איוב לח יד) תתהפך כחומר חותם

“in the form that was made for him” literally means with a [printing] press that was [specifically ] made for him [each individual wo/man] or a one-off die.  God’s printing press was the first on-demand digital press where every image was unique.

Although it doesn’t specifically say it, the metaphor of the coin-press conjures up the image of the “heads’ side of the coin.  I have always assumed that what makes each wo/man unique was first and foremost their face.

If Jews have an image of nirvana or dharma where a human achieves oneness with the godhead, it is in Moses who sees God “face to face”.

And the LORD spoke unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend. Exodus 33: 11

 וְדִבֶּר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים, כַּאֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר אִישׁ אֶל-רֵעֵהו

The one molten image permitted, nay commanded by Biblical law (Exodus 25: 18) was the two golden cherubimּ facing each other on top of the ark of the covenant…. According to Rashi, the face of the cherubim was the face of an innocent child.

cherubim: Heb. כְּרֻבִים. They had the features of a child. — [from Succah 5]

כרבים דמות פרצוף תינוק להם

That image (דמות) that is referred to relates to the face (פרצוף) of a child.

Similarly, in Ezekiel’s mystical visions of the Chariot of God (see Merkabah mysticism), the first of the four divine “image” that he imagines, is a human face. (Ezekiel 1: 10)

As for the likeness of their faces, they had the face of a man; and they four had the face of a lion on the right side; and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four had also the face of an eagle. Thus were their faces; and their wings were stretched upward; two wings of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies.

וּדְמוּת פְּנֵיהֶם, פְּנֵי אָדָם, וּפְנֵי אַרְיֵה אֶל-הַיָּמִין לְאַרְבַּעְתָּם, וּפְנֵי-שׁוֹר מֵהַשְּׂמֹאול לְאַרְבַּעְתָּן; וּפְנֵי-נֶשֶׁר, לְאַרְבַּעְתָּן

וּפְנֵיהֶם, וְכַנְפֵיהֶם פְּרֻדוֹת מִלְמָעְלָה:  לְאִישׁ, שְׁתַּיִם חֹבְרוֹת אִישׁ, וּשְׁתַּיִם מְכַסּוֹת, אֵת גְּוִיֹּתֵיהֶנָה

It is in the face that both the mystics and doubters can find God.

As seen in Ezekiel, it was not beyond ancient and classical Jewish thinkers to put an animal’s face on a divine or human being.

After all… the Hebrew word for face “panim” is found only in the plural… no being (divine, human or animal) has only one face.

While the Rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud did not count years as the Chinese do, with animals, it was not beyond them to characterize a generation or age with the face of an animal.

Characterizing the evil generation that will precede the coming of the messiah, the Rabbis write:

“The face of the generation will be like the face of the dog, the son will not feel ashamed before his father (alt. will not be embarrassed by his father)…” (Mishnah Sotah, 9: 16, Talmud Sotah 49b)

(בן מנוול אב בת קמה באמה כלה בחמותה אויבי איש אנשי ביתו פני הדור כפני הכלב הבן אינו מתבייש מאביו ועל מי יש לנו להשען על אבינו שבשמים” -מסכת סוטה, פרק ט’, משנה ט”ו.

In latter Jewish tradition, it was a new face (פנים חדשות) that is required in order to have the quorum necessary to bless a newlywed couple.

תנו רבנן: “מברכים ברכת חתנים [“שבע ברכות”] בעשרה כל שבעה. אמר רב, והוא שבאו פנים חדשות“.

I’d like to think that a new face could contain within it both the evil of a generation, but also the possibility of the presence of the divine. Like a visitor at a Sukkah or a guest at a meal of thanks, a new face represents a placeholder for the divine presence.…

It was coming form this context that I was able, nay driven to connect to the many faces of god that I have seen in the Far East.  Nowhere was this more powerful than at the Face towers at Bayon temple at Angkor in Cambodia.

The Bayon Temple, constructed in the late 12th – early 13th centuries  stands at the near-exact center of the Angkor Thom complex. Symbolically, it represents the center of the universe, the point at which the worlds of the divine and living intersect.

The decorations in this temple, as in all the other temples at Angkor have undergone significant alterations over its history. The original decoration was Mahayana Buddhist, consistent with the original builder-king’s; Javayarman VII’s beliefs. Decoration was then altered to meet Vaishnavite Hindu religious requirements. As part of this scheme, all of the temple’s Buddhas were converted into rishis (Hindu ascetics) and Shiva lingas. Decorative elements were given a Buddhist makeover in the 16th century to suit the new requirements of Theravada Buddhism, which prevails in Cambodia today. As you might expect, the Buddhists similarly scratched out the rishis and lingas.

The only images that were not touched… were the most striking…

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Nearly 200 faces — up to 1.8 meters (6 feet) tall — grace the towers rising above the Bayon. While most towers hold four faces, oriented toward the cardinal directions…. [ cf  Ezekiel’s Chariot]

 

The positions of these face towers are shown with red highlights; those that are missing or destroyed are shown with white highlights. Their position emphasizes the cardinal four directions.

temple layout

The faces’ decoration and iconography — virtually identical throughout the temple — are minimal, yet there are some distinctive features

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Open eyes. Unlike many of Jayavarman’s earlier Buddhas who have downward-looking eyes, with lids that cover most of the pupil, the eyes on the Bayon’s faces are wide open and look directly outward.

 

Headband. Interestingly, the ornate floral headband lacks an image of Amitabha, which would have immediately identified the image as being that of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion; this has not stopped the image from being identified as such, however.

Smile. It’s infectious… and cherubic

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According to my guide book (which I have quoted extensively and italicized:  Cambodia Revealed: The Temples of Angkor,David Raezer; Jennifer Raezer (2014-08-11) While there is historical precedent for temple towers with images (even faces) pointed in the cardinal directions, there is something that makes Bayon’s face towers entirely unique. Similar four-faced images in other parts of the Hindu-Buddhist world are enclosed within frames, recreating the concept of an all-knowing god in his mountain home, the temple. This changes profoundly at the Bayon: the absence of a frame around the face has a powerful effect of personalizing the structure by blending sculpture with architecture. At the Bayon, the temple is no longer just the residence of the god, but rather the god itself, a god with 200 faces.

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Perhaps what spared the faces the desecration suffered by other Buddhist icons at the hands of Jayavarman VIII was their enigmatic identity: what might have been viewed as the face of a Buddhist figure under Jayavarman VII (Avalokitesvara or Vairocana) could easily be reassociated with a Hindu figure under Jayavarman VIII (Brahma or Sadashiva).

What has always fascinated me about sculptures and paintings of God and gods is the fact that human models were undoubtedly used.  In the case of the Bayon faces, scholars speculate that the face is perhaps a portrait of the builder-king himself, Jayavarman VII, assuming the form of Avalokitesvara. If this is the correct interpretation, Jayarvarman is positioning himself as the compassionate gateway to the divine.

Man depicts god by depicting man… depicting god…

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The other intriguing aspect of the Bayon is that relief sculptures throughout the temple are exclusively secular in nature with an emphasis on everyday life. There are more scenes depicting everyday life and historical events at the Bayon ; this compares versus a focus on mythological stories, largely from the Hindu epics, at the more famous Angkor Wat.

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Of course, the most engaging element of so many of these faces…. is the smile, and that face of Cambodian (Khmer) culture, and their image of the divine, is irrepressible and survives even unto today.IMG_1735

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Filed under Angkor, art, Bible, Buddhism, Cambodia, Judaism, travel

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