In midst of urban chaos, a Buddha sits

October 15, 1994|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

The brick Buddha of Baltimore sits still and serene in the face of mortals in transit.

Every day, some 100,000 people pour into the city on the Jones Falls Expressway and 5,000 more come by light rail. More than a few, surely, have glimpsed the tan Buddha behind the former Cannon Shoe factory on Mount Royal Avenue since May.

But until two months ago, only one -- a young Vietnamese woman named Amy "Cuc" Huynh -- took time to pay respects. Since her maiden pilgrimage, dozens have arrived each Sunday to picnic and pray at the feet of a project left behind by a Maryland Institute, College of Art graduate.

"I saw the ear of the Buddha one day, but nobody believed me," recalled Ms. Huynh, 25, who began using the JFX to commute from her Randallstown home to her Highlandtown dry-cleaning business. "Something told me it was over there, nobody believed me. Then I dreamed Buddha was there -- nobody believe."

To prove it, Ms. Huynh pulled off the expressway one afternoon )) in a hard summer rain and drove in circles for a path to the Buddha. She parked and began tramping up and down Mount Royal Avenue for a way to get behind the buildings that back up to the JFX. Soaked with rain, she prayed: "Let me see it, and I will take care of it."

In the space between the AAA Maryland offices and the Maryland Institute's Fox Building -- the former shoe factory -- a set of steps appeared.

Lot was filthy

Ms. Huynh walked down the steps and around the corner to a trash-strewn, poison ivy-infested lot used by students for temporary installations of large sculptures. Bounded by the light rail tracks, the hideaway was frequented by dog walkers, beer drinkers and graffiti vandals.

L The only thing Amy Huynh saw was her Buddha, sitting pretty.

"I called my Mom and said: 'I found the Buddha! I found the Buddha!' She said: 'Take it home! Take it home!' I said: 'Too big.' "

If Buddha won't come to Randallstown . . .

That weekend, a caravan of Ms. Huynh's friends gathered for a little yard work. Like Ms. Huynh, most were ethnic Chinese from Vietnam and believers in the Buddhist teaching that life is permeated with suffering driven by desire, suffering that ceases ZTC when desire ceases.

They picked up trash, weeded, poured concrete, laid tile, spread gravel, planted shrubs and were about to build a $900 roof until the school discouraged them. One elderly woman donned gloves to yank out poison ivy by the roots. Gifts were left: fresh flowers, coins, food.

An odd lot became a holy place.

About 40 worshipers visited Sunday, dressing the altar for a feast -- bowls of apples, oranges and pears, big pots of vegetable curry, sweet rice and peanuts, fried noodles with carrots, and coconut cake.

A tape player launched sacred chants against the expressway's din, and people waited their turn to bow before the Buddha with clasped hands. They knelt to offer incense, showed toddlers how to pray, and graced the statue with beads on string and beads on sticks -- fat black ones that look like skewered Greek olives. Oriental fortune tiles were dropped for hints of the future.

As commuters on a light rail marked "Glen Burnie," pointed through the windows, Amy Huynh explained why she alone comes every day to thank the Buddha.

"Not easy to see Buddha from highway," said Ms. Huynh, who fasts from meat in the presence of the Buddha and says her business has improved since finding it. "Everybody say I'm lucky, but I pray for him to take care of everybody."

Said her mother Hao Quach: "All Buddhas are the same, but this one is special because Amy is his messenger. God gave Amy the fate to see the Buddha."

As it was Noriko Ikaga's fate to build it.

A 1994 graduate of the Maryland Institute's ceramics department, Ms. Ikaga returned to Japan in September and could not be reached. But department chair Ron Lang remembers her deep spirituality as a rarity in his 16-year tenure.

Mr. Lang challenges his students to answer: "What do you believe? What do you want to say?" He reasons that if young people become passionate for a project, they will find ways to hurdle technical problems.

'Beautiful hearts'

Ms. Ikaga confessed that she'd never been asked to express herself. Her first attempt produced hands in prayer.

"She mass-produced the hands and set them all over the floor with cut-out shadows of different colors," said Mr. Lang. "And then she started making beautiful hearts, idealized hearts, broken hearts and hearts under attack by tools. She'd show a delicate, lattice-work heart under attack by a saw. When I questioned her, she told a story about the devil and how he tries to trick his way into our hearts."

Unquestionably, this was not the work of the typical undergraduate.

"Very early on, Noriko expressed a deep spirituality," said Mr. Lang. "Spirituality on top of creativity made her work refreshing. And she stuck to that."

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