'Happy Birthday, Brother Vincent'

Lama Surya Das pays loving tribute to one of the earth's great souls

I happened to be walking past a table of used books this past summer and, from the discounted remainder pile, picked up a thick book of Van Gogh's letters, then couldn't put it down for days. As I read, I felt that perhaps I was him or his brother in a previous life, or at least one of the birds or peasants in his luminous paintings.

Since this week [March 30th] marks the 151st anniversary of Van Gogh's birth, I'd like us all to pause for a moment and think of him. At any exhibit of his paintings, I find myself standing long and strong before his self-portraits, attracted by the aura of spiritual energy in his dissolving-and-simultaneously revealing, halo-encircled depictions, particularly (given my Buddhist leanings) the one of himself "a simple worshipper of the eternal Buddha," as he once wrote. His grizzled visage, intense stare and shaved pate remind me of myself in an earlier incarnation in this life. Then there's the famous self-portrait with his bandaged ear, which reminds me less of his lonely woes than of the Buddhist saying that while everything is flawed, "the crack is where the light comes through."

Last year I took my Buddhist students to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts' Van Gogh exhibit just to contemplate his self portraits. Many said afterwards that they didn't know art could be so spiritual, so sacred, so provocative of deep self-inquiry and authentic meditative awareness.

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"Even standing with my eyes open in a small group, I felt as if I was meditating, transported almost, without trying to close out surrounding distractions," one thirty-year-old, a divinity school graduate, exclaimed.

"Viewing the self portraits felt like a combination of staring into a mirror and meditating on who and what I am," another said. "I felt like crying, laughing, praying, bowing, and wondering aloud what is the meaning of it all, all at the same time."

Why does Van Gogh speak so strongly and affect so many people from all different walks of life?

For me the answer is not only in his artwork but his voluminous correspondence, most notably with his dear brother, Theo. Through both we can track Van Gogh's longing for a better life and a better world. His continual inquiries into the nature of God and man and himself reflect a sensitive soul searching for spiritual identity - a search we all share.

"I feel that my work lies in the heart of the people, that I must keep close to the ground, that I must grasp life in its depths and make progress through many cares and troubles. I can't think of any other way. I do not ask to be free from trouble or care; I only hope the latter will not become unbearable."

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