The Temple of the Attainment of Happiness

In August 2015 I was attending a conference at the University of Pennsylvania. Whenever I travel for professional meetings, I always look for something “for the soul.” My default plan for Philadelphia was visiting the Barnes collection. I’d seen it in its old location and it was breathtaking, so I wanted to check out their new home downtown. In the lobby of the hotel where I was staying there was a large print advertisement of an exhibition currently held in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Discovering the Impressionists”. I looked it up and it was a unique project in collaboration with Musee d’Orsay that was centered around history of the exhibitions organized by Paul Durand-Ruel, an art dealer who helped the world discover Impressionism.

On the last day of the conference I took a taxi to the museum. I ordered my ticket online. Despite the fact that the exhibition has been open for two months, it was still in high demand. At first I wasn’t sure as to why each room had a mixture of works by Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Manet and Degas. But reading the explanations on the walls (confession: I rarely listen to the audio guides), it became clear that the organizers picked the paintings for each room that were originally presented together in 1873, 1875, 1883 and other crucial milestone exhibitions in Paris and New York. All of the famous paintings traveled the world since and found themselves for decades in different museums. Many of the paintings had been “separated” and were reunited only here, in Philadelphia.

I was glued to one wall in particular. The large, well-lit room had three long vertical Renoir paintings on the left side. All three depicted dancing couples: “Dance at Bougival”, “Dance in the City”, and “Dance in the Country”. The first painting is on the permanent collection in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the other two in Musee D’Orsay. I’ve seen all three paintings before, originals and in albums, but I just couldn’t move on. Renoir’s paintings are full of life and color, he’s my favorite artist. I’m also very fond of ballroom dancing. Coupled together, it created an experience of pure joy.

I cruised the entire exhibition twice, marveling on how lucky I was to have come to the city in the right time and how fortunate it was that my hotel had the advertisement. I had lunch and still had some time left before my bus back to State College. I had been in this museum before but thought that I might as well visit other rooms since the weather outside was exceptionally hot and humid that week. I picked up a museum map. My eye caught a title “Dancing Ganesha”. I thought that I rarely see Asian art and may give it a try. I went up to the second floor and tried to follow the map. Going from room to room, I found myself in a larger room that had what looked like a life size Buddhist Temple, a small building with the yard. The title read “Temple of the Attainment of Happiness”. I thought that it was a fantastically universal endeavor and hardly anyone could be opposed to that purpose. I sat on a bench trying to figure out the logic of the process by which my love of Impressionists brought me to the Buddhist Temple.

And then it all became very clear. My dear colleague and friend Suet-ling Pong had passed away just three months prior to the conference. In the professional meeting I was attending there were many friends and colleagues who knew her for years; one session in particular was organized in her memory. I’d been thinking of her a lot, and even more so during the last three days. I took her class during my doctoral studies; she became an outside member of my doctoral committee. While completing my doctorate in sociology and applying for jobs all over the US, I landed in a different college at Penn State, in the same program where Suet-ling was a professor. She was incredibly helpful at each point of my professional journey, always supportive and encouraging. She hosted a party in her house to celebrate my tenure and promotion to associate professor. This tiny woman had more will power than most people I know. She was almost addicted to helping others, always looking for ways she could do more for graduate students or junior colleagues. She was diagnosed with cancer at 43 and was given five years to live. Instead, she lived for 17 long and productive years; she raised her daughter, she mentored graduate students, she taught and wrote and traveled. She lived. And she was a Buddhist. And here I was, in a yard of a Buddhist Temple of the Attainment of Happiness and I can assure you, she was there with me. Smiling, as always. I smiled back and thanked her for everything she’s done for me.

I got up. I walked to a museum attendant asking about “Dancing Ganesha” on my map. “Didn’t you see the sign?” a woman asked. “That part of the exhibition is closed for renovations. It will reopen in spring 2016.” It figures.

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