A Monk and His Unicorn

My husband and I were at our favorite thrift store on Monday, the day before my little Shedventure was to begin, when I spotted a familiar fellow customer, a Buddhist monk attired in his full monastic regalia. I’m pretty sure he is Tibetan.

He wears a maroon skirt with a gold Ngulen shirt, and his head is shaved.

I’ve seen him there three times, maybe. Forgive me; I always glance out of the corner of my eye to see what interests him. It’s not like I follow him around the store. I just happen to find myself in the same general area sometimes.

He usually starts in the book section, then proceeds to the trinket shelves.

Last time he looked at a shiny gold pig, probably an item commemorating the Chinese Year of the Pig, but he didn’t buy it. This time I saw him investigating a small box, which contained a Hawaiian Christmas ornament. Again, no sale.

I must admit, I found it endearing, even comforting, to see a renunciate shopping for non-essentials. Aha! Even a monk likes to come here, I caught myself thinking. He’s just like me.

Later, I asked my husband if he’d noticed the gentleman. “Sure,” he said. “I’ve spoken with him.” It’s just like S to think nothing of such a juicy bit of information.

“Really?” I replied, “What did he say to you?”

“He approached me holding a small figurine of a unicorn and asked if I’d ever seen an animal like it before.”

Silence.

Oh my God, he’s not like me. I was chastened by the monk’s innocence.

My husband continued, “I didn’t want to embarrass him, so I just said, ‘I think it is a fantasy animal.’”

At home, I spent nearly an hour looking at images of unicorns on the internet, God only knows why. Then I found this image:

It took my breath away.

You may recognize it as part of a series known as, The Lady and the Unicorn (La Dame a la licorne), woven from wool and silk during the late fifteenth century in France. The suite is thought to be among the greatest works of art of the Middle Ages in Europe. It is displayed in the Musee du Moyan Age in Paris.

Five of the tapestries are said to represent the five physical senses –taste, touch, hearing, sight and smell. Click on the images to see them enlarged if you like. The  following five descriptions are provided by Wikipedia:

Taste

The lady is taking sweets from a dish held by a maidservant. Her eyes are on a parakeet on her upheld left hand. The lion and the unicorn are both standing on their hind legs reaching up to pennants that frame the lady on either side. The monkey is at her feet, eating one of the sweetmeats.

Hearing

The lady plays a portative organ on top of a table covered with a Turkish rug. Her maidservant stands to the opposite side and operates the bellows. The lion and unicorn once again frame the scene holding up the pennants. Just as on all the other tapestries, the unicorn is to the lady’s left and the lion to her right – a common denominator to all the tapestries.

Sight

The lady is seated, holding a mirror up in her right hand. The unicorn kneels on the ground, with his front legs in the lady’s lap, from which he gazes at his reflection in the mirror. The lion on the left holds up a pennant.

Smell

The lady stands, making a wreath of flowers. Her maidservant holds a basket of flowers within her easy reach. Again, the lion and unicorn frame the lady while holding on to the pennants. The monkey has stolen a flower which he is smelling, providing the key to the allegory.

Touch

The lady stands with one hand touching the unicorn’s horn and the other holding up the pennant. The lion sits to the side and looks on, while the monkey appears to be constrained by a collar and touches its leash.

This is a detail of the sixth one, pictured above, which displays the words, “A Mon Seul Desir” (“To My One Desire” ). One interpretation sees the lady putting the necklace into the chest as a renunciation of the passions aroused by the other senses, and as an assertion of her free will. Another sees the tapestry as representing a sixth sense of understanding. The lady is attended by a maidservant to whom she surrenders her necklace. Or is she putting it on?

When all is said and done, when my senses have exhausted themselves in old age and finally disappear with this body, what will be left? A few trinkets, perhaps, and my heart’s only true longing.

What is your seul desir?

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