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Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

Book 4. More Meditations

Chapter 13. About Buddhist idolatry

I am comforted in my conviction that Buddhism is not originally and intrinsically idolatrous[1] after reading some of Mu Soeng’s historical comments[2], like the following.

For the Sthaviras, the Buddha Shakyamuni was a historical personage—a great teacher but not a divinity. The Mahayanists, however, saw the Buddha as a transcendental principle rather than a mere individual in the phenomenal world. (P. 19.)

This confirms that the deification of this flesh and blood teacher is a late event in Buddhist history – occurring a few hundred years after the fact. It should be pointed out and emphasized that such deification was logically in contradiction to the essential message of Siddhartha Gautama (the founder of Buddhism).

Why? Because the message of this teacher was that he, a mere human being, was able to transcend samsara (the domain of karma) and attain nirvana (the domain of freedom). If it turns out that this apparent man was in fact not a man at all, but a “god” intending or predestined to save mankind, then the practical demonstration of the possibility for humans of liberation from the wheel of birth and death would not have been made!

If, as later Buddhists depicted him, he was a god, then his essential existential condition was not comparable to that of a man, and it could well be argued that his achievement could not be replicated by other men. The whole point of his story is that an ordinary human being can by his own intelligence and effort, even without the supervision of an accomplished teacher[3], develop understanding and overcome all suffering forever. To change that story is to miss the point.

Some, of course, would argue that, though he was not a god incarnate at birth, he became “divine” upon attaining buddhahood, and more so at the end of his life (when he entered parinirvana). This scenario was also, however, a later interpretation of events, motivated by devotionalism.

…the rise of devotionalism in Mahayana. …around the time of the beginning of the common era, in north-western India, under Greek and Mediterranean influences, Buddha statues were sculpted for the first time. In early Buddhism, as in the contemporaneous Upanishad literature, we find that the idea of a personality cult was frowned upon. In ancient India the veneration of a holy person took the form of worshipping a memorial shrine (stupa) rather than a physical image. (P. 91.)

Originally, Buddhism was not a religion of devotion, but of morality and meditation. It did not consist in worship of the Buddha (as a god or later still as God), or of a multitude of Buddhas, but in following his example (as a successful spiritual explorer and teacher). Moreover, the adoration of statues (as a specific form of devotion) representing the Buddha and other figures in the Buddhist pantheon was, it seems, a possibly separate and still later phenomenon.

It may be, as the above quotation suggests, that idolatry was not a religious behavior pattern indigenous to India, but one imported from the West. One might have assumed idolatry to have been an older cultural habit in India (in view of its ubiquity there today), but historians have apparently[4] not found evidence in support of such a hypothesis. However, it remains true that in regions of Asia farther north and east, Hindu or other forms of idolatry may have preceded the arrival of Buddhism, and that Buddhism merely accommodated them.

In this regard, we must probably distinguish the geographical movements of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism, being itself relatively more idolatrous from its inception, would merge more readily with preexisting local idolatries; whereas, Theravada Buddhism, although relatively less idolatrous originally, would rather begin by tolerating the local customs it encountered, by considering them as among the human foibles that it had to deal with to gradually effect liberation.

Here, we can quote Stephen Batchelor[5] with regard to Tibet in the ninth century, to illustrate the movement and adaptation of Buddhism:

Padmasambhava’s presentation of Buddhism through the medium of tantric deities and forces struck a very sympathetic and receptive chord within the minds of the Tibetans. The subsequent widespread popularity of tantric practice can probably be attributed to the innate spiritual disposition of the Tibetans to respond more readily to religious truths that are embodied and personified. In this way the teachings of Buddhism came alive for the Tibetans and ceased to be mere abstract ideas and doctrines. (P. 48.)

Each people or culture, at a given time in history, has its particular spiritual predispositions. These will somewhat determine what they will accept in the way of imports, and how they will interpret it, and what they will disregard or reject. This too can be illustrated with reference to Tibet. Thus, Batchelor writes:

The Tibetans seem to have been entirely unaffected by the teachings of … the two great doctrinal traditions which flourished across the border in China. Neither were they aware of the commentarial tradition … prevalent in the Theravada schools of Sri Lanka and South-East Asia. Yet the most remarkable instance of the Tibetans’ resistance to other forms of Buddhism is found in their reaction to the attempted introduction of the Ch’an (Zen) school from China during the eighth century. (P. 64.)

The above criticism of Mahayana has perhaps an exception in the case of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism. Although the modern Zen meditation centers I have seen all had statues of the Buddha on display, the philosophy of Zen is essentially non-devotional or even anti-devotional. This can be textually confirmed, for instance by the following extract from the Bloodstream Sermon traditionally attributed to Bodhidharma[6]:

But deluded people don’t realize that their own mind is the buddha. They keep searching outside. They never stop invoking buddhas or worshipping buddhas… Don’t indulge in such illusions… Even if a buddha or bodhisattva should suddenly appear before you, there’s no need for reverence. This mind of ours is empty and contains no such form… Why worship illusions born of the mind? Those who worship don’t know, and those who know don’t worship. (Pp. 25, 27.)

This passage clearly reasons that attachment to religious visions, and all the more therefore to representations, is antithetical to the core Buddhist belief. In the Breakthrough Sermon, replying to the question as to whether “casting statues” and other such external practices apparently taught in some sutras are of any use to achieving enlightenment, the Zen master answers that these are mere “metaphors”; he explains:

The Tathagata’s sublime form can’t be represented by metal. Those who seek enlightenment regard their bodies as the furnace, the Dharma as the fire, wisdom as the craftsmanship, and the three sets of precepts and six paramitas as the mold. They smelt and refine the true buddha-nature within themselves and pour it into the mold formed by the rules of discipline. Acting in perfect accordance with the Buddha’s teaching, they naturally create a perfect likeness. (Pp. 95-96.)

Note well the phrase “within themselves”. Repeatedly, he insists on the redundancy and uselessness of any such external works and deeds; the essence of the Way is working on oneself, from the inside.

Even today, some Buddhists, at least some Zen teachers, seem to eschew idol worship. Note for instance Shunryu Suzuki’s statement:

In our practice we have no… special object of worship. … Joshu, a great Chinese Zen master, said, “A clay Buddha cannot cross water; a bronze Buddha cannot get through a furnace; a wooden Buddha cannot get through fire.” (P. 75.)

[1] Note that my use of this epithet is not intended to disparage Buddhism as a whole or Buddhists in general. My concern over “idolatry” is of course an expression of my Jewish roots and values (starting with the first two of the Ten Commandments). I admit frankly that I find such behavior patterns silly and extraneous. Nevertheless, I also have great respect and admiration for the more essential Buddhist beliefs and practices. When I read the stories or writings of past Buddhist teachers, I am readily convinced they are great souls, deeply moral and profound in their spiritual achievements. Moreover, my opposition to idolatry does not prevent me from appreciating the artistic value of Buddhist statuary and temples, some of which (notably, Angkor) I have visited. Perhaps, then, we should say that Buddhism (like Christianity) merits respect in spite of the forms of idolatry (deification of people and worship directed at statues) that have become attached to it. Certainly, Jews at least should always remain vigilant and be careful not to get drawn into anything suggestive of idolatry.

[2] Op. cit.

[3] See the Dhammapada, v. 353: “I myself found the way. Whom shall I call Teacher?” The author (i.e. the Buddha, presumably) adds: “Whom shall I teach” – suggesting this attainment is not something that can simply be taught, like mathematics or English.

[4] According to Mu Soeng’s account. Note that in my Buddhist Illogic, chapter 10, I assumed that the worship of statues in India antedated the advent of Buddhism. In any case, idolatry is a wide concept not limited to the worship of statues. It includes all forms of polytheistic worship, and even the idea of an incarnation of a unique God. In this sense, at least, the religious culture of India (viz. Vedism) that preceded Buddhism was certainly idolatrous.

[5] In his Introduction.

[6] The reputed Indian founder of specifically Ch’an Buddhism in China (c. 490-528 CE). Some modern scholars attribute this sermon to later monks, perhaps “of the Oxhead Zen School, which flourished in the seventh and eighths centuries”, according to Red Pine, the translator, though he accepts the traditional attribution (see his Introduction).

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