is Buddha? A dried shit stick". Such a statement
about Mohammed or Jesus would provoke outrage amongst
Muslims or Christians but to the pious Buddhist
who asked the question in T'ang dynasty China, Master
Ummon's reply was a precious teaching. It was so
valued that it has been passed down from more than
1,000 years and is now case 21 in the Gateless Gate,
one of the main collections of Zen koans.
a Zen student I had to do a double take on the current
controversy over the publication of cartoons depicting
Mohammed. In Zen, blasphemy and irreverence is actually
hard wired into the scriptural canon. For Zennists
the real blasphemy is holding fast to our own ideas
of the absolute.
is the oldest of the world religions and Zen has
learnt to employ blasphemy in a radical and creative
statement has no complex symbolic meaning and is
intended mainly to shock. In medieval China a stick
was used as we now use toilet roll and Ummon was
telling his questioner in the plainest possible
terms that he could wipe his ass with Buddha, or
at least his ideas of Buddha.
the sacred is a standard tactic in the Zen teacher's
armory. It is used to shock the pious into re-examining
their fundamental assumptions so as not to commit
the real sacrilege of defending their own opinions
as absolute truth.
the 5th century Bodhidharma, China's first Zen Patriarch,
was asked by Emperor Wu, what the Holy Truths or
Buddhism were and replied "nothing is Holy,
there is only emptiness". He told Wu, a devout
warlord and lavish patron of Buddhist institutions
across his realm, that his work was without merit.
At first Wu reacted with anger. Bodhidharma fled
in fear of his life but Wu later came to value the
encounter as an "Emperor has no clothes"
moment which had stripped away his delusions.
twentieth century, Soto Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki
taught "There is no Buddha so we bow to Buddha.
If you bow to Buddha because there is Buddha, that
is not a true understanding." He advised that
important issues and problems should always be addressed
with a "beginners mind" because "in
the beginner's mind there are many possibilities,
in the expert's mind there is only one."
not just that, as George Bernard Shaw wrote, "all
great truths begin as blasphemies", Zen goes
further in urging us to move outside the box. It
makes systematic use of the paradoxical and the
shocking to undermine established orthodoxies and
habitual ways of looking at the world. In another
koan our experiences and most cherished beliefs
are compared to a 100 foot pole which we must step
off in order to realise the truth. In another, two
travelers are caught in a blizzard and find an abandoned
pagoda with a statue of Buddha in it. One says "perhaps
the Buddha will help us", the other nods and
sets fire to the statue.
reader who has struggled thus far will realise that
compared to most religious or political systems
Zen is decidedly dogma lite.
there are points of contact with Islamic and Christian,
even Marxist, thought. As in Marx, the world confronts
us as our own alienated product which we can reclaim.
Mohammed, the historical Buddha, who lived 2,500
years ago in northern India and southern Nepal,
asked his followers to make no images of him after
his death. For a hundred years or more he was represented
by an image such as a footstep in the sand, much
as Allah is represented in a mosque by a disc containing
Arabic calligraphy. In both systems the absolute
goes beyond any representation we may amke of it.
when Alexander the Great's followers established
themselves in what is now Afghanistan the Hellenistic
rulers commissioned carvings depicting Buddha as
a meditator seated in the full lotus posture, sometimes
guarded by Hercules. The image caught on.
a back to basics movement within Buddhism, did not
forbid the Buddha statues but it supplemented them
with the Enso. The Enso, a broken circle drawn in
sumi ink with a single brush stroke, symbolized
the unity of all existence but also signified that
our ideas of it were necessarily flawed.
Enso is a broken circle symbolizing the recognition
that our ideas of the absolute are inevitably incomplete.
attacks fixed conceptions of the absolute or Buddha
nature with the utmost vigor. Those who interrogate
our understanding and even those who insult us are
often regarded as allies.
historical Buddha compared his teaching to a raft
which could be abandoned when they had served its
contemporary Zen Master Paul Haller Roshi, who comes
originally from Cullingtree Road in Belfast, has
advised his students "look at the world around
you and the people in it. It is your movie and you
are directing it. Watch carefully and you will lean
a lot about yourself."
tend to do the opposite. The problem is that a 100
foot pole is a very unstable place to be and we
cannot remain there indefinitely.
lesson for non Muslims in the furore over the cartoons
is to look at the hurt being expressed in the Muslim
world. We don't have to agree with it, we certainly
should not buckle down to censorship, but we should
accept the protests as expressions of a deeper concern
which needs to be addressed. It is clear that large
numbers of Muslims world wide feel marginalized,
disrespected and disempowered.
may find it useful to perform a similar process
when they look at the cartoons and listen to those
who defend their publication so that they can hear
what is really being said. They may find it useful
to begin by respecting the concerns, sincerity and
the values of western critics without going so far
as to share them.
Blanket is to be congratulated for giving both sides
of the debate a chance to see the movies they are
making out of the world and a platform to exchange
critical views on their content. Muslims deserve
better than to be either patronized or caricatured.
we don't need at this point is sloganising by the
ultra left or attempts to ride the tiger of Muslim
anger by western secularists. The issues are too
important and too large to be exploited in this
someone call that sort of behaviour an infantile
disorder? I don't think he was a Zen master.