Santa Fe is full of Buddhists, but no one has erupted with religious rage since this image (a sculpture by David Kimble Anderson) was placed on display in the atrium of a building that housed an art gallery and other business enterprises. As anyone with the least facility in reading symbols will immediately have grasped, there are innumerable ways of interpreting this work of art. Since many possible interpretations are decidedly negative, I found my recalling the violent reactions to the now infamous Danish cartoons, which were condemned by many believers as an affront to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. The result? Riots in several countries. Some people unfortunately died.
Multiple InterpretationsLet’s consider some ways in which the Anderson piece might be understood. The gold surface could be an indictment of materialism on the part of traditional Buddhist temple builders or on the part of current practitioners whose lives verge, hypocritically perhaps, on the sumptuous. Of course, many traditional images of the Buddha are also flamboyantly gilt, to symbolize the transcendent value of the teachings and to honor the one who enunciated them.
In this case, however, the figure appears to be bandaged. It is, evidently, blind and essentially quadriplegic. Unable to see. Unable to act. Impotent. Useless. Is this a statement about the futility and irrelevance of Buddhism? On the other hand, meditative insights are available to those who sit without moving, looking inward. Sometimes these insights have effects that are far more powerful than actions that are not guided by wisdom.
Which, one wonders, did the sculptor have in mind?
I simply don’t know. When I first saw this image, I was and still am totally ignorant of the sculptor’s intention, as ignorant as many of those who rioted over the Danish cartoons surely were. Nor would many of those angry Muslims have cared in the least whether the cartoonists’ intentions were pure or not. The cartoons, taken at face value, appear to insult the prophet. Enough.
This past weekend I had an opportunity to show a photo of the blind Buddha to a very knowledgeable Buddhist teacher/scholar. “Give me your first reaction,” I asked. “How do you feel? What are your unconsidered thoughts?” I should have known better. I did not get any unconsidered thoughts.
But I did get some interesting information. This scholar said that the image reminds him of the mummy of Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chinese Cha’an (or Zen) Buddhism, who was born in AD 638 and is known for enunciating the revered Diamond Jewel Platform Sutra. Evidently it was the custom to mummify great teachers back then in China. The proper term, I just learned courtesy of Google, is “whole body relics.” Mummies! This seemed strange to me. Buddhism supposedly teaches impermanence, while mummies are intended to make the physical remains last forever or as long as possible. My bewildered personal reaction to Buddhist mummies notwithstanding, could Anderson’s work be an homage to Hui Neng?
And so the inquiry widens, opening my horizons, giving me pause to think.
Those Danish CartoonsThere’s a new book about The Cartoons that Shook the World. It’s by Jytte Klausen, a Danish expert on Islamic communities in Europe. She wanted the publisher to include reproductions of some of the "offensive" cartoons. The publisher, Yale University Press, shocked American academia by refusing the author’s request. Two goods were in conflict, it seems. Generally one does not go out of one’s way to gratuitously offend believers, though a scholarly analysis surely doesn't merit the descriptor "gratuitous." However, Americans also cherish the constitutional guarantee of free speech which allows us to debate the most contentious issues out in the open. My personal feeling is that an American university should default in favor of the latter. Outrageous political cartooning has a long history in the U.S.—and Christianity has not been immune from strong graphic critique. The unkempt sage contemplating his navel is also satirical stock in trade for cartoonists.
In any event, recalling those incendiary cartoons as I examined the blind Buddha, it seemed to me that they, too, were open to numerous interpretations, some invidious, some worth considering more receptively. Take the most notorious, the one which appears to show an Arab man who could be any Arab, or even the Prophet himself, wearing a turban made of bombs. This image may have been equating Islam as such with terrorism. Maybe it also implied terrorist intent on the part of the Prophet, though I don’t think we can be certain of that. Not from the drawing itself anyway. But consider this: the cartoon might also be condemning those violent misguided believers who have turned the Prophet into a suicide bomber and Islam into a mere terrorist cell. In this case, the cartoon would be an affirmation of the abused good in Islam, not a derogation of Islam. Given the vile actions of (say) Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, I should think this interpretation of the cartoon merits more than a little reflection and perhaps recognition. But demagogues of any flavor prefer unthinking acolytes. (It’s possible that some of those responsible for the cartoons counted on that. In such case, like reacted to like.)