Sunday, February 13, 2011

When you meet the Buddha...

Chapel Window
Bengtskär, 2008.
One freezing winter day, Tan-hsia took the wooden Buddha statue from the altar in the temple in which he was staying, and used it to make a fire. The resident priest came by and saw him doing it. "How can you burn up my Buddha?" he asked. "To get at the sacred remains," Tan-hsia answered and poked at the coals with a stick. "How could there be any sacred remains in my wooden Buddha?" the resident priest asked. "Then let's burn the two others too," said Tan-hsia.
Zen folklore has lots of iconoclastic stories like that one about Tan-hsia. "When you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha" is almost a catchphrase nowadays. This apparent irreverence attracts many of us secularized, often downright antireligious Westerners to Zen. It certainly attracted me.

Yet I think that may be completely missing the point.

Tan-hsia T'ien-jan wasn't your irreverent, secularized nerd raised on Monty Python, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Bad Religion. He was a monk. That means he had devoted his life to the study and practice of the Buddhadharma. When he burns the statue of the Buddha, it's not at all the same thing as, say, the Taliban dynamiting the Bamiyan Buddhas, or your average Western layman who's been dabbling with Zen for a few years getting cheeky about devotional practice. (Yeah, guilty as charged.)

Sacred stuff is big, and the sense of sacredness grows slowly. It's not the same as mindless attachment to symbols in any of the myriad forms it takes, such as the spiritual materialism Chögyam Trungpa liked to bang on about. That's small potatoes, no different really from identifying with Canon instead of Nikon, or Apple instead of Windows.

Real reverence is something else altogether. At that point, you will have internalized those sacred symbols so deeply that killing them must be a hair's breadth from killing yourself. What Tan-hsia did when burning those Buddhas was something altogether special. Imitating it in action or speech is not the same thing at all.

It's not that we don't have Buddhas to burn. There are plenty of taboos we're obsessed with. They're just so internalized that we don't even notice they're there. Eihei Dōgen brings this down to a level at least I find easier to relate to.
For robe material to make a kesa, we use that which is immaculate. ‘Immaculate’ refers to robe material donated in veneration as an offering in pure faith, or something purchased in the market place by lay folk, or something sent you by the gentry, or the pure alms-gift of some spiritually empowered dragon, or the pure alms-gift of some fiercely protective guardian, all of which are robe materials we use. And pure alms-gifts from rulers and their chief ministers or pure pelts can also be used.
Further, we consider ten types of waste cloth to be immaculate:

First, cloth chewed by an ox.
Second, cloth gnawed by rats.
Third, cloth singed by fire.
Fourth, menstrual cloth.
Fifth, cloth discarded from childbirthing.
Sixth, cloth abandoned at a wayside shrine for birds to peck apart.
Seventh, cloth from a dead person’s clothing abandoned at a grave site.
Eighth, cloth from abandoned prayer flags.
Ninth, cloth from robes discarded by officials upon their advancement to higher rank.
Tenth, burial shrouds discarded by those returning from a funeral.

We consider these ten types to be robe material that is especially immaculate.
Eihei Dōgen: Shōbōgenzō – On the Transmission of the Kesa
Would you dress up in trash bags scavenged from the dump, used sanitary pads, and gravecloth? Would you be able to look at them the same way as a pair of jeans just bought at the mall? Would you be able to look at someone else dressed in them the same way you'd look at someone toting kit from American Apparel?

Pissing on someone else's sacred symbols is just offensive and stupid. Pissing on your own, now, that's a different matter. You have to make them sacred first, though, or the spell will fail. It'll take more than most of us are ready to do to accomplish that. To kill the Buddha, you have to meet the Buddha first. That's the hard part.


  1. Tosi syvää pohdintaa - ja todellisen kauhun äärellä.. Kyllä toi varmaan tarkoittaa jotain sellaista, että ottaa riskin, joka voi johtaa kuolemaan. Ja sellaista riskiä ei ota ellei jotenkin joudu niin tiukkaan kohtaan, että se on pakko. Jotkut joutuu, esimerkiksi jotta voisivat kokea olevansa tosia ja elävänsä. Mutta ei kaikki selviä hengissä...

  2. There is a story (in Three Pillars of Zen, maybe?) about Kapleau and somebody else arriving at a Japanese temple and getting annoyed at the abbot bowing at a Buddha statue. They point out to the abbot that certain ancient masters used to spit at Buddha statues. "You may spit if you wish, I prefer to bow" was the reply.

  3. @Jussi, yep, that's in Three Pillars.

    @Tarja, tuota kauhuaspektia en tullut ajatelleeksi. Siinä varmaan riittäisi pohdiskeltavaa...

  4. Thank you for writing this. You open a jar in my mind that I would never investigate otherwise to see what it might contain.

  5. Probably something fruity anyway--;-)

  6. The sacred has its uses, and on occasion there is use in parting from the sacred. And you are quite right that understanding these uses and the differences between them is not irreverent business.

  7. Ingenious Petteri!

    Zen points to killing the Buddha every moment, and that is for sure not outside of me.

    At the level of personal growth, killing the Buddha has some similarity with the story of Oedipus. Not easy.


  8. An excellent post. You have touched this subject in a very meaningful way. For many people killing a sacred cow is just about killing the appearance of a sacred cow. From a Buddhist perspective, it's about something deeper, and the sacred cow is absolutely necessary for without it you would not have the opportunity to use its appearance to go within to kill the sacred self.

  9. Fortunately most newcomers don't seem to be that eager to get to spit at the Buddha, so we don't have to dress the statue in a raincoat...