Zen and the Heart of Blasphemy

by Liam Clarke, The Blanket, March 19, 2006

Belfast, Northern Ireland -- "What 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.

<< Zen Master Ummon (862-949 CE). He wiped his backside with the Buddha.

As 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.

Buddhism is the oldest of the world religions and Zen has learnt to employ blasphemy in a radical and creative way.

Ummon's 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.

Subverting 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.

In 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.

The 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."

It's 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.

The reader who has struggled thus far will realise that compared to most religious or political systems Zen is decidedly dogma lite.

However 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.

Like 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.

However 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.

Zen, 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.

The Enso is a broken circle symbolizing the   >> 
recognition that 
 our ideas of the absolute are inevitably incomplete.

Zen 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. The historical Buddha compared his teaching to a raft which could be abandoned when they had served its purpose.

The 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."

We 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.

The 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.

Muslims 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.

The 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.

What 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 way.

Didn't someone call that sort of behaviour an infantile disorder? I don't think he was a Zen master.