Sleeping Buddha

Our submarine sank through layers of strange darkness to the very bottom of the ocean, where we found a lost pocket of terra firma complete with trees, lawns and sidewalks. We came to rest right in the middle of a revolutionary mob, who confused our ship with one of their invisible overlords and began to squabble over who would have the privilege of breaking it the way one breaks a wild horse. When we stepped out to sample the air, the crowd fell silent, and parted on both sides of us like the Red Sea for Moses. We crossed the square to a public fountain, my fellow prospectors and I, and raised cupped hands brimful with a miraculous, salt-free water that had never been sullied by so much as a glimpse of clouds.

As far as I can tell, this dream was prompted by my watching, shortly before bed, a video of the Talking Heads performing “Once in a Lifetime.” I was particularly impressed by the line, “there is water at the bottom of the ocean,” which I had never focused on before.

Buried things have always drawn my attention. Like much of the rest of the nation, I’ve been following the search for the lost coal miners in the mountain in Utah. And this morning over breakfast, I was reading an article about the Afghan archaeologist Zemaryalai Tarzi’s effort to locate the 900-foot-long “Sleeping Buddha” described by the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang in the 7th century. If its remains still exist, buried by who knows how much sand or rubble, they wouldn’t be more than a mile or two from the famous standing Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

Much like the reclining Buddhas in Thailand, this immense sculpture presumably depicted the Buddha at the point of death/nirvana, though of course it’s more appealing to think of him as enjoying a millennium-long sleep under the ground like some kind of immense cicada. More about that in a moment. First, an essay in the Tricycle blog goes to the heart of the issue: does the recovery of buried or destroyed icons even make sense from a Buddhist perspective? The author quotes from Xuanzang’s journal about the standing and sleeping Buddhas of Bamiyan, and goes on to suggest how the loss of such icons might’ve struck the great theologian and translator:

Xuanzang’s own religious feelings were deeply rooted in an awareness of how loss and nostalgia operate to drive us on the path to liberation. When he reached the Bodhi Tree and stood before the empty seat once occupied by the Buddha, he threw himself into the dust and wept bitter tears. This existential encounter with the Buddha’s absence hammered home that he lived in an age without an enlightened teacher, that he had failed to plant the karmic seeds that would’ve allowed him to meet the Tathagatha when he walked softly upon the earth. Profoundly aware of his own past inadequacies, Xuanzang’s commitment to the Dharma redoubled as he stared the truth of emptiness in the face. A follower of the cult of Maitretya, Xuanzang hoped that being reborn in the Tushita heaven would let him meet and learn from a Buddha after his death. Xuanzang probably wouldn’t agree with those who saw the loss of the Bamiyan Buddhas [at the hands of the Taliban] as conveying a lesson in detachment. Rather, for him it was precisely the pain of losing something cherished that leads to aspiration for following the path of Dharma.

I’ll admit, I’ve always been attracted to the melancholy strain in Buddhist art and Buddhist-inspired literature. Ironically, the modern emphasis on non-attachment coincides with a proliferation of icons, whereas for the first five hundred years or so, Buddhism was strictly aniconic, in the same way that early Christian symbolism privileged the empty tomb. Only the Buddha’s footprints or parasol could be depicted, reinforcing his followers’ consciousness of his absence.

Maybe it’s the subterranean influence of my pagan Germanic heritage, but I can’t help thinking of nirvana as a kind of living death. It is, after all, depicted not as a triumph over death but as a triumph over rebirth — a pure extinction. And since I don’t believe in reincarnation, the only way I can understand this is to imagine a supernatural ability to elude decay and the recycling of all of one’s elements into new lifeforms. I picture the Buddha lying in suspended animation when at last some modern Grettir discovers his burial mound and descends into the darkness with the gift of breath like a sword between his teeth.

9 Comments


  1. On a purely personal level, I’ve always been a bit annoyed by non-Buddhists’ common assumption that Buddhist teachings regarding non-attachment mean that Buddhists “don’t care” when someone dies, as if a cognitive recognition of impermanence changes ones emotional response to death. The short answer is “it doesn’t.”

    When Zen Master Seung Sahn (the Zen Master who founded my school) died, it was hugely illustrative to see how his closest students, themselves Zen Masters, responded. There was no steel-visaged, pseudo-Stoicism; instead, the tears flowed naturally. Buddhist isn’t about forcing yourself not to feel human emotion; it’s about recognizing that everything, including human emotions, will eventually pass away. But that doesn’t mean those emotions, or anything else impermanent, aren’t real, powerful, and valid while they last.

    And on a completely unrelated note, that line from the Talking Heads is my favorite from that song.

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  2. You can’t stay away from the via negativa! The story of Xuanzang’s response to the Buddha’s absence was quite moving. To me, the remarkable part of the story is that absence moved Xuanzang to greater practice rather than to a certain mindless forsakenness. Also, I love the way you move from the dream to the later discussion. Very mindful.

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  3. Lorianne – Well put as always. I think a lot of Americans’ impressions of Buddhism have been shaped by the mainly philosophical writings of Japanese Zen types – most notably the two Suzukis – and they have little or no idea of Buddhism as a religion. That said, I do see an interesting tension within Buddhist aesthetics historically, between the proliferation of devotional images on the one hand and iconoclastic gestures toward Emptiness on the other.

    Also, I don’t know whether to be pleased or frightened that, in a song full of good lines, you like the same one I do. :)

    Brett – You know, I was going to put this one into my long-neglected ‘via negativa’ category, but for some reason I didn’t. Maybe I’ll correct that.

    One tangential idea I had as I wrote this was the similarity not only with Christian devotion but also with the Shiite longing for the departed Madhi. The Taliban destroyed those standing Buddhas not so much out of Islamic iconclasm – though that was their claim – as from hatred toward the Shiite Hazara minority, who, as residents of the Bamiyan valley, benefitted most from tourism. The Hazaras themselves seem to have retained the cosmopolitan openness of their Buddhist predecessors:

    “Hazaras are open to change,” says Sultani, who is himself a Hazara. “They are open to new ideas and are not very fanatical.”

    The head of the Clergy Council of Bamiyan agrees. “I have been to four or five big seminars of all the religious scholars from all parts of Afghanistan, and our clergy are more open,” says Baba Mohsini, noting that Hazaras have even followed Sunni rules for prayer in the past simply to keep Sunni rulers happy.

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  4. I wonder if absence appeals to any messianic group. Of course, “messianic” is probably a little strong for Buddhists, though some of the Pure Land folks express expectation pretty well. Interesting about the Hazara minority; I hadn’t heard this reason for destroying those statues, but it sounds totally feasible. Absolutlely atrocious either way.

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  5. Well, Maitreya is a Messiah of sorts. You might be interested in a piece I wrote about a Japanese-Korean sculpture of Maitreya, here.

    I imagine that the sort of longing these world religions tap into has been part of religion in one way or another for a very long time.

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  6. that song is a chant…now it’s in my head and I’m singing as this day goes by.

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  7. There’s an intense physical imagery that helps me approach the idea of nirvana with emotions other than dread. It tends to come to me in high places, on windy days: suddenly I can feel the wind blowing through me — I’m transparent to it, as glass is transparent to light — and everything stuck, adhesive, and restrictive melts away in the wind. It’s pure joy.

    It’s just an image, of course, just a representation of something that can’t really be represented. But a useful corrective to the dread of nonbeing — which is also a representation of something that can’t be represented, but one we that we usually take dead seriously :-)

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  8. Huh. Very interesting stuff, Dale. Physical imagery is of course the best kind. (That’s why I love the Old Testament so much – all the intensely physical imagery, and the virtual absence of theology.) Thanks for weighing in.

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