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.