Rocks of ages

Kurt at Coffee Sutras ruminates on the Daoist image of the uncarved block in the context of a quote from William James: “The mind, in short, works on the data it receives very much as a sculptor works on his block of stone,” etc. It’s true that Laozi, in particular, returns again and again to the uncarved block as a symbol of nameless, uncreated perfection. Power is most concentrated when it is whole, undifferentiated, when it dwells in wu-wei, which means something like “without self-conscious intent.”

In the annals of comparative religion one does encounter such a thing as an aniconic image. These differ from the power objects of animism (which may include uncarved blocks and other natural or naturalistic objects) chiefly in the way they are viewed: through the mirror of iconic or iconoclastic worship. The Kaaba stone at Mecca is one such: an aniconic focus of worship for a religion that is officially iconoclastic.

The foregoing represents my own reflections (take with requisite lump of rock salt). Anthropologist C. J. Fuller, in his masterful treatment of village religion in India, The Camphor Flame (Princeton U.P., 1992), gives a couple more examples. Some of the lingas in Shaivite temples are uncarved rocks, he says, and various natural objects are considered images of divinity among Vishnu worshippers as well. “In the category of aniconic images,” Fuller writes, “we can also place the unhewn or perhaps roughly etched stones, sometimes painted red, that serve as little village deities’ images throughout India; they are housed in crude shrines or left standing under a tree or in open air. These stones serve exactly the same function as the sculpted images and lingas found in larger temples, even though they do not fit the classical iconographic rules. The same applies to other representations . . . Pots in particular, when filled with water in which a deity’s power has been installed, are often used as the functional equivalents of sculptured mobile images at little deities’ temples.”

Fuller goes on to discuss the relationship between deity and image, but I’ll save that for another time. I was struck by this passage because I came across something rather similar in popular Japanese religion. Throughout Japan, one sees simple roadside shrines where the stone images are often so worn down by the elements they appear to be nothing more than uncarved, oblong rocks. Popular religion in Japan is – or was – a highly syncretic blend of native animist, Chinese, and Hindu/Buddhist beliefs. The roadside shrines are part of an attempt to placate or ward off the wandering spirits of those who die far from home, and are thus deprived of the usual 49 years of memorial services by their descendents. Such services are a prerequisite to an individual soul’s ultimate dissolution in the ancestral collective unconscious – a kind of uncarved block.

With Japanese roadside shrines, the superficial mythos is Buddhist. These are shrines to a boddhisattva (Jizô) whose duties include the rescuing of lost spirits and the harrowing of Hell. A related myth (I think Chinese in origin, but possibly Hindu and almost certainly augmented by native beliefs) is the fear of hungry ghosts – spirits which are not fed and therefore turn malevolent, quite regardless of the personality of the deceased. Thus the roadside shrines are generally kept well supplied with ripe reaches, pomegranates and the like. In practice, these shrines become a reliable source of provender for an especially dangerous, unpredictable wight whom the Japanese strive to placate whenever possible, and otherwise ward off through a variety of means: the gaijin, or foreigner.

Being quite besotted with Daoism at the time I was in Japan (1985-86), it occurred to me that the stone boddhisattvas were attaining a perfection of sorts as the paint wore off and the features wore away. This is not, however, as whimsical as it might seem. The Zen-inspired rock gardens of Kyoto are justly famous as outstanding exemplars of an aesthetic that strongly favors the aniconic image. And they point to a praxis which intends, as Kurt suggests, the recovery of an original simplicity.

After eons of practice in sitting,
having long cut
their ties with the parent rock
the local stones lose
all protrusions, their mass
shifts outward, toward rumps
& bulbous crowns. No one
believes in reincarnation here.
Eternity means: bodhisattvas
aren’t born, they’re made.
What stone wouldn’t trade
the bliss of final extinction for
a red cloth bib,
three walls & a roof,
a begging bowl that holds
one whole peach?

(From “Footprints of the Buddha,” which is included in my unpublished manuscript Spoil. Click here for the .pdf.)

I don’t know why I didn’t think of this before, but probably the most important parallel here is with the traditional Japanese Daruma doll. This is a legless, armless figure with a bald head and a big, shit-eating grin. The doll is so designed that it always returns to an upright position now matter how hard you push it over. I believe this is supposed to inculcate cultural values of persistence in the face of adversity, or something. At any rate, Daruma is none other then Bodhidharma, the Buddhist saint who introduced Buddhism to China, subject of countless Zen koans. According to the hagiography, Bodhidharma meditated in a cave for years until he achieved enlightenment. In folk belief, Daruma sat so long his arms and legs atrophied. Popular religion is always so much more interesting than the official kind!

Lots of great essays on rocks and stones this month at the Ecotone wiki.

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