Make no bones about it: if you’re squeamish about Buddha statues and other overt examples of Buddhist iconography, the Providence Zen Center is the kind of place that will make you (repeatedly) lose your lunch.
One of the things we talked about at this weekend’s Kwan Um School of Zen Dharma Teacher retreat was the eye-popping Buddhist art that can be found in our Korean-influenced Zen Centers. Since most of the folks who practice in our School weren’t raised as Buddhists, these colorful cultural trappings can be very off-putting to newcomers. As someone who was raised Catholic and was “born again” in college, I came to Zen with something of a Christian double-whammy. The first time I walked into a Zen Center and saw a huge gold statue looking back at me, every fiber in my good little Catholic-turned-evangelical soul was screaming protestations: “No! Not an idol! Run away, sister, and repent!”
Apparently I’m not the only one who had (and eventually overcame) such a vehement first reaction. During his presentation on Buddhist iconography, Zen Master Dae Kwang, himself raised as a corn-fed Nebraskan Presbyterian, recounted how another Dharma teacher used to come to the Zen Center every morning for 5 am bows and then would immediately go to a church around the corner to pray for forgiveness. “Three of the Ten Commandments,” Zen Master Dae Kwang explained, “forbid idols and idolatry. That’s how much God hates gold statues!” God’s distaste for devotional art notwithstanding, the Providence Zen Center is chock-full of scarily exotic statues, altars, and other iconographic tchotchkes, so any Zen Center resident or Dharma teacher necessarily has to spend a lot of time doing damage control when freaked-out Christians, Jews, or Muslims gingerly set foot into a Zen Center for the first time.
So, here’s the skinny on all those Buddha statues: they aren’t idols. Although you’ll see Zen-heads bowing in front of such statues, you’ll also see us bowing to our meditation mats, and to our food, and to one another. Bowing is simply a sign of respect, a sort of Buddhist “pleased to meet you.” Although there have been times on retreat when I’ve felt like worshipping my food, that isn’t why I bow to my bowls before digging into an eaten-in-silence meal. Bowing is a physical sign of both humility and interdependence, an acknowledgment that our individual selves aren’t separate from the rest of the universe. When a Buddhist bows upon entering a Dharma room, they bow as a sign of gratitude to the silent practice energy of that place. The room isn’t a god to be worshipped, and neither is the statue that’s found in that room.
Instead, the purpose of Buddha statues, altar paintings, and other iconographic images is purely symbolic. Representations of the the historical Buddha, the Buddha’s heavenly incarnations, and various other mythic characters are designed to point inward, not outward. Meditating in front of a Buddha statue, a Zen-head isn’t worshipping much less praying to that statue. Instead, a Buddha statue is a physical symbol of one’s own true, compassionate nature. The historical Buddha never claimed to be a god; instead, his teachings point to the fact that everyone has a latent ability to wake up and realize their true connection to all beings. Like a sports-crazed kid who covers his bedroom walls with posters of Shaquille O’Neal, Buddhists simply surround themselves with images of someone they want to be like. Buddhists don’t worship the Buddha any more than sports fans worship Shaq or Lutherans worship Martin Luther. The flesh-and-blood man who earned the title Buddha simply showed one way of waking up. Statues and paintings of that man and his various mythic counterparts simply point to the need to enact that way for oneself.
If all these Buddha statues are simply symbolic, why have them at all? There certainly are religions (Quakerism being one) that eshew all religious trappings in favor of a bare-bones approach. For all of Zen’s emphasis on spiritual minimalism, it still derives from a visually rich tradition. True, Buddha statues, altars, candles, and incense aren’t necessary: it’s entirely possible to meditate and gain enlightenment without any of these fancy accoutrements. By the same token, though, we as embodied creatures rely on our senses to steer our thoughts and emotions. Separated from our family, we cherish photographs that remind us of our loved ones even though we technically don’t need such reminders. Although it’s possible to get romantic without candlelight and flowers, sometimes we need a sensory nudge to get us in the mood. At times, sitting Zen can feel no different than waiting for the bus: it’s easy to zone out and let one’s mind wander. A gleam of candlelight on gold or a whiff of wafting incense can serve as a powerful reminder: this room is special because this moment is unique. This truth applies everywhere at all times, but sometimes we need additional physical reminders.
Long-time Zen practitioners often use the term “Dharma candy” to refer to all the fancy Asian accoutrements that tease the eyes and senses of Zen Center visitors. Truth be told, meditation is boring. If we expected newcomers to sit following their breath in an unfurnished cinder block basement, we’d probably get very few repeat customers. As much as many Westerners recoil at the “smells and bells” of Buddhist practice, exoticism nevertheless has a huge appeal. Like candy, enormous statues and looming pagodas have very little nutritional value spiritually speaking. Simply looking at a Zen temple won’t earn you any karmic points; instead of snacking on candy, you have to dig into an entree called practice. But if the sight of a lovely Asian temple nestled in changing trees provides a sweet enough taste, perhaps you’ll be tempted to stay for an entire meal. Meditation can be bitter medicine, and devotional art serves as a spoonful of sugar. When your mind wanders during meditation, chanting, or bows, there is something colorful and interesting to focus your attention on. A peaceful Zen Center filled with beautiful things points to the special quality of one’s True Nature. Yes, enlightenment is no different from ordinary life, but at the same time it is special. Precisely because enlightenment can happen anywhere at anytime, we set aside special, extraordinarily lovely places to remind ourselves of that fact.
One of the intrinsic paradoxes of Zen practice is that it is simultaneously iconographic and iconoclastic. One famous Zen story recounts how an impoverished monk chopped and then burned his temple’s wooden Buddha to keep warm: when push comes to shove, fueling the practice fire is more important than devotional formalities. At the same time, though, Zen-heads are meticulously careful about tending their altars and practice spaces: how you keep your altar is how you keep your mind. Whether made of gold, wood, or stone, a Buddha statue is like your mind: efficacious only if you pay attention. Left to its own devices, a stone Buddha will collect dust like any other inanimate object: left to its own devices, a stone Buddha has no inherent power. The power of any iconographic symbol lies entirely in the eye of the beholder; although a sign can point you home, only your own legs can get you there.