Stone Bodisattvas

I have finished reading the series ‘Fire and Ice’, which has kept me well entertained for the past month and a half.  I now turn to a novel by Khaled Hosseini, who also wrote the Kite Runner. In one of the chapters  three characters take a long taxi ride to  go and  visit the famous Buddhist site Bamiyan in Afganistan near the Red City. I wanted to get a an image of what they were talking about so I had a look on Google images .  It was destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, that’s six years before the book was published. I came across the following article .

Here we go again. In March of 2001, the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. These statues had stood there since the early 6th century. Symbols of universal compassion, these were in the eyes of Islam, something that had to be destroyed.

Full marks for perseverance, though. “When Mahmud of Ghazni conquered Afghanistan and part of west India in the 12th century, the Buddhas and frescoes were spared from destruction though Buddhist monasteries and other artifacts were looted or destroyed. Aurangzeb, the last Mughal emperor distinguished for his religious zeal, employed heavy artillery in an attempt to destroy the statues. Nadir Shah, too, had cannon fire directed at the statues. But over the centuries the statues had largely been left untouched.”

I marvel not just at the destruction that Aurangzeb unleashed but also at the ultimate expression of dhimmitude — naming a major street “Aurangzeb Marg” in the capital of India, New Delhi. I doubt that Jews would be naming a major thoroughfare after Hitler anytime soon. I recommend that some street in Delhi be now named “Taliban Marg.”

What brought all this to mind is the recent destruction of a Buddha statue in Swat in Pakistan. So what else is new? Islam mandated destruction of cultural and religious artifacts is really old hat. Just keep moving, folks. There’s nothing new to see here.

Here’s a piece I had written back then in 2001. This one is a re-run, just like the destruction of Buddha statues.

Do the Taliban have Buddha Nature?

I bumped into my old friend CJ at Cody’s bookstore at the corner of Haste and Telegraph in Berkeley yesterday. I was browsing through the pile of discount books when I saw him similarly engaged. I was thrilled to see him.

“Hey, CJ, what’s up?” I said. “Fancy meeting you here.”

“Want to grab a coffee? I am about done here,” he said. We walked to the donut shop next door and sat down with our coffee.

“I suppose you must have heard about the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan. That really sucks,” I said.

“Naah. In fact it is great news. Excellent bit of good luck. Couldn’t be better,” he replied. The pressures of his thesis must have finally gotten to him, I thought. I reached across and touched his forehead.

“Why are you doing that?” he asked.

“I was just checking to see if you were running a high fever. You are incoherent,” I explained.

“Don’t you see that the Taliban are heaven sent for mankind?”

“Are you on drugs or is it that you have stopped taking the drugs that you should be on? I really worry for you,” I said.

“Let me explain,” he said. “The Taliban are the poster boys for Islam. They are keeping to the letter as well as the spirit of Islam.”

“Letter of Islam? Haven’t you heard what Prime Minister Vajpayee said? He said that what the Taliban were doing was un-Islamic,” I protested.

He smiled. “Ah, good old Mullah Hajpayee, bless his soul. I would not be surprised if they revoke his mullah status and put a fatwa on his head for misrepresenting Islam. He ought to read the Koran,” he said.

“Very funny, CJ. But this is no laughing matter, you idiot,” I said.

“I am serious. See, very few people know history. And even if they know it, they prefer to ignore the lessons if they are inconvenient. The Taliban are the heirs of a long line of temple-breakers. It was from Afghanistan that Mahmud of Ghazni arrived and destroyed the Somnath Temple. Today it is an unremarkable event because over the centuries too many thousands of temples have been razed to the ground by Islamic invaders. The Taliban are succeeding in doing what the historians have failed to do. They are forcing the world to pay attention and are succeeding in what the scholars and historians have failed. They are giving us a living lesson in history. If this doesn’t wake up the pseudo-seculars in India, they are totally brain-dead.”

I sat sipping my coffee. “Still it is a tragedy,” I said. “Instead of feeding their starving children, these heroes are inviting international condemnation. Why don’t they just let the statues be? The statues are not the cause of their misery.”

CJ replied. “Actually, the Taliban are following their tradition once again. Mahmud of Ghazni had the choice of sparing the Shivling at the Somnath temple in exchange for immense wealth. He chose to forego that just so that he could destroy the idols as his holy book commanded. After all, the rewards in heaven for slaying idolators far exceed the rewards that you can get on earth. No, the Taliban know which side of the bread is buttered, so to speak. Between feeding their children and breaking idols, there is no contest in their minds.”

“But CJ, what about those priceless treasures that will be lost to humanity forever?”

“That’s the other wonderful thing about these Taliban fellows. They are teaching the world the truth about what the Buddha said many centuries ago. The Buddha had said that the cause of suffering is the attachment to things that are impermanent. Stone buddhas are also impermanent. So you should be examining your attachment to them to seek the cause of your sorrow,” he said.

“Spare me the philosophizing, CJ. I feel sick just thinking about the dynamiting of these magnificent towering Buddhas at Bamiyan.”

CJ continued. “But there is a practical aspect to the whole thing too. The Buddha statues are huge. It would take a whole lot of ammo to destroy them. Therefore, the more ammunition they throw at stones, the less they will have to throw at sentient beings. Less suffering all around. Karma, neh?”

I saw that he had a point. I had run out of arguments. But he evidently had not finished. Then he added something that I thought was very insightful.

“You know about the bodhisattva ideal: the vow to relieve the suffering of all sentient beings. Those stone buddhas are fulfilling those vows by drawing fire away from other sentient beings. Ironically, the Taliban’s promoting those very ideals that are symbolized in the Buddhas that they are hell bent on destroying.”

“Do the Taliban then have Buddha-nature?” I couldn’t help asking.

“Mu,” he said with a serene smile on his stupid face.


1. The story goes that a monk was trying to understand the Zen idea that “all things have buddha-nature.” He asked Joshu, a Japanese Zen master, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” Joshu replied, “Mu.” That response is generally understood to mean “yes and no” — a paradoxical state of affairs that is beyond yes and no, something like an indeterminate state. I am reminded of Schrodinger’s cat’s state of being, beyond dead and alive.


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