Like the rest of the world, I was upset when The Taliban blew up the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001. I was upset that a prominent piece of history – over 1,600 years old – and an amazing work of art were destroyed. But the thing about very old art is that it absorbs history. It shows the wear the elements of nature have had on it, and it shows at times, the way that humanity has regarded it. As time changes, so does art, and as humanity goes through its phases of destruction, art is often a casualty. Napoleon’s army blasted off the nose of The Sphinx in Egypt. Countless Native American works of art have been destroyed in the past two centuries. And thousands of beautiful shrines, churches, mosques, temples and synagogues have been destroyed by hatred and bigotry throughout history.
What currently remains of the giant Buddhas are simply the cavernous areas in the mountain that housed them. It’s emptiness. From a distance when the sun is at a certain angle, they look like darkened shadows painted on the face of the cliff. I happen to think they’re beautiful. For the first several hundred years after Buddha lived, there were no images made of him, save for one that only showed his face in a reflection of water. The Zen phrase “do not mistake the finger for the moon” is a perfect analogy of Buddha’s wish not to be a figure of worship. Like the finger pointing at the moon, Buddha is the figure that guides us to the truth, but … Buddha himself is not the truth. I do love and respect art, including numerous images of Buddha. The image on my blog heading is an example of the wisdom, compassion and gentleness of Buddha Nature. To look at it is to recognize these aspects of divinity in one own’s self, and yet at the end of the day, it is just an image. The image is the illusion; the experience of Buddha Nature is not.
As a Zen Buddhist, I do not meditate facing an image of Buddha, although I do have one in my little Zendo (it’s in a walk-in closet; it’s very quiet there!). I meditate eyes half-closed facing a blank wall. There, is emptiness; nothingness. When I look up at the right-hand image in the picture above this post, what I see is an honest and very moving image of Buddha Nature. It is both form and emptiness. It is seemingly as solid and permanent as a mountain, yet the fact of its destruction is a sign of how fragile and impermanent life is.
The image on the left is an image of Buddhism. The image on the right is Buddhism.
I’m disappointed that the statues are being rebuilt. One cannot rebuild history or pretend that the events throughout it didn’t happen. 200 years from now, people will not see a remnant of 5th century art, but of 21st century art. Life is impermanent. The destruction of the sand mandalas in Tibetan Buddhism are a perfect example of that. I’m not saying that it’s okay that there are people who destroy art, or that destroy people, or nature for that matter. But the act of destruction has a repercussion of its own that can be turned into a positive thing. The Taliban are ruthless, histrionic children who took their anger out on the rest of the world by destroying the only thing in their country that had any significance to the rest of the world. But they destroyed an image. They didn’t destroy Buddha. Their country is a mess; that’s mostly their fault, but our sanctions and hypocrisy have irritated the problem greatly. On the surface, we try to get them to destroy their opium, which to them is not only not evil, it provides a prosperous income for their country. But clandestinely, the West helps them to continue to grow and process the opium, since it is prosperous for us. So they took their anger out like little children kicking a sand castle down when they didn’t get their way. The question is … how can we turn this act into something other than a well-meaning but ultimately selfish act?
The cost of reconstructing the Buddhas is expected to be between $30-$50 million. In a country like Afghanistan, that can help a lot of people. In the documentary I recently saw (The Giant Buddhas), they showed that those little caves all around the Buddhas, have been housing people for thousands of years. That is, up until a couple of years ago when they were forced out of their homes because of all the reconstruction and archaeological digging that’s going on [There is a huge project in that area that will ultimately excavate what is supposed to be the largest statue in the world (of a reclining Buddha) as well as at least one Buddhist monastery] The people that have been forced out of their homes in the cliff, are now living in tiny houses, but there is no protection from the cold there, and they are extremely far from water and places to buy food and necessities. The people who are running the Giant Buddhas project say that the money being raised for the Buddhas will not come out of any humanitarian funds, but why not just raise that money for humanitarian causes outright instead of building the monuments? Where is the compassion in constructing a monument in an area where you’ve just forced people out of their homes? Where is the compassion in raising that much money in an area where people are starving and have absolutely no medical care? I’m all for raising money for art, but to do it so blatantly in the shadow of so much suffering is the antithesis of compassion. It isn’t wise, it isn’t compassionate, and it isn’t decent.
At this point, I don’t know which is the greater evil; the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas, or this act of reconstructing an image of humanity that in the process, is being terribly inhumane. Once they finish their project, I hope those involved take a good long, deep look into the eyes they created and find some humanity there.