Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Hungry Dogs and Religious Icons

I can remember reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau many, many years ago. I was impressed with Thoreau’s simplicity and directness, and wondered how he came to some of the conclusions that are contained in this wonderful book. I eventually came to understand that he was a student of Ralph Waldo Emerson as well as being a student of the Bhagadva-Gita (I believe he had made an attempt at translating it in his lifetime), yet I remember reading the following passage from the book and wondering about another statement made by a rather unexpected great scholar about one thousand years earlier. Anyway, read the following passages and I will elaborate.

Nations are possessed with an insane ambition to perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave. What if equal pains were taken to smooth and polish their manners? One piece of good sense would be more memorable than a monument as high as the moon. I love better to see stones in place. The grandeur of Thebes was a vulgar grandeur. More sensible is a rod of stone wall that bounds an honest man's field than a hundred-gated Thebes that has wandered farther from the true end of life. The religion and civilization which are barbaric and heathenish build splendid temples; but what you might call Christianity does not. Most of the stone a nation hammers goes toward its tomb only. It buries itself alive. As for the Pyramids, this is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives construction a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs. I might possibly invest some excuse for them and him, but I have no time for it. As for the religion and love of art of the builders, it is much the same all the world over, whether the building be an Egyptian temple or the United States Bank.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden, Page 49

An eminent teacher once said, "Before Buddha was born and came to the Kapila Empire, he had already saved all beings.'' When Buddha was born, he took seven steps, looked in the four directions, pointed with one hand to the sky and with the other hand to the ground, and said, "In the sky above and the earth below, only I am holy.'' A disciple once mentioned these words of the baby Buddha to Chan Master Yunmen and asked what they meant. Yunmen said, "If I would have been there, I would have hit him with my stick and fed his body to a hungry dog. The whole world would then be at peace.''
Chan Master Yunmen

I was struck, all those years ago, by the similarity of the metaphors here. Thoreau and Yunmen are both trying to illuminate us to the deeper constructs that we personally create about holiness, sanctity and other worldliness. Both of these teachers saw the same solution, a radical departure from our normal thinking, an attempt to shock us into the present moment. The image of destroying the Icon in a rather violent way is not the typical philosophic or religious metaphor and the act of feeding the Icons to hungry dogs has always brought Thoreau and Yunmen closer together in my understanding of their teachings.

It seems that we (our societies that we live in) haven’t made much spiritual progress in the centuries since the appearance of the Upanishads, the teachings of Buddha, the teachings of Abraham, the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of Mohammed. I, of course, am leaving out a number of other teachers who deserve to be on this list, but for the sake of brevity I choose not to list them all. We have developed science to a magnificent level and understand so much about our past and our history, but we still don’t understand the fundamentals of how to treat our neighbors.

It is important for all of us to understand that simple teaching of Jesus, “How can you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, when you have an 8 x 8 beam in your own eye?” Any thought system that teaches superiority is suspect. Any collection of constructs that are manipulated by the political powers to spread fear and hate should be looked at with a critical eye. The fundamentalism that exists in the United States is just as destructive as the fundamentalism that exists in Islam, in Israel, in Pakistan, in India, in Burma, ……. and on and on.

I would humbly request that if you are truly a spiritual seeker that you seek out the holy texts of other religions. I remember during the opening ceremony of the Huntington Beach Zen Center and my installation as Abbot years ago, Zen Master Seung Sahn said that he liked everything about the Zen Center with one exception. He told me that it was better than a twenty year old Zen Center in many aspects. He never missed a single detail in art, liturgy or form (this is my projection of course) yet he took me aside and commented to me right before the ceremony. He was casually looking at the library of books I had compiled (which was rather significant at the time) and he said that we had too many ‘Zen’ and ‘Buddhist’ books on the shelf. He said a real Zen library has books from all religions as well as from the science and the arts. He urged me to consider expanding the collection, as well as urging me to expand my interests in other religions, philosophies and arts.

After that ceremony I realized that I was quite ignorant of all the other religions, including Christianity and this led me to re-assess the direction I had been taking. Zen Master Seung Sahn’s comment eventually led me to read all the great Religious works of the world. So, I would again humbly ask that if you haven’t read the Bhagavad Gita, or the Upanishads, or the Daodeqing, or the Five Books of Moses, or the Koran, how can you have an opinion on the followers of those religions. We live in a society of prepackaged philosophy. We want our information delivered in “MTV” bytes, I mean watch a music Video, each scene lasts about five seconds, and our attention span has now shrunk to about five seconds.

I have been watching the PBS pledge drives of late and it seems that our old Guru, Dr. Wayne Dyer, is now being replaced with the new Guru of the modern age, Ekhart Tolle. I have nothing against either of these men, and I respect Dr. Dyer for giving credit to his roots. Mr. Tolle is teaching Zen Buddhism without the “Zen” and without the “Buddhism” and I find this very interesting. If Ekhart actually gave acknowledgement to the Buddhist roots of his teaching, would so many people follow him? I am not faulting him for this, nor do I wish him ill will, for he is helping many people to eradicate some of the suffering in their lives. It is just that we (and I mean society at large) are so ingrained in our ideas that we are willing to accept another religion as long as someone doesn’t mention where it came from.

Ideas and opinions are very powerful influences in our lives, if we give them life. Zen teaches that we must relinquish our ideas and opinions in order to find the truth. For those who have never taken the time to read the Koran, I will leave you with this final passage. And of course, if you have read the sacred book, thank you for your efforts in saving all sentient beings from suffering.

The external forms of all created people and things are like goblets, while such things as knowledge, art, and learning are decoration on the goblet. Don’t you see that when the goblet is shattered none of these “decorations” remain? The important thing therefore is the wine, which takes its shape from the goblet. Whoever sees and drinks the wine knows that good works are permanent.
Koran 18:46


Jiun said...

"...but we still don’t understand the fundamentals of how to treat our neighbors."

What pains me the most is that we really *do* understand... we simply choose to behave otherwise.


Wonderful post, thank you - you'll get to see my book-shelves in a few days. :-)

Chris said...

Good stuff. I just bought a book on Christian Spirituality for pretty much all the reasons you laid out here. If you have prejudice in one area of your life, it will infect all areas.

I suppose the Koran will be next.

Thanks for the post.

Lone Oak said...

I caught a bit of Ekhart Tolle on pledge drive as did you. Never having encountered him before, I was a bit taken aback at first by his non-Zen Zen. But on reflection, it seems to me that the truth is the truth and if putting old wine in new bottles helps those who may be put off by the thought of "religion", so be it.

sfauthor said...

Nice posting. Do you know about this edition of the Gita?


Marcus said...


Yes, good post..... but what about the tricky bits?

What about the Islamic hadith that says: "The prophet, prayer and peace be upon him, said: The time [of judgment] will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews and kill them; until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him!" (Sahih Muslim book 41, no. 6985)

I'm not putting this here to provoke an arguement or attack Muslims (most of whom do not act upon this hadith of course!), but to point out that reading holy books from other traditions will entail not just passages upon which we can all agree, but also passages which really are rather distasteful.

Not all religions are the same and it is fine see where they differ, how they differ, and how one might disagree with what they proclaim. After all, many westerners such as myself have come to Buddhism in reaction to the contents of the holy books of our backgrounds. There is very little I like in the Old Testament for example, despite knowing it very well indeed.

But basically I'm agreeing with you. Reading the holy books of other religions and traditions can only be a good thing - but not just to find similarities, but also to be well informed and aware of the tricky bits, the bits used by the fundamentalists to justify and support their actions, and the points where we find that those religions are not the path for us individually.

Wishing you well,


dochong, jdpsn said...


I couldn't agree with you more. It is important to understand where others are coming from. We all are brought up with differing backgrounds and educations. There are myths that live inside our minds that shape the way we view the world.

In the West it is common to say something like, "That tree is made of wood." We think this because of the Judeo Christian Muslim teaching that God made heaven and earth. In Eastern Philosophy things grow from the essence and are not made, so a sentence like that is nonsensical to an Eastern ear.

This is only one minor way that seperates us from other cultures, religions and societies. We need to spend the time to understand how we create these constructs in our experince of life, and by so doing we can also see the mistakes in other belief structures.

What I am saying is that all belief structures limit our ability to experience this very moment free from our opinions, our condition and our situation.

Marcus said...


Thank you, what a wonderful, true, response. Thank you so much. And thank you again for the great blog.

Kwan Seum Bosal,