January 18, 2014

Buddha Buzz: Week of January 13th

Buddha, you made the front page!Max Zahn

Smack dab in the center of Monday’s New York Times was nothing other than the gilded visage of the Buddha himself. There he was—in all of his glory—atop the latest revelations about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s traffic fixation and alongside an alarmist investigation of state politics.

The statue, estimated at 1,500 years old, hails from an era when Buddhism thrived in what’s now modern-day Afghanistan. The relic is featured in a current exhibit at the National Museum of Afghanistan, “Buddhist Heritage of Afghanistan.” Apparently, Buddhism thrived in the area until the arrival of Islam in the 7th century, and remained a prominent facet of local culture for another 400 years.

The reason why this statue is on the cover of The New York Times—and not, say, Smithsonian Magazine—is because Taliban soldiers looted and destroyed tens of thousands of the museum’s artifacts in 2001, shortly before the US invasion. The article describes the remarkable restoration efforts undertaken by international organizations, American archaeologists, and local curators. At first glance, this partnership between global resources and local savvy appears a genuinely heartening example of cooperation between institutions big and small, First World and Third. And, to some extent, it deserves celebration for being just that.

But the piece does not confine itself to an account of this essentially technical triumph. We’re talking about The New York Times here, our God-given paper of record, which just this month has published numerous reports on the wrangling between US President Barack Obama and his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai, specifically focused on the possibility of a standing American security force to remain after the troop withdrawal scheduled for year’s end. Obama wants it, Karzai doesn’t—or at least doesn’t want to give in so easy. Karzai has demanded that US and coalition forces halt all raids on Afghani homes, citing civilian deaths like the eight reported killed on Wednesday.

Placed in this context, the Buddha statue and its adjoining recovery narrative take on a murkier hue. I can’t resist balking at the implied message of a Western occupation that may have run afoul time and again, but is nonetheless equipped to put things back together again—both literally and metaphorically. Few images communicate a good faith, peace-seeking intention more than the Buddha himself.

Perhaps you think I’m cherry picking a subtext that isn’t really there—one that fits my particular political or religious bent. Thing is, the article announces such framing in its opening paragraph, calling the relics “message[s] of defiance” to “the Taliban” and other Afghani officials. Take a look:

Every piece of antiquity that is restored to the halls of the bombed, pillaged and now rebuilt National Museum of Afghanistan sends a message of defiance and resilience. These are messages to the Taliban, who in 2001 smashed every museum artifact that they could find that bore a human or animal likeness. But these are messages for others as well: to the warlords who looted the museum, some of whom are still in positions of power in Afghanistan; to corrupt custodians of the past who stood by while some 70,000 objects walked out the door.

For Americans, the story’s imbalance veers dangerously toward the rosy depiction of our nation’s adventure in Afghanistan, which has lasted over 12 years—the longest war in US history—and resulted in massive loss of life and treasure. For Buddhists, though, this article and front-page photograph pose a different, perhaps more disturbing problem: that of having our religion’s founder—one known for his gentle, compassionate demeanor—appropriated for triumphalist political ends that may very well have injurious consequences in Central Asia.

Maybe we have become desensitized to the commodification of Buddha images for the sale of key chains and candy bars, but we should conjure up our remaining stores of outrage for Times clumsy harnessing of the Buddha and Buddhism—especially in promotion of an ostensibly noble, though at bottom, paternalistic, Western attitude. We must ensure that our foreign policy’s recurring delusions of virtue don’t get to play dress-up with the religious symbols we hold dear.

More news this week:

The Detroit Zen Center supports itself by opening its doors for brunch. Come for the meditation, stay for the flax-cracker pizza. Check out the rave reviews on Yelp.

Fire breaks out at large Buddhist school near the Tibetan autonomous region.

The initial group of Tibetans to settle in Calgary City, Canada through Canada’s Tibetan resettlement program will arrive on Saturday.

—Max Zahn, Editorial Intern

Image courtesy of the New York Times

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Dominic Gomez's picture

While unfortunate, desecration of symbols is nothing new. Buddhism's teachings are not contained inside relics.

John Bush's picture

While I appreciate your sensitivity to a subtextual celebration of US military adventurism in Afghanistan, you may be overthinking this. I remember the explosions of the giant Bamiyan Buddhas that were a harbinger 6 months earlier of the Taliban's looting and destruction of the National Museum. It was horrific and deeply upsetting to me not just as an American Buddhist but because these treasures are part of the world's cultural heritage and belong to everyone. I interpreted the reporting of this restoration by determined Afghan curators as a triumph for the world community not as jingoism. The Buddha image is a universal symbol of inner peace and harmony, its not just for Buddhists anymore.