When I was 8 or 9, I had an experience that marked me for life. I was playing tag with a few cousins and with one misstep I crashed against a cabinet on which sat the family’s Buddhist altar. The porcelain Buddha fell from its pedestal to shatter into pieces at my feet.
My mother was both embarrassed and furious. “Look at the profanity you committed,” she yelled and I began to weep uncontrollably. But Great Uncle, bless his great, compassionate heart, just laughed and patted my head and said, “Oh, leave the boy alone. It’s just a statue. If you know Buddha, everywhere you look, you’ll find Buddha.”
At that moment something flowered within me. I, like millions of others, had prayed to Buddha as a god and asked him for protection and fortune. Since that day, however, I became fascinated with Buddhism not as a religion but as a direct human experience.
When I read that the Taliban leaders of Afghanistan had destroyed quite a few ancient Buddha statues there, I immediately thought of my Great Uncle. The Taliban created an international uproar with their action but most likely it would have amused him-you can no more get rid of Buddhism by destroying Buddha statues than force religious conversion with guns.
In my lifetime, I have watched a few ideologies falter, an empire fall apart, various regimes toppled, despots thrown out and borders continually redrawn and redefined by unprecedented mass migration and modern technologies, but I have yet to see the end of humanity’s thirst for spiritual meaning and inner peace.
In fact, it seems that the more upheavals and sufferings and great changes people experience, the more they long for spiritual solace and ways to cope with our misery and confusion.
Afghanistan, like my homeland, Vietnam, had the misfortune of being the battleground over which the superpowers played out their brutal Cold War games. The Taliban, it now seems, are the only group who could restore order in that wretched, rock strewn country of too many factions and too little resources. To be fair, they received little foreign aid and far less credit for their efforts to rein in chaos and lawlessness, since theirs is an extreme version of Islam and they conflict with that of western values.
This said, however, I fear the Taliban are misguided if they think that by destroying thousand year old Buddhist relics they could somehow enhance their grip on the country. Their intolerance of other forms of religions (their leaders had reportedly slapped Buddha statues in the museums in Kabul to show their contempt) speaks not of open-mindedness but insecurity and hatred.
Born in 6 century B.C.E, in what historians now call the first axial age (between 800 to 200 BCE), an age of luminaries such as Confucius and Lao Tsu and Zoroaster and Socrates and Plato whose thoughts continue to influence people, the Buddha was an aristocrat who left his home to “go forth” in search of enlightenment.
The Buddha believed “he had woken up to a truth that was inscribed in the deepest structure of existence,” as Karen Armstrong writes in her recent biography of Buddha. He had become enlightened and experienced “a profound inner transformation; he had won peace and immunity in the midst of life’s suffering.”
To his followers he taught the Dharma-the fundamental law of existence and a series of practices based on compassion and meditation; a lifetime in service to others as a way to defeat The Buddhists’ greatest enemy: egotism.
Alas, if egotism fuels an individual with greed, lust, anger, and deters him from finding inner peace and clarity of mind, nationalism is, in a way, a country’s collective egotism. Carried too far, and coupled with religiosity, it often leads rigid fundamentalism and xenophobia.
We are entering now what many thinkers and philosophers call the second axial age, an age of pluralism where the various spiritual traditions co-exist. In the best scenario, they could come together to shape the human condition and lead humanity to an age of open- mindedness.
Like it or not, in these global days, no single country can exist as a separate entity, nor can its borders remain impervious to change. The Silk Road along which Buddhism and other religious ideas traveled had crossed into Afghanistan and other ideas will cross it again-perhaps on an even more powerful route-the information highway.
In the true Buddhist view, blasted stone images are mere burps in a temple. No doubt the Buddha himself would discourage statues made in his own image; it’s his experience and message of compassion that is important. If my Great Uncle were alive he, too, would say it’s more important to feed the poor, attend to the sick, and provide spiritual guidance than to pay attention to ancient, crumbling relics.
Buddhism has survived 2,600 years because it is based on a religious program that provides solace and alleviates suffering available to all. No doubt it will continue to be in high demands as long as we live in a flawed and violent world, and will last long after cruel and unjust rulers disappear from the scene.
PNS editor Andrew Lam is a short story writer and commentator for National Public Radio.