The Bamiyan buddhas and living as light

I found myself thinking about the giant statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan today. They were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, and across the world, there was outrage and regret for the loss of monumental works of art, timeless reminders of history, the icons of a spiritual path followed by millions. 


In her book, Buddha, Karen Armstrong states that the earliest icons of the Buddha were not of something present, as buddha-images, but of what wasn’t there: such as an empty footprint, marking the passing-by of the teacher who had lived, taught, and “crossed over.”  The massive empty alcoves in the cliffs are a potent reminder of what had been there, unintentionally becoming icons themselves under the older aesthetics.

Much has happened since the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan were destroyed: terrorist attacks, and attacks to prevent terrorist attacks. Revolutions and counter-revolutions. Prosperity and recession, protests and repression, peacemaking and hope, unprecedented travel and unprecedented quarantine. These all come and go, with effects that also come and go, as we, too, come and go.

However, several years ago, the Buddhas of Bamiyan briefly returned, as figures of light (see above). Perhaps the original sculptors would have chosen this medium if it had been available to them then. I’ll take it as a reminder to try to live as a light.

That Bodhisatta Vow

One of the things I appreciate most about my teacher, is that he’s a bodhisattva, not just a buddha. In English, that means that he’s concerned with the salvation of the world. At his enlightenment, he chose to return to this world with all its sorrows and pains, and he wants his students to become enlightened and practice being the light, so they can give light to the world wherever they are, whatever they do.

One night just over six years ago, Jesus came to me, and destroyed my religion. What was left was something I didn’t expect—a fierce desire to follow him, to be like him. I realized he was Bodhisattva, Christ, the teacher who saves the world, and that he himself said he longs for us to follow him in this work, to be one in him, as he is one in the Father (Jn. 17:21-22). St. Paul taught that Christ is a power of God that extends beyond Jesus, that all who sincerely trust him, become “members of his body,” that is, parts of the same being (I Cor. 12:27), and that Jesus is the eldest of many brothers (Rom. 8.29).
So, a few days later, on May 5, 2000, as I sat on a pier I privately made my own bodhisattva vow to God, to work for the salvation of all according to all the grace I am given.

I confess I do not live up to my vow very well. Perhaps it is because it’s so daunting that so few people take it up in this culture. Yet my vow works on me, as I work to fulfill it … And I’m blessed to know a realized bodhisattva who guides me to the light I want to shine.

Last night, Kitabu Roshi urged his students to “become what you admire.” Not to just worship Christ, but to become Christ, become the Buddha, become the teacher.

There’s so much that can be said about this, so much that has been said already. But those who actually come to believe it’s possible are few, and those who resolve to do it, are fewer still. So today, I renew my vow. Theosis is more than just a work of grace. It’s a pledge to be worked on and be available for the world, here and now.

Are some of you also being called to this?

Hardcore Zen:

Punk Rock, Monster Movies, and the Truth about Reality

© 2003 by Brad Warner
Published by: Wisdom Publications 206 pp.

not your grandmother’s zen book

Hardcore Zen cover

You won’t find Hardcore Zen at the bookstore by looking for a cover with a pretty “Zen” picture. This one is about showing us what we don’t want to see; in keeping with that spirit, the cover features a toilet. Brad Warner uses many expressions of the kind which Captain Kirk described as “colorful metaphors” in Star Trek IV, some of which are really striking, “like a pit bull [on] a postman’s ass,” to quote Brad. This ain’t your grandma’s Zen book.

A friend asked me a couple of years ago what I found so valuable about Buddhism, and I replied that Buddhism seemed obsessed with reality. Brad seems to agree, and the difference between reality and “religion” is a running theme throughout the book.

Brad is a married American Zen priest living and teaching in Tokyo, whose day job is making Ultraman monster movies. In keeping with that theme of learning from reality, Brad teaches Zen from his own life, and the book is about one-third autobiography, and two-thirds hard-hitting Zen lessons. He discovered Zen while a punk-rock musician studying at Kent State University (at the same time I was there, BTW). From there he went to Japan, and found employment in making cheesy monster movies, a Soto Zen master, and a wife. Hmm, did I say hard-hitting? Isn’t Zen supposed to be something like a spacious room covered with floor cushions, perfumed with incense, New Age music rippling through the air, and a copy of The Art of Tea on the coffee table? No, it isn’t; It’s about discovering your true nature, and Brad’s mission is to shock us into realizing how desperately we avoid our reality, even with most of what we consider “spirituality.”

Hardcore Zen is does have some flaws. Sometimes Brad seems to condemn whatever awakening experiences and traditions which are not like the Zen ideal. My suspicion is that although enlightenment is only one thing, all who experience it do so differently, and will use different terms to describe it.

a brilliant introduction

But if you can take an occasional jibe to your tradition, you’ll find that Warner Roshi is an excellent teacher. His explication of the Heart Sutra is the best I’ve ever read, and his chapter on the “The World of Demons” by itself is worth much more than the price of the entire book. Brad explains how practicing zazen lifts the lid on the things we’ve tried to hide from ourselves, and often reveals what we didn’t want to see: makyo (our psychological demons). This extremely helpful chapter gives excellent advice on how to cope when we start seeing ourselves as we really are instead of how we’ve told ourselves we are. Beyond that, this chapter also has the most lucid explanation of the “no-self” concept in Zen, which can be helpful even to those who have been practicing Zen for years.

The next chapter, “In My Next Life, I Want to Come Back as a Pair of Lucy Liu’s Panties” (I wonder what his wife thinks of that title!) follows, with the clearest explanation I’ve ever seen on how the Buddhist concept of rebirth differs significantly from the general idea of reincarnation. Brad shows how our concepts of the afterlife are usually far off the mark because we don’t understand this present life, which happens in the present moment.

No Sex with Cantaloupes” (great chapter titles, huh?) is a delightful perspective on personal and social Buddhist morality through the ten training precepts, with an emphasis on its importance: “There are nitwits out there who’ll tell you Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism, isn’t concerned with morality, that it’s enlightenment that really counts. They’re wrong. Enlightenment is crap. Living morally and ethically is what really matters.”

That leads into another “hardcore” message: the waste of searching for “enlightenment.” Soon after I realized that enlightenment is real, and there actually are people who maintain a constant awareness of non-duality, I succumbed to the disease of enlightenment-seeking, and from which my own teacher had been trying to cure me. Something clicked in me when reading this:

Zazen isn’t about blissing out or going into an alpha brain-wave trance. It’s about facing who and what you really are, every single goddamn moment. And you aren’t bliss, I’ll tell you that right now. You’re a mess. We all are. But here’s the thing. That mess is itself enlightenment. You’ll eventually see that the “you” that’s a mess isn’t really “you” at all. But whether you notice your own enlightenment or not is entirely inconsequential. Whether you think of yourself as enlightened or not has nothing to do with the real state of affairs.

This is an extremely important point which all the thousands of enlightenment seekers in the world would do well to take to heart. The bottom line, Brad says, is that reality is real. Enlightenment isn’t escaping from it, but going into it, and finding the treasure inside every part and every moment. Hardcore Zen ends with a compelling appeal to practice zazen, the concentrated practice of looking at reality. Zazen can change us, and the world, from within, by destroying the self-interest that comes with the myth of self. He closes with some clear, simple instructions for beginning Zen meditation, written with the confidence of a master who has himself been transformed by this practice.

Brad also has a website with some wonderful pages written in his inimitable style, at Sit Down and Shut Up!»

Update, December 5, 2004. Brad has now moved back to the US, and is living in Hollywood, California. I’ve also updated the link above with his new URL


by Karen Armstrong,
© 2001 by Karen Armstrong
Published by Penguin Books 205 pp.

an insightful biography

book cover

Karen Armstrong, the author of the best-sellers A History of God, The Battle for God, and Islam: A Short History, is known for her reputation as a lucid and insightful historian of Western religions, with a particular expertise on Islam. Leaving the interplay of monotheistic history might seem like a departure for her, but it really isn’t. Even in A History of God, Armstrong referred often to happenings in the Buddhist world to give an even wider perspective to Western religious history. Apparently, she has an inside connection; she dedicates this book to Lindsey Armstrong, her Buddhist sister.

There are many excellent biographies of the Buddha available, especially coming from a faith perspective, such as Thich Nhat Hahn’s Old Path, White Clouds. However, Armstrong predictably applies her historian’s ability to capture the sense of the time and presents Siddhatta Gotama (aka Siddhartha Gautama; Armstrong uses Pali forms consistently in this book) in the context of his time and culture. She begins with a frank assessment of the difficulty of a historian’s work in capturing Gotama’s life. Although the massive Pali canon bursts at the seams with his conversations and accounts of events in his life, they are conspicuously stylized for recitation, and they deliberately avoid revealing his personality. Furthermore, they were not committed to writing until hundreds of years after his death, so a historian must use them judiciously. Nevertheless, Armstrong dives into the accounts, separating the oldest accounts from later ones, and embellishments from history. Her style might seem somewhat repetitive to someone familiar with Buddhism, but she wants to build a clear understanding with a reader who knows nothing on the subject. Generally, her style is clear and fresh, only occasionally does her perspective get in the way, for instance, in psychologizing Mara the tempter’s appearance as Buddha’s subconscious “shadow.”

looking around the buddha

Armstrong’s greatest accomplishment here is in looking around the Buddha to give the reader a sense of the social and political situation in upper Ganges basin, the family life of a prince of a major tribe, and the interweaving threads of his family and companions throughout his life. For instance, we find that becoming a sanyasin, a renunciate monk, was not at all uncommon. Armstrong shows us that thousands of young people throughout the region were sick of the structure of their society and resolved to “go forth” as renunciates, rebelling against a world-system that seemed evil and meaningless by dedicating themselves to finding the key to total liberation from it. For them, total liberation meant never having to return to this realm where ultimately sickness and death prevail. So pervasive was the dissatisfaction with the state of things, that Armstrong says these mendicant monks were seen as “heroic pioneers” and were “honored as rebels” by society as a whole.

The account of the six years between Gotama’s “going forth” to becoming the enlightened one is particularly fascinating. We learn surprisingly specific information of the teachers he had, the philosophies they upheld, the disciplines he practiced, and why he ultimately found all of them lacking. From there, we learn of his dedication to the practice of mindfulness, the discovery of the Eightfold Path, and his enlightenment.

Much Buddhist writing is simply dreary. Unenlightened Buddhists not only lack the experience which they seek, but they may not have the environment of joyous enlightenment around them to fuel their quest with joy. Non-Buddhists who write on Buddhism routinely misinterpret vital but difficult concepts such as nirvanaanicca, and anatta, sometimes even believing them to signify a quest for annihilation! (Amazing the persistence of such ignorance.) Armstrong is the first writer I’ve come across who successfully communicates the incredible joy the Buddha radiated, which drew tens of thousands of people to his radical way of life. People saw something passionate and compelling in him! In short, this book will certainly give readers new insight into the Buddha, and might give many new insight into Buddhism itself.

Saffron Days in L. A.

Tales of a Buddhist Monk in America

© 2001 by Bhante Walpola Piyananda
Foreword by the Dalai Lama, Published by: Shambhala Publications, 187 pp.

adventures in america

What’s too often missing in the whole field of religious writing, is something that goes beyond the “belief systems” into conveying what it is like, really, to be a passionate Christian / Muslim / Buddhist / Jedi or whatever, and explain it so that others can understand. Saffron Days in L. A. is an excellent book on Buddhism for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike since it has everything—humor, humanity, love, life stories, and yep, a pretty clear explanation about beliefs.

Bhante [the Sri Lankan title for Buddhist monks] Walpola Piyananda came to the United States on July 4, 1976, the very day of the Bicentennial celebrations. He established the first Theravada Buddhist temple in the Los Angeles area, and this book is a collection of memoirs of his experiences in the US. What great experiences they are, too! In the opening chapter, he tells about a young American convert who became a monk and soon found it unbearable to endure the constant harassment and taunts he received for wearing the traditional saffron-colored robe. Piyananda encouraged him by sharing his own difficulties wearing the Theravadin robe in L. A. including the hilarious story of waiting to meet someone in an office building and needing to make an adjustment to his robe (see sidebar).

the power of love

What strikes me most about Piyananda’s ministry is his gift for communicating gently but persuasively, with almost anyone, in almost any circumstances. One very funny story concerns how he and a friend were cornered by a threatening gang of punks on a pier. Piyananda not only turned the situation around, but had all five members of the gang asking him questions for the rest of the afternoon. Three of them later began studying Buddhism with him, and one even became a monk.


Donning the robe is a reflection of the philosophy of dhamma, and an art in itself. Every crease and every fold has a meaning and a purpose. Carefully, I rolled one corner of the outer fold of the cloth and shaped it into a robe. While doing so, I spread the other fold of the cloth over my head, which completely covered my face. Then I wrapped the rolled fold of the robe around my neck before bringing the fold covering my head and face down over my shoulders. While my face was still covered, I saw the shadow of the woman on the couch rush past me to the elevator.

No sooner had I finished arranging my robe than I heard the fire sirens approaching around the corner. Within seconds, police cruisers and an ambulance pulled up in front of the lobby. The policemen and paramedics came running and as they approached I could see looks of utter astonishment on their faces. One officer stepped forward and ask me brusquely what I was trying to do. I was totally confused by then, and I asked the group of would-be rescuers if someone would please explain what was going on.

The first police officer said, ‘A woman called nine-one-one and reported an attempted suicide in the lobby. She told the dispatcher that an Indian guru was trying to suffocate himself with his long dress!

Saffron Days in L. A., pp.5-6

In a more serious situation, Piyananda received a phone call one night from a woman being held at gunpoint by her husband who was threatening to kill her and their children in a fit of jealous rage. Piyananda talked him into letting his wife go, got his children to safety before he could do them harm, and furthermore talked him into meeting him at the temple, surrendering his gun, and letting go of his rage. The incident ended not only without violence, but even without police involvement! A year later the man and his children were happily building new lives for themselves.

Other stories relate the challenges of helping a prostitute escape her profession and move on to a better life, the frustrations of constantly being mistaken for a Hari Krishna, explaining the Buddhist position to Christian fellow-students at Northwestern University, counseling junior monks, and the always-fun task of talking thugs out of killing him.

Piyananda uses his flair for story-telling to teach at every possible opportunity, and many a more serious student of Buddhism will find valuable information as he addresses popular misconceptions. For instance, the well-known story of the Buddha abandoning his family to live as an ascetic turns out to be false, a romanticized detail of the Buddha’s life added by Buddhaghosa in the fourth century, AD. Numerous earlier writings show that the Buddha left his family with their permission. Piyananda is not only a great storyteller, but an distinguished scholar who holds doctorates from both UCLA and the College of Buddhist Studies in Los Angeles.

Piyananda’s example is also likely to shatter the false notion which some non-Buddhists hold of Buddhism as lacking an ethic of service and social involvement. Piyananda lives a life of compassionate service, helping new immigrants from Southeast Asia, curing an alcoholic man by chanting with him nightly, and urging non-violence and forgiveness even after terrible tragedy (he delivered the eulogy for the funeral service of nine people killed in a massacre at a temple in Arizona). Piyananda’s renunciation of attachments and pleasures in order to freely give his love to all reminds me of no one so much as St. Francis of Assisi, the one who grew rich in having nothing but the blessings of God himself. Indeed, Franciscans are often attracted to Buddhism, and for good reason—the Buddha’s life and Francis’ are full of parallels. Furthermore, Jesus’ and Buddha’s life also have many parallels.

Whether you are Christian, Buddhist, both, or other, and whether you have never read about the faith before or have been practicing it for years, read Saffron Days. It will make you laugh, teach you, and inspire you.