Burn the mona lisa

Many years ago i heard a news story about how the Taliban in Afghanistan were blowing up some ancient Buddhist statues that had been carved into the side of a mountain. Like many religions based on the judeo-christian model, these particular Muslims believed that any image of a “god” was “evil”. I wont even get into the silly argument about how a rock that has some carvings on it can be “evil”, but suffice it to say there was a  huge international outcry condemning the Taliban for this action. What really bothered me was that most of the loudest voices were coming from Buddhists themselves.

There is a great old zen story about a monk who has been studying with his teacher for years, eventually it becomes clear that the student has achieved the understanding to become a master himself. So the old teacher says to the monk, “well, you have understanding now so go out and be a master, and take this book that my teacher and his teacher passed on to him.” The monk politely returned the book saying “thanks, but I have received your teaching and I like its original face, I don’t need a book”. Well the teacher was a little put off and said, “yes I know that, but you should take it anyway because its a tradition.” The monk didn’t want to argue anymore so he accepted the book, he then turned and tossed it in the fire! His teacher exploded with anger at this shouting “WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?” but the monk screamed right back “WHAT ARE YOU SAYING!?

The teacher in the story had been teaching non-attachment to transient things and yet was clearly attached to the book and the tradition of passing it on. The monk actually understood the teaching and had no need for things. The point of the story isnt to say we should destroy anything we like or burn our attachments, its to point out that, like the teacher, we shouldn’t mistake the rhetoric forthe actual message. Awakening wasn’t in the book the monk burned, and neither was it in the tradition.

So when the Taliban blew up those ancient statues it was a shame, I would have preferred that they didnt, but really it didn’t mean shit to me, as a Buddhist, that some old statues were blown up.

We tend to take all kinds of stuff in our world and try to make it more important than it really is. As if by putting this or that thing on a pedestal and calling it ‘very important” that it will somehow make the world feel more comfortable, less ever changing. The problem, as the Buddha taught us, is that all things are impermanent (or as the old books put it “All conditioned phenomena are transitory”) Nothing is outside of this, not us, the world, the universe, or god. And I don’t just mean in a hippy spiritual way either, science has taught us that all matter is made of atoms, and not static atoms either, moving, pulsing, ever changing atoms. The hardest diamond and the densest granite are made of a constant moving, dancing multitude of atoms, particles, and waves. Change, literally, is the foundation of everything around us, in us, and . . .well. . .us.

In art we take a painting like the Mona Lisa and put it in a hyperbaric chamber, we shield it from light, we filter out every iota of air that passes over it and yet for all our efforts its going to pass out of existence. I believe that the longer we hold onto the Mona Lisa unnaturally, the more we damage ourselves. Why? For one thing we have made it so precious and special that people can and would steal or  kill for it, for a painting! This is so patently stupid that it makes my head hurt! There is not one life on this planet, not an ant, not a flea, not a worm that would be worth killing for the Mona Lisa, and yet plenty of folks would murder to possess or protect it. Second, as long as we have this Mona Lisa no artist will be able to create another. Who can create the next great painting of a coyly smiling girl as long as it will always be considered ‘just” another mona lisa? Maybe we don’t need to burn it, but I do think its time to let it (and all other art) fade naturally into graceful dust.

At one point all these great masterworks were hanging in some patrons living room, smoke from their pipes and fires caressed it, curious fingers rubbed it, the air they breathed in and out mingles with the air passing over and through the painting it. They were alive. now they are dead, stiff, preserved like Lenin in some artificial state away from the world that made and cherished them. How often do we do this with our thoughts, beliefs and opinions? We try to take something simple and natural and hold it exactly as it was when we liked it best. . .we turn a living breathing changing thing into a brittle dessicated corpse and wonder why it doesn’t make us happy anymore.

When I was still married, the most frequent argument my ex and I got into was over how the other person “wasn’t like they used to be”. It seems so stupid to me now, but  neither of us could accept that this person we were married to somehow wasn’t the same person they had been a decade before! We didn’t want to accept that we had changed, we couldn’t live with the fact that what we had been was gone and we tried for too many years to hold onto that past as if by doing so that we could stop the world. It was a disaster. The day i got up from my daily zazen and realised that I had been holding onto a dead notion and let it go I felt like a newborn child. Even my ex, who by that point never said more than a word to me in a day felt it, we were frightened to be ending something we had believed would last forever, but both of us felt how freeing it was to simply accept reality.

And reality is what it is all about. Those statues stood for a thousand years and they were beautiful, for better or for worse they were blown up by people so scared that they need to destroy anything that reminded them that the world isn’t exactly how their dead, dessicated belief told them it should be. Now, at least, someone can get to work carving new Buddhas out of the mountains.

Categories: Buddhism and life | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Burn the mona lisa

  1. Well, this was a wise post indeed. Thank you, Jason!

  2. Hi Jason,
    I was very angry when the Bamiyan statues were destroyed. Eventually, I realized the Taliban made a more profound ‘Buddhist’ statement by opening the emptiness of the spaces where the carvings were. Maybe the Taliban did one good thing? 😉 -kerry

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