Buddhist Iconography, Christian Iconography: Buddhist Spirituality, Christian Spirituality

At Kun Iam Temple in Macau

The picture above was taken at Kun Iam Temple in Macau.

I live in Asia. I know full well that not all Buddhist saints, all Taoist figures, all Hindu figures, all religious figures depicted in temples here, have the same look to them. There’s variety. There are different themes. There are different ideals. We must acknowledge this. At the very least, that’s fair. But it’s also not fair to deny that images like the one above are real. And this image looks nothing like the ideal of Christianity.

I’m far from the first one to notice this peculiar fact. While I was not yet a Catholic, I read these words of G. K. Chesterton’s:

No two ideals could be more opposite than a Christian saint in a Gothic cathedral and a Buddhist saint in a Chinese temple. The opposition exists at every point; but perhaps the shortest statement of it is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open. The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The mediaeval saint’s body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive. There cannot be any real community of spirit between forces that produced symbols so different as that… The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards. If we follow that clue steadily we shall find some interesting things.

Of course, Chesterton, in the middle of this thought, clarifies:

Granted that both images are extravagances, are perversions of the pure creed, it must be a real divergence which could produce such opposite extravagances.

His goal is not to condemn, let alone condemn real people whose ideals and hearts are not corrupted in their environment, whatever it may be. And my goal, too, is not to condemn. In fact, I’ve learned a thing or two (hopefully more) from Buddhist teachers and from living in a predominantly Buddhist country. Indeed, I’m convinced non-Christians can go pretty far on the spiritual journey!

If I want to point out divergences, it’s only to help Christians do what Christians are called to do, and to be what they are called to be. For G. K. Chesteron has a point. Aside from representing a beautiful human being, the image at the top of this page has little in common with the image of a Christian saint in a Gothic cathedral.

But we needn’t take a Gothic cathedral. (I have little taste for Gothic art, especially Gothic revival. The outwardness of Christian eyes shouldn’t be “frantic”, for one thing. It should be a peaceful, joyful outwardness.) We could take other styles and expressions of Christian culture. We don’t have to get caught in the medieval world. We could take Christianity in Asia to contrast with Buddhism in Asia. In Macau also there is a Chapel of Francis Xavier, where a bone of the saint used to be held (Saint Francis Xavier died on Saint John’s Island, near Macau). At that chapel, we have this fiery depiction of the saint:

At the Chapel of Francis Xavier in Coloane Village, Macau

Granted that, just like the image from Kun Iam Temple, this image is just one image. It’s no scientific survey, by far. But the contrast is stunning. In the first image, we have a happiness with one’s state: the eyes are contentedly inwards, the belly full, the smile satisfied with the things of the world. In the second image, we have a fire: the eyes are peaceful but alive, outwards; the background is aflame; the icon itself proclaims that this man left all to carry the Cross. If there’s any inwardness to the eyes, it’s an inwardness of peace and joy, which sees the Beloved, who is Another, setting up home in Francis’ heart. The inwardness is not contented, it is peaceful and joyful. Any inwardness is itself a relationship – a relationship with the Three who dwell, with the whole Church of Heaven, in the hearts of the just.

This is why it’s nonsense to take “meditation” practices from other religious traditions are try to baptize them. All practices have a goal. We can’t change the practice’s goal by calling it “Christian”. Christian prayer has a goal of its own, begun in the revelation to the Jewish people and culminating in the very person of that one Jewish man who is Jesus Christ. Christian prayer must be Christian prayer. It must begin with salvation history. Salvation history says, “God is Father, God is Love.”

Christian prayer is, “Daddy, I need you; I love you.” It’s not an enlightening idea. It’s not an emptying of the mind. It’s a totally affective transformation of the human person into God, who was crucified. While saints like John of the Cross teach that God will take away our spiritual control and strip us of our sense consolations and spiritual consolations, they never say to deliberately seek an empty mind. For a self-emptied mind means a very powerful self-will – and for Christians, this self-will must be starved, not fed. We cannot empty our mind. And that’s not the point. We can only do the will of God, and God will show us that our mind, our heart, our affections, Sacred Heart depicted at the shrine of Mary Annai Celangkanni in Medan, Sumatra, Indonesiaour will, our memory: all are ill-suited to accommodate God. Then, when we see this, God will dry them up, carve our capacities deeper, and pour himself into them. Hence the colourful fire in the icon of the Apostle of Asia. Caught in the divine fire, burning as a dwelling-place for the Divine Three at the deepest point of our soul, the human being is transformed and transfigured piece by piece. But not by being stuck on his belly and his mind! Far from it. He is transformed and transfigured in Divine Light by seeing that the heart is the centre of the human person. The heart, not the belly (solar plexus), not the mind. And all must become shaped by a burning heart, where the Trinity dwells.

Christian contemplation (and Christian meditation, for the goal of Christian meditative practices is contemplation itself) and the “contemplation” or “meditation” of some others may not be the same. The words and the sources don’t matter. Who said words and what words they chose are not of great importance. But the reality expressed matters a lot. The goal, the image, the ideal, make all the difference in the world. Which image – that taken at Kun Iam Temple or that take at the Chapel of Francis Xavier – better matches what we want from life? What are we aiming at? What is the Christian’s goal in prayer?

The Christian seeks God’s will. The Christian seeks joy, for God is Father. The image at the top of this post is not full of joy that comes in the midst of sadness; it has only, or primarily, contentedness. But should we be content with anything less that God himself?


2 thoughts on “Buddhist Iconography, Christian Iconography: Buddhist Spirituality, Christian Spirituality

  1. Amen. Seek first the kingdom of God.

    This brings to mind the painting by Hieronymous Bosch ‘Christ Crowned with Thorns’. It is as if the pale, vulnerable Christ is gazing out at the viewer and asking, “And what about you?”

  2. I very much appreciate what you say about Christian contemplation being about letting oneself be filled with God and the focus being on him, whereas Buddhist meditation is about emptying oneself and focusing inwards. But the image at the top of the post is so ugly!!! It reminds me of a perverted old man. I didn’t know until you pointed it out that it is supposed to be an ideal! The picture of the saint is immediately inspiring and peaceful at the same time. What a contrast! Thanks for sharing your insights.

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