Graven Images

July 29, 2013 § Leave a comment


In Exodus 20: 3-4 God tells Moses, “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”  Historically, statements like this have been used to justify the destruction of art and historical artifacts as, for example, the destruction in 2001 of two colossal images of the Buddha in Bamiyan Province, Afghanistan.  The edict to destroy these and other statues came from Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar who was against graven images or images of humans and animals.

The true meaning of God’s direction to Moses wasn’t to oppress art or creativity but simply to refrain from creating images that replace God in our hearts.  Paintings and statues that praise God are not a problem as long as they do not replace God. Art and creativity are the god-force working through us.

In mysticism, internal images of God must be removed if the mystic is to step into the Transcendent or Unitive Life.  Final surrendering of these images comes about only through “the dark night of the soul”, a time of intense suffering that illustrates how tenaciously even the mystic clings to her images of God.  Yet it is through surrender that the mystic is able to enter upon a new order of life that can only be called divine.

In Buddhism we find a similar directive to let go of images, as expressed in the notion of Anatman, or no-self.  In its simplest form this is expressed in the direction to refrain from seeking some subtle object that represents the self, higher consciousness or nirvana.  It is what is implied in Dogen’s “dropping off body and mind.”

Even in ordinary psychology we find the tendency to place some authority figure (a father, mother, religious or political figure) before our own inner authority.  Or, we parade high on a staff some image of pleasure, power or money upon which we focus our energies and, in so doing, turn away from our true nature.  The eventual result of this is alienation, neurosis or even, in some cases, psychosis.

Carving images and placing them before God is an activity we all.  Clinging to these images prevents us from knowing God and manifesting our true nature.  Is it any wonder, then, that Christ gave no answer when asked, “What is truth?”  Or that when Zen Master Nansen was asked, “What is Buddha?” he replied, “Three pounds of flax!”

God.  Truth.  Buddha nature.  Cannot be contained or fixed in any image, philosophy or religion.  Those who seek to contain God, seek to restrain Truth to their own personal interests.  Those who seek to contain God, end up with tiny graven images of God.

Each of us is a unique container of true nature. Learning how to recognize and manifest this is what true religion and philosophy are all about.  The Taliban are also unique containers but in 2001 their ignorance had them focusing on the Buddha statues in Afghanistan rather than the graven images in their own minds.  But all of us, not just the Taliban, need to free ourselves from the graven images in our minds that keep us in bondage.  This is the way to equality, peace and freedom.

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