Are images of the Lord Buddha alive? Does anything live inside a solid chedi ?
These are the sorts of questions I was instructed not to ask when I arrived in Chiang Mai 52 years ago. My predecessor missionaries had dismissed the whole area of inquiry as superstition, and dispensed with the Buddhism as another religion. Certain Buddhist stories and doctrines could perhaps be usefully studied, but study of the occult would lead to no good conclusions. Contemporary people are not eager to enter into long conversations about these matters either, because such topics are relegated to margins so remote as to be irrelevant. Even local village Buddhists would look askance at my question, “Is that Buddha image alive?” I would get a variety of responses all amounting to, “No.”
But it is a topic I wish to investigate a bit further because I have had a few experiences that make me wonder how firm the conviction is that there is nothing about those items in Buddhist temples beyond their symbolic or metaphorical aspects. This is a topic I have not yet thoroughly studied. This short essay should be treated as nothing more than an announcement of my intention to be talking to people and writing further about it.
Here is my starting point: an individual may be considered “alive” if it manifests the characteristics of a living being. A being is alive, my biology teachers insisted, if it performs these 7 functions:
In biology, whether life is present is determined based on the following seven criteria:
1.It can sustain its structure and condition.
2.Its structure is highly organized.
3.It can assimilate and utilize nutrients as needed.
4.It can grow into a full-sized being.
5.It can adapt to its environment.
6.It can respond to stimuli.
7.It can reproduce itself.
Perhaps I will begin by simply asking such questions as, “When the Buddha image has his eyes opened, what can he see?” “What function does the ‘heart’ of the Buddha perform after it is installed in the image?” “How do relics of the Lord Buddha reproduce?” “What happens when the heart of the pagoda is removed for its annual parade through the village?” “Does it ever go alone?” “How does the city pillar protect the city?”
I do not mean to investigate these mysteries in order to expose their fallacies, but in order to discover why belief in them is so powerful and persistent.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.