Burying the Buddha: a Postmortem Reflection
Where did we bury the prince’s bones? His mother is mourning him. They say a tooth is decaying in a temple somewhere in Japan, saved from the fire bombings; a bone fragment in the north of India receives symbolic kisses every evening at dusk. The man was murdered so we could venerate his ghost. We stripped him of his flesh, dissected his organs and turned them into air to resurrect a giant. His words, if even whispered (they were written down hundreds of years after he died), were codified, made into ideas harder than stone, to be passed on like currency. He became an economy, a commerce of insight.
1. The Buddha is an Idea
Siddhartha has been buried by the Buddha; the myth has murdered the man—the complexity of his humanity reduced in a single night of torment, under a banyan tree, to banal platitudes.
We have an entire economy built around the myth of self-realization. Current iterators of the “Buddha’s teaching” profit from an idea of a saintly ghost, for the man was far more and far less than what we imagine. What he symbolizes is an impossibility, a triumph over temporality, time forever stalled in this epistemological epiphany–the ultimate transcendence of the Bataillian prison.
The paradox: Siddhartha is now a commodity. There are more Buddha images than any other icon in the world. A commodity he is.
Teachers of the Dharma operate as corporations whose product is self-realization. Popular Buddhism, today, does not disrupt the landscape of capitalism: it is a fixture within the geography.
2. Undermining the Master: The Emperor has no Clothes
Spiritual Enlightenment, in modern terminology, could be categorized as a narcissistic complex we have mistaken for a legitimate form of self-knowledge. Those purported to have achieved this state of being are so highly idealized that their very humanity has been erased, replacing their flesh with the fine cloth of symbolism. This symbolism weighs more than any physical burden for it is composed of idealizations distilled over centuries with potent myths of perfection. I pity any who wear this cape of “enlightenment.”
3. Endless Frustration: The Masochism of the Bodhisattva
“Spiritual seeking” often has more in common with sadomasochism than it does with human development. It is a kind of sad addiction to what can never be attained, for the untastable, the unrealizable.
It is this never quite attaining, this endless striving for what does not exist, that the seeker is addicted to. In the end, it reeks of a kind of morbid fetishization of “enlightenment.” A pathetic psychological masochism hellbent on forever being frustrated in the effort to attain an illusion, a vision of human potential that does not exist.
4. If You See the Buddha on the Road: Kill Him
The Buddha is unverifiable, his historicity is impossible to determine. If the man, Siddhartha, did exist his historical authenticity has been nullified by the myth of the Buddha.
It is also just as possible that he never existed, a dream concocted by brilliant monks. A story as enduring as Christ.
5. Transcend Your Insides
The dominant ideology suggests that the mind (what the “mind” means exactly is difficult to define) is a kind of tyrant ruling the subjective domain within each person’s discrete skull-sized kingdom. Another apt metaphor is one where the mind, one’s own interiority, is understood to be a prison.
Responding to this inner despotism, the seeker attempts to transcend her own subjectivity, to subjugate the tyrant within (the “ego”), by yielding to the punishments and frustrations of a guru and/or contemplative practice. This process is usually one of endless deconstruction, a ceaseless fragmenting of the mind. Those who survive this torture talk like survivors of trauma.
6. Name Unknown
Otto Franke wrote: “Guatama Buddha is the exact equivalent of Name Unknown.” What a perfect origin for a corporate entity, the nameless body.
I want to give names back to the dead.
7. The Fantasy
I have a dream where I piece together the fragments of the Buddha’s body, repossessing portions from Thailand, excavating bone dust in China, prying open temple towers in Korea, until I have all of the broken body before me on a table. And then I begin the work of restoration, reaffixing all the jagged edges with glue and twine, even mixing my blood into the resin. When I’m finished the Buddha is finally dead, and I can bury him. The idea of the “awakened one” crumbles when the body of the man is reclaimed.
8. Reclaiming Our Bodies in the Graveyard
The illusion underpinning the myth of enlightenment is that increased interiority, fragmentation, and disconnection leads to spiritual harmony. It is these very characteristics that frustrate the desire and human need for psychological integrity. It is this very loneliness that encourages the projection of disembodied ideals onto the surface of other people.
Intimacy then is far more important than metaphysical insight—for intimacy seeks connection with another, while the metaphysic seeks an invisible third beyond the real, the tangible, the deeply human.
The work of integrating a fragmented psyche occurs in grounded practices, dialogue (the dialogic v. the monologic) and community, not in an emotional vacuum. This emotional void needs repopulating.
I want to put people back into the center of our spirituality, forming bonds of intimacy, rather than creating artificial distances between us. I believe that in reclaiming our bodies in the graveyard of spiritual idealism, remembering our fragmented limbs, we touch a deeper wholeness than any myth, no matter how seductive.