Email: The Empty Throne of the Buddha (18.8.2020)

The ‘Empty’ Throne of the Buddha (c. 2nd – 3rd Centuries CE)

Worship in all its grades and kinds, is the response of the creature to the Eternal: nor need we limit this definition to the human sphere. There is a sense in which we may think of the whole life of the Universe, seen and unseen, conscious and unconscious, as an act of worship, glorifying its Origin, Sustainer and End. Only in some such context, indeed, can we begin to understand the emergence and growth of the spirit of worship in men…. For worship is an acknowledgement of Transcendence: that is  to say, of a Reality independent of the worshipper, which is always more or less deeply coloured by mystery, and which is there first.  ….. a latent recognition of a metaphysical reality standing over and against physical reality, which men are driven to adore and long to apprehend. Worship – Evelyn Underhill (1936)

Dear Gillian

Spot-on and correct! What you are writing a) provides me with ‘new’ knowledge from a source I can trust [you], and b) validates my own experiences via meditation, contemplation and prayer (although the latter is more a type of specially focused meditation for me due to my Buddhist upbringing). The ‘divine’ moment, is, of course, ‘eternal’ and ‘ever-present’, even though for many the battle is to directly cognise this reality. Again, as a ‘direct perception’ – there is no need for the supporting structures of ‘belief’, at least not for myself. What I am saying is that although I do not artificially ‘believe’, I certainly do not ‘disbelieve’. I am free to move in the ten directions without hindrance. If you go to the V&A in London, they possess an impressive Jainist and Buddhist section with many ancient statues, engravings, etchings, pottery and manuscripts, etc, from India. These are important archaeological documents that ‘record’ human existence (and ‘thought’) and various times in its evolution. However, in the earliest Buddhist artwork and iconology, the Buddha is recorded by ‘not being there’. Within Buddhist artwork, it is not until between 100 BCE – 100 CE (in Gandhara, modern Afghanistan) that ‘rupa’ or ‘physical’ statues of the Buddha started appearing (usually in two types with one copying the Jains and their statues of a seated and meditating Mahavera, and the other copying how the Greeks depicted a great philosopher, usually standing and giving a lecture). Prior to this (and sometimes afterwards), the Buddha’s philosophy of realising ’emptiness’ was emphasised in artwork and he was depicted as ‘not being here’. Ther are empty chairs, a tree, a chakra-wheel and even a pair of foot-prints. There is a Roman Villa preserved in Kent which we take the children to look around every so often. It was built and inhabited between 100 CE – 400 CE and has an elaborate shrine room dedicated to all the gods of the Roman Empire, including the Christians. The Christians are depicted as being represented by a mosaic depicting two-fishes that look like they are dolphins. These fish are arranged in a pattern very similar to the Yin-Yang Roundel developed during the Song Dynasty in China (c. 12 century CE) – but this Roman building pre-dated that by about a thousand years! My point is that Christians had their symbols, and these symbols ‘evolved’ over-time and went in and out of fashion. Symbols are doorways that should lead the searcher to new discoveries – but ‘idolatry’ locks the searcher into a prison of their own making. The cell of a monk, for instance, is a doorway to new discoveries, but the image of the cell is not carried around in the mind or pocket, etc. 

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