This is the season when religious symbolism is prominent – especially in the Christian world. We tend to assume that similar symbols figure in the same manner in other religions. That is not so. Buddhism is the notable example of why.
The Buddha image is the most exceptional of religious icons. Its aesthetic is unique. Sculptures, paintings and photos have made it as familiar as portraits of Jesus on the cross. Ubiquity, though, has voided it of mystery and meaning. For stylistic simplicity makes it all too easy to miss the refinements of expression that convey the essence of Buddhist cosmology. The observer thereby fails to grasp its value as an aid to meditation as well.
In the first centuries after Siddhartha’s death, the emergent spiritual movement that was early Buddhism created no images of their guide. That was not due to any prohibition on physical representations such as that laid down in Islam against depictions of Allah or Mohammed. Rather, it reflected two cardinal features of Siddhartha and the religion that he inspired. Paramount is the central fact that he was not a prophet, did not see himself as a prophet and was not viewed as a prophet by his disciples. Comparisons with the prophetic religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism are quite beside the point. The Buddha did not claim to be a messenger for an anthropomorphic god or have special access to any sort of Supreme Being. Indeed, unlike the Hindu sages of his times he never affirmed the existence of a universal spirit or immanent consciousness. In other words, his perspective deviates from the core Vedic concepts of the individual atman as an emanation of the universal brahman. That distinction was the theological difference that has separated the two great Indian religions.
Buddha’s teaching stemmed from two elemental truths. The first, experiential and inferential, is that human life is a veil of tears. We suffer because the practicalities of life are painful and pain is everywhere, because we are afflicted with illness and the dread of death, and because we cannot make sense of any of this. The human condition. His answer offers no fairy tales of salvation or a paradisiacal afterlife. There is no cosmic drama, no creation myths – not even the consolation of belief in a spiritual unity at some deep level of existence as with the Hindu’s ‘divine ground of being.’ Buddha’s austere teaching speaks only of the state of Nirvana which, once attained, liberates us from a world where we are consumed by the cares and things of this world. Those cares and things have no fixed reality or meaning; they are no more than transitory states of mind that are in constant flux.
Nirvana is commonly described as ‘nothingness’ or a ‘void.’ From our commonplace perspective it seems as such. (For example, how we feel when hung-over on a Sunday morning and awaken to the drone of politicos on Sunday morning talk shows). But the Buddhist conception is of unnatural serenity and bliss. It is what persons feel when they are in the most rarified mystical experience - or ‘zero experience’ as it called (itself a misnomer). That experience is transformative insofar as one retains a residual awareness of the insignificance of our prosaic wants and passions. Hence, we can live at peace with ourselves and our condition. Upon physical death, those who have achieved Nirvana will forever be in that state.
How then can the ineffable be conveyed? The only way that Buddhists have found to do so is to represent the Buddha as he appeared when in Nirvana. There is reason to assume that Siddhartha was born with the propensity to slip into the zero experience with relative frequency. Unlike other famed mystics, he had no preconceived religious beliefs or doctrine to which he could revert for supernatural explanations. Nor any inclination therefore to concoct a doctrine to attach readily comprehensible meaning to his experiences, i.e. become a prophet. To put it somewhat differently, he was disposed not to – since he was surrounded by the rich, symbol laden and inquiring spirituality that pervaded early Hindu India that could have inclined him in that direction.
So the tangible Buddha image bears the heavy weight of coming as close as possible to hinting at the ultimate intangible. The great, unmatched achievement of the finest Buddhist sculptures is to do exactly that. These supreme masterpieces literally raise the aesthetic to the plane of the most distant spirituality - all with no or the very slightest symbolism as an assist.
(To what extent they also serve to assist the seeker of Nirvana to advance toward his goal is unknowable). The artist’s success, therefore, cannot readily be explained in terms of particular features or technique as in commonly done for Western art forms depicting religious figures. Why some piece of sculpture succeeds while others do not probably has something to do with the particular artist’s own inner spiritual aesthetic. The subtleties that make the difference are unlikely to be consciously planned; they confer the sentiment of piece’s creator at the time of creation.
Some time spent in the presence of one of these exceptional sculptures allows us to sense the difference. That is, we sense something that is absent when we view less exalted works even where their depiction of Buddha is well done by technical standards. The physical differences are ones of millimeters in size, curvature and plane. It would be illuminating to place them side by side, but that opportunity rarely presents itself. I possess one high grade, if not masterpiece, Buddha. I also have a couple of heads done by Thai artists who sought to emulate the purest of Khmer and Ayodhya classic works using the same materials and conception. After a while, it becomes evident that the ‘true’ sculpture evokes feelings that the excellent modern work does not.
This not simply a matter of aesthetics as conventionally understand. Some of the most exquisite works of Buddhist art are from the Gandharan period. These refined pieces display the influence of classical Greek sculpture. Of unsurpassed beauty, they remain of this world. To my eyes at least, they do not manage to convey that extra-worldly dimension that their finest counterparts in Indian, Khmer, Thai, Tibetan, Chinese or Japanese Buddhist sculptures somehow realize.
These subtle issues of the Buddha images’ spiritual aesthetic bear on the religious life of the most Buddhists only slightly. For few intentionally seek advance toward Nirvana through contemplation of Siddhartha’s image. Ritual, virtuous deeds, ecstatic devotion, immersion in the learned texts are all avenues that the faithful can follow to find edification. Together they compose the rich legacy of a religion whose stringent eschatology is oddly permissive of a full range of spiritual practices. Siddhartha is a pervasive presence in all forms of Buddhist religious expression – as guide, teacher, model, and icon. So, too, is his image. Through two and a half millennia, it has evolved as the visual expression of a multiform religious persona. Siddhartha could not avoid being cast as the incarnation and the embodiment of all truth. So he is the object of devotion for Buddhists desiring inspiration, hope, consolation and wisdom as well as the ultimate release. The Buddha’s teaching of transcendence of the world we experience did not preclude his prescribing principles for the virtuous life. Like the other great sages of the Axial Age, his abiding concern was the well being of all humanity while in this mortal coil even as we navigate the path that leads beyond it.
This is the season when tourists flock to museums abroad in search of inspiration or edification. Most are satisfied with registering impressions. A few submit themselves to the tutorial provided by cassette and headphone. The art student dwells on form and technique. Only over time do we stumble across the puzzles, the stories and the inner meanings that elude both casual viewing and scholasticism.
The realization that something is there that needs explication crystallizes unpredictably. One such encounter occurred while strolling through the Renaissance galleries of the Uffizi. It suddenly struck me that Jesus is invariably portrayed with the same visage and expression. His face is placid, the expression disengaged, the look that of a mild -tempered man who feels for others. Stylization to this degree is understandable in Buddhist representations of Gautama. Still, those convey an inner force, a commanding silence. And, the Buddha has achieved Nirvana. Jesus, though, was of this world - whatever his emanation and spiritual essence. He acted and reacted with others. Yet little if any emotion is evident, even when involved in acts of great drama. The Jesus casting the money changers out of the Temple (a Rembrandt excepted), the Jesus walking on the waters of the Galilee, and the Jesus taking the Last Supper in awareness of what awaited him appear no different from Jesus the pacific soul in more prosaic settings that painters have drawn for us. Of course, the Calvary is a different story - but the puzzle of why such uniformity in other scenes remains.
Prophets are men of passion. They radiate great force. They fire the spirits of their followers. They are charismatic in the true sense. There is no blaze in the eyes of the Jesus shown to us. There is no physical expression whatsoever of whom he is. The Jesus who has come down to us doesn't even stand out among his disciples. If he weren't seated in the center at the Last Supper and crowned with a halo, we'd have to look carefully in order to identify him - in many renderings, anyway. The Roman authorities had to bribe Judas to identify the scourge of Jerusalem – as it is recounted. I know of only one painting that deviates from this norm. The Renaissance painter Melozzo da Forli did a stunning Christ portrait that hangs in the Palazza Ducale of Urbino. His Jesus has intense eyes that burn like ice. They bore into you. His Jesus could stir the soul. I suspect that Melozzo had a keen insight into the psychology of prophecy that eluded his fellow artists. He painted the son of God - not a pious saint.
Pictorial representations of Mary observe the same pattern of stylization and emotional neutrality. There is one occasion in the biblical story that allows for deviation from that aesthetic norm - the Annunciation. The young woman (always so portrayed) hearing the stunning message from the heraldic archangel Gabriel reacts with emotions ranging from apprehension through wonderment to awe. This medley of emotions is brilliantly conveyed in the gilded sculpture of Donatello that serves as the centerpiece for the Tabernacle of the Annunziate in the church of Santa Croce, in Florence. Although scenes of the Annunciation leave some room for individual artistic expression, there are still implicit rules that artists have followed. Mary is innocent, she is tender, she is ethereal.
Here, too, I know only one exception. Antonello da Messina, a 15th century painter from Sicily, gave us quite a different Mary. She is an exquisite young lady with a face of refined sensuality. The artist captures her at the first moment she hears the flutter of angel wings at the door. Her expression suggests that she has surmised the message, finds the portending offer less than irresistible, and is prepared to tell Gabriel that the woman he is looking for lives across the street. There is no record of Antonello having run afoul of the ecclesiastical authorities as a consequence of his profane realism. However, a later portrayal of the same lady wearing the same bright blue shawl at the moment of Annunciation suggests that he either suffered a pang of religious conscience or had it pricked for him by the powers that be. Indeed, it goes to an emotional extreme rarely seen in the Mary iconography.
By the way, why are Mary's eyebrows always plucked? And why does she often sport mascara?
The accepted version of this treaty, and the events surrounding it, forms a perplexing chapter in the history of Islam, since it fits neither context nor character. Later historians, including modern ones, have adopted without examination or question the account that they have received from their predecessors. Surprisingly, so have Muslims, even though this alleged version casts the founder of their faith in a poor light. Instead, they have chosen to come up with all sorts of excuses and explanations to overcome these implications.
This paper examines the historical basis for this received narrative and shows that it is so flimsy as to render it quite unbelievable. This examination also adduces strong grounds for accepting an alternative version of these events, which has a sound evidentiary basis and conforms fully to the historical context. This much more likely version is also detailed in the paper.
This investigation also highlights the dangers of unquestioningly accepting all hadith as true merely because of the religious sanctity attached to them.
 This paper was originally published in The Muslim World in January 1981 (Volume LXXI, No.1, 47) under the title Al-Hudaybiya : An Alternative Version. It was also reprinted in Uri Rubin, ed., TheLife of Muhammad (Aldershot, UK and Brookfield, USA: Ashgate Publishing, 1998). It is reproduced here in essentially the same form with some editorial amendments (designed to improve readability, and sharpen the points made).
This set of my lecture slides concerns the history of the Crusader States of the Levant and the military religious orders. It also exists on SST but I posted it here as well to consolidate such materials in one place. pl
This lecture was presented in the "Polymath Lecture" series at the University of Oklahoma on 17 November, 2008.
The title of the lecture was "A Concert of the Middle East." The university asked that this talk be a general introduction to the Middle Eastern region, Islam, Arab Culture and possible diplomatic options. It is a drink from a fire hose. This is a 220 MB MP4 file. pl
"his art was located at a very dangerous place --beyond representational art but before nothingness, by which I mean the place where there are no images at all. And if I may speculate, Rothko’s art --which was a visual medium --had nowhere to go but into the realm of absolute nothingness. In his life’s journey, he could not return to representational forms, particularly mythological and religious ones, because, as his earlier artwork suggests, he believed that they had lost their potency. As a result, he already had dedicated his life to looking for a new mythology for the rest of us to experience. The only alternative left was for him to go forward, so to speak, into a type of visual nothingness and therein lies the beginning of a tragedy. To survive going into the experience of absolute nothingness --which is a total annihilation of the ego -you must leave behind the material world, including visual art. It is at this point that visual art stops and it is at this point we see the tragic limits of what Rothko called the “religious experience” of his art. From what I can glean, the only way to go into the experience of absolute nothingness and return is not a function of art because you go beyond all sense perceptions . Instead, such a journey can only be found in the religious world of apophatic contemplation --the contemplative world where the goal is to go beyond all sights, sounds, and images. As a few examples of many, it is the world of Buddhist monks, the Trappist way of Thomas Merton and, in my opinion, the contemplative aspects of Satmar. It is a total rejection of the material world substituted by a complete reliance upon the spiritual. For some, this is an immersion into the spiritual void, a land of complete silence." Sidney O. Smith III
"Almost two decades after the end of the Cold War, the 27-nation European Union counts 494 million people and a gross domestic product of $15 trillion, about the same as the United States. But appeasement is back. A Dutch Justice Minister said, "If a majority of Dutchmen opt for the Shariah (Islamic law) at some future date, this has to be respected."
Coupled with an aging native European population and an exploding Muslim influx (Mohammed is the second most popular name for newborn baby boys in Dutch cities), the Continent's 20 million Muslims will become majorities in several European cities by midcentury. Meanwhile, Mr. Laqueur's "Last Days of Europe," tongue only half in cheek, fears the emergence of Europe as "a museum of world history and civilization preaching the importance of morality in world affairs to a nonexistent audience."" De Borchgrave
St. George is the patron saint of the Palestinian Christians. He is thought to have been a native of "Lydda" (Lod) where Ben Gurion airport is now located. I don't think we have a "St George thread" but should have. pl
Last spring I researched St. George in the Mills College library, which dates back to the mid 19th century and keeps very old books in circulation. I found two sources re: St. George. The second, 19th century source, seems particularly germane to our St.
George thread, and is very important to me and the novel I'm working on, set in South Lebanon and infused with visions of St. George. Herewith my notes:
From Dictionary of Mythology Folklore and Symbols Gertrude Jobes Vol. 2 p. 1370 publ. 1962
"George. Martyred 303. One of the seven chammpions of Christendom. In Georgia, Russia, revered as a deity of good fortune. His worship is related to moon worship, and he occupies a position similar to that of Christ as mediator and intercessor. Adopted by Edward III, he became patron saint of England. In legend, he killed a dragon to save Cleodolinda, daughter of the King of Lydia, or Sabra, daughter of Ptolemy, in much the same manner that Perseus killed dragons to save maidens.
The legend is an allegory expressing the triumph of Christianity over evil. He is called the everlasting green one, inasmuch as his conflict with evil is eternal. Again and again he was slain, but he kept returning to life until he was mutilated, cut into small parts and burned, his ashes scattered in the wind, attributes of a fertility lord...By Arabs called Djirdjis.
S. Baring-Gould: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, Boston, Roberts Brothers 1882. comparative mythology
"he was a native of Lydda, but brought up in Cappadocia, he entered the Roman army and suffered a cruel death for Christ." "The turks pay great veneration to St. George."
Dean Stanley moreover noticed a Mussulman chapel on the sea-shore near Sarafend, the ancient Sarepta, dedicated to El Khouder, in which "there is no tomb inside, only hangings before a recess. This variation from the usual type of Mussulman sepulchres was, as we were told by peasants on the spot, because El Khouder is not yet dead, but flies round and round the world, and these chapels were built wherever he has appeared"
Ibn Wahshiya al Kasdani, 900s, Chaldaean, Muslim, "hated the Arabs", translated Nabathaean writings rescued from "Moslem fanaticism." "Book of Nabathean Agriculture by Kuthami the Babylonian". Ibn Wahshiya links Tammuz to festival of St. George end of Nisan
says "what is related of the blessed George is the same as that told of Tammuz" i.e. Restored to life.... "Phoenician Adonis was identical with Tammuz.
St. Jerome in the Vulgate rendered the passage in Ezekiel (viii. 14)< "He brought me to the door of the gate of the Lord's house, which was towards the north; an behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz," by ecce mulieres sedentes plangetnes Adonidem; and in his commentary on the passage says, "Whom we have interpreted Adonis, both the Hebrew and Syriac languages call Thamuz, and they call the month june by that name." He informs us also of a very immportant fact, that the solstice was the time of wailing for Tammuz.
George/Tammuz identified with sun/fire (torture by fire, dumped in vat of molten lead etc.)
Baring Gould says fight between St George and dragon took place at Berytus (Beirut). Compares to story of Perseus. Scene of conflict near Joppa, where in the days of St. Jerome the bones of the huge reptile were exhibited (p. 255)
"According to another version, the dragon guards the spring of water, and the country is languishing for want of water; St. George restores to the land the use of the spring by slaying the dragon." (264)
(end notes. All of the above is quote or paraphrase from referenced sources, not my original material).
If this is of interest, feel free to republish.
Copyright must have passed into public domain ages ago.