01 December 2005
Nick Street: The American press hasn’t shown much interest in the Buddha Boy. A ring of commerce and debris has sprung up around the boy, whose mother claims he has spent the past six months in a meditative pose beneath a tree in a remote forest in Nepal. After he had an encounter with a poisonous snake, the boy said he needed six years of meditation to attain enlightenment. Rumors of a divine light emanating from the Buddha Boy’s forehead have swirled and vanished. The tide of pilgrims, which peaked at 10,000 a day, has begun to ebb. Even the Nepalese are losing interest. So why all the fuss? Well, times are tough in Nepal. As John Burdett reported in The New York Times last weekend, civil war has torn the kingdom for a decade. In 2001, Crown Prince Dipendra murdered nine members of the royal family, including his parents, before killing himself. Now, a coalition of opposition parties — including a faction of Maoist rebels — wants to wrest power from the slain king’s brother, who assumed the throne after the mayhem in 2001. When you’re living in hell, of course you want a Buddha to appear. But beware of Buddhas who are trying too hard to look like Buddhas. A ninth century Chinese Zen master named Zhaozhou — referred to as “that old Buddha” by later generations of Zen masters — lived near a famous stone bridge that still stands today. One day, an itinerant monk arrived and decided to challenge Zhaozhou. The monk said, “I came to see the great Master Zhaozhou, but I just see a stone bridge.” Zhaozhou replied, “You just see a stone bridge; you don’t see Zhaozhou.” When you think you know what a Buddha should look like, it’s easy to miss a Buddha who’s standing right in front of you. These sound like quaint lessons. But they’re not. Question the motivations of the pious. Be ready to throw out all your assumptions. There’s a radical strand in Buddhism — particularly in Zen — that has flourished in various places over 2,500 years. If you look closely, you can already see new buds on the vine.