The Parable of the Golden Buddha

A discovery in Thailand opens a window on one fruit of a spiritual journey.

The golden Buddha in the Bangkok temple of Wat Traimit

In 1954, a Buddhist monastery in Bangkok, Thailand, was undertaking renovations. A stucco image of the Buddha had long sat in the courtyard under a tin roof. The monks decided to build a shrine to shelter it.

The following year the statue was lifted from its pedestal to be moved to its new location. The statue proved surprisingly heavy. The ropes lifting it broke. The image fell hard on the ground. As it did, some of the stucco coating chipped off.

The color of gold gleamed through the crack. When the workmen removed the rest of the plaster, they discovered a gold image underneath. Parts of the head were in fact pure gold. It weighed five and a half tons.

The image had been moved to Bangkok in 1801 from the ruined city of Ayutthaya. There it had sat for many years in a derelict temple. A Burmese army had destroyed the city in 1767. It is now believed that the temple’s monks had covered the statue with clay in hopes that the invaders would not discover what lay beneath.

They were so successful that not only did the invaders not suspect what lay beneath the plaster, but everyone else forgot also, until the golden Buddha was accidentally rediscovered. Today it is the prized image in its own temple.

This story offers a wonderful parable for one fruit of our spiritual journeys. As we move deeper into the spiritual life through the practice of spiritual disciplines, we can find ourselves discovering more and more of our true self versus the false self that we show as a façade to the world in our everyday life.

A Theme in Modern Spiritual Writing

The contrast between the true self and the false self is a common theme in the writings of many modern writers on the spiritual life. We encounter it often in the writings of Richard Rohr and Thomas Keating, two Catholic writers who have had a profound influence on my own understanding of the spiritual journey.

Rohr attributes the introduction of this theme into the vocabulary of modern spirituality to Thomas Merton, that monk-writer who helped launch the rediscovery of the contemplative prayer tradition in the modern world.

For example, in his book New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton says this:

For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.*

He goes on to say later:

Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny…To put it even better, we are even called to share with God the work of creating the truth of our identity.**

 This work of becoming who I truly am is not, however, work we do by our own initiative. Rather, says Merton, the secret of my full identity is hidden in Him. He alone can make me who I am, or rather who I will be when at last I fully begin to be. ***

A Theme with Pauline Roots

Though Merton, Rohr, and Keating are using the language of modern psychology, they seem to draw their inspiration from a passage in the apostle Paul. In his Letter to the Colossians, Paul says:

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)

In this passage Paul speaks of our life that is hidden with Christ in God. It is a life that will be fully revealed and expressed when the Last Day comes and all creation enters into its destined glory, a glory in which each individual created being will shine in its unique identity.

The spiritual journey is the journey in this life when we begin to glimpse and experience aspects of that unique identity, which is our true self. We in partnership with God begin to chip away some of the spiritual clay that hides the golden image below. That is something of the excitement that the spiritual journey can bring us.

The Social Context of Paul’s Thought

This is an inspiring way of thinking for me. It means that we need to think of our spiritual journey as something wonderfully positive, not as something intensely negative. But it is easy to corrupt this way of thinking about the spiritual journey if we think of this discovery of our true self in solely individualistic terms. That is the bias of much of modern American culture and of modern self-help books and lectures.

The apostle Paul never sees our life hidden with Christ in God as a call to live our lives in splendid isolation from all others. We journey towards our unique life always in a social context. That is why the bulk of Paul’s writings are concerned with life in the church as a social body. It is in the challenge to live out the life of love in the rough and tumble interactions of a social network that we begin both to discover and build the unique self that God has created us to be.

Merton picks up this Pauline way of thinking when he writes:

I must look for my identity, somehow, not only in God but in other men. I will never be able to find myself if I isolate myself from the rest of mankind as if I were a different kind of being.****

So I hope that as you pick up and practice the spiritual disciplines, they will empower you to chip away at your false self and discover the golden Buddha that lies underneath. It is the unique self that God created you to be, just as my true self is the unique identity God created me to be. As we let that true self shine forth, we let God’s glory blaze out into the wider world.

Notes:

* Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation. New York: New Directions Books, 1961. Page 31.

** Merton, New Seeds. Page 32.

*** Merton, New Seeds, Page 33.

**** Merton, New Seeds. Page 51.

Advertisements

Silent Persuasion

Silence Discloses a Hidden Presence.

I participate in an inter-religious dialogue group. One of the members, an engineer by occupation, says he’s an atheist. He is, he says, because he sees no rational or empirical scientific evidence for the existence of a god.

He has pushed me a lot for why I believe in God. I appreciate this pushback because it has helped me think deeply about why I do indeed believe God is. What I’ve discovered is that if you push me hard enough, I have to admit that it is not rational arguments. I find rational arguments convincing only because I already believe.

Nor is it emotional feelings or religious and mystical experiences. I have had some, but again I believe they are experiences of the divine because I already believe in the divine. Nor have miraculous or serendipitous events proved conclusive. Again I have had some events in my life where circumstances converged in a surprising way that I did not plan. But they do no prove God is for me or for others. They may be just pure chance.

No, none of these reasons are ultimately persuasive either to unbelievers or to me. What is convincing for me? In a strange way, it is the practice of silence. Let me explain what I mean.

I grew up in a deeply religious family, a family whose theological convictions ran in a fundamentalist groove. Like many young people after college, I too came into deep questioning of these convictions, largely because they made me feel so miserable.

My spiritual journey during my 20s, 30s, and early 40s was tumultuous. It amazes me that I did not just chuck Christianity out and settle into a totally unbelieving and uncaring lifestyle like so many of my generation. I continued instead to battle within myself.

The Turning Point in My Life

When I reached my mid-40s, I had reached my limit. I remember one night sitting on the sofa in my living room and trying to pray. Finally in exasperation, I said, “God, I’ve had it. I’ve tried everything I can to break through to you, but nothing has worked. From now on, if and when I sit down to pray, I’m just going to sit here in silence. If you are real, you are going to have to reach out to me and make your presence real.”

Well, no sky opened. No heavenly voice spoke. No vision of light flooded my soul, not then nor in the coming months. If I prayed at all, I did indeed sit in silence saying nothing or doing nothing.

Then over the coming months and years, something strange did happen. A sense of the reality of a divine presence in the world and in my own life did begin to settle into my life.

It was not a particularly rational thought. Nor was it a deeply emotional feeling. It was not any kind of bodily sensation. And it certainly was not a mystical experience. It was just there. I cannot describe it except that it was simply there, nothing more. And yet that presence felt real, very real.

Coming to Know through Letting Go

Shortly after that fateful night, I also stumbled onto a book that introduced me to the practice of centering prayer, which is a prayer of silence. It is a form of prayer taught by the Trappist spiritual master Thomas Keating. In centering prayer, you do not say anything, do anything, or even try to feel anything. You simply be, be with God and yourself in silence.

I cannot explain the power of this kind of prayer. You give up any effort to do anything. You just simply try to be during the time you practice it. Yet, I have come to be convinced there is an amazing power to this just being with the divine presence in the world and in our lives. You begin to have a sense of real communion with God but it cannot be expressed in words or images. In this respect silence discloses the divine presence in a way that nothing else can, at least for me. It has led me to an experience which theologians label as pure grace.

Some can say I am deluding myself. They may be right. I concede that possibility, for I cannot rationally explain the conviction that has settled into my being. Yet I feel compelled to live trusting in that conviction and trying to live in harmony with the him/her/it it discloses. And so I do.

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is Psalm 46:10-11, which reads:

“Be still, and know that I am God.

I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth!”

The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

The Hebrew translated “be still” can be translated in various ways. An alternate translation is “stop fighting.” But I love the wording “be still.” It is sheer poetry to me. For in a paradoxical way, the practice of emptying oneself in silence seems to lead to a knowledge that cannot be acquired in any other way.