Zen Is Iconoclastic


For the followers of Bodhidharma, however, this conception of Buddha

seemed too crude to be accepted unhesitatingly and the doctrine too

much irrelevant with and uncongenial to actual life. Since Zen

denounced, as we have seen in the previous chapter, the scriptural

authority, it is quite reasonable to have given up this view of

Buddha inculcated in the Mahayana sutras, and to set at naught those

statues and images of
supernatural beings kept in veneration by the

orthodox Buddhists. Tan Hia (Tan-ka), a noted Chinese Zen master,

was found warming himself on a cold morning by the fire made of a

wooden statue of Buddha. On another occasion he was found mounting

astride the statue of a saint. Chao Chen (Jo-shu) one day happened

to find Wang Yuen (Bun-yen) worshipping the Buddha in the temple, and

forthwith struck him with his staff. Is there not anything good in

the worshipping of the Buddha? protested Wang Yuen. Then the master

said: Nothing is better than anything good.[FN#140] These examples

fully illustrate Zen's attitude towards the objects of Buddhist

worship. Zen is not, nevertheless, iconoclastic in the commonly

accepted sense of the term, nor is it idolatrous, as Christian

missionaries are apt to suppose.

[FN#140] Zen-rin-rui-shu.

Zen is more iconoclastic than any of the Christian or the Mohammedan

denominations in the sense that it opposes the acceptance of the

petrified idea of Deity, so conventional and formal that it carries

no inner conviction of the believers. Faith dies out whenever one

comes to stick to one's fixed and immutable idea of Deity, and to

deceive oneself, taking bigotry for genuine faith. Faith must be

living and growing, and the living and growing faith should assume no

fixed form. It might seem for a superficial observer to take a fixed

form, as a running river appears constant, though it goes through

ceaseless changes. The dead faith, immutable and conventional, makes

its embracer appear religious and respectable, while it arrests his

spiritual growth. It might give its owner comfort and pride, yet it

at bottom proves to be fetters to his moral uplifting. It is on this

account that Zen declares: Buddha is nothing but spiritual chain or

moral fetters, and, If you remember even a name of Buddha, it would

deprive you of purity of heart. The conventional or orthodox idea

of Buddha or Deity might seem smooth and fair, like a gold chain,

being polished and hammered through generations by religious

goldsmiths; but it has too much fixity and frigidity to be worn by us.

Strike off thy fetters, bonds that bind thee down

Of shining gold or darker, baser ore;

Know slave is slave caressed or whipped, not free;

For fetters tho' of gold, are not less strong to bind.

--The Song of the Sannyasin.