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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Buddhas of Bamiyan




Ancient archaeological remains have been thrust into the cruel world of today’s seemingly endless conflicts — the ever-changing aims and alliances of international politics, religions dueling on the world stage, and the ironic trade-off of providing aid to conserve the material heritage of the past but not to preserve the lives of modern inheritors of that past. Arrayed against the tolerant and measured messages of Buddhism, the quagmire of the “Bamiyan Massacre” seems perplexing at best.

First, it is important to recognize that the massacre has little to do with religion. The Buddha is not God or even one among many gods. During his lifetime of 80 years, Buddha Sakyamuni only allowed his image to be recorded as a reflection in rippling water. Images of the Buddha himself did not appear for at least 400 years after his death and even then were created only to remind followers of their own innate “Buddha Nature.” This kind of early aversion to “idolatry” is typical of Christianity and other religions — many devotees of Christ railed against material images of Jesus for centuries, especially during two waves of “iconoclasts” (idol smashers) in the Byzantine Empire.

The colossal Buddhas were cut at immeasurable cost (probably in the third and fifth centuries A.D.) into the tall, sandstone cliffs surrounding Bamiyan, an oasis town in the center of a long valley that separates the mountain chains of Hindu Kush and Koh-i-Baba. The taller of the two statues (about 53 meters or 175 feet) is thought to represent Vairocana, the “Light Shining throughout the Universe Buddha” The shorter one (36 meters or 120 feet) probably represents Buddha Sakyamuni, although the local Hazara people believe it depicts a woman.

The two colossi must once have been a truly awesome sight, visible for miles, with copper masks for faces and copper-covered hands. Vairocana’s robes were painted red and Sakyamuni’s blue. These towering, transcendental images were key symbols in the rise of Mahayana Buddhist teachings, which emphasized the ability of everyone, not just monks, to achieve enlightenment.

While the dates of the statues are somewhat equivocal, the Buddhist monk Xuanzang, who traveled to India to bring back to China copies of the original sutras of the Buddha’s teachings, bore witness to the statues in A.D. 630-31.

For centuries, Bamiyan lay at the heart of the fabled Silk Road, offering respite to caravans carrying goods across the vast reaches between China and the Roman Empire. And for 500 years, it was a center of Buddhist cultivation. The myriad caves that pockmark Bamiyan’s cliffs were also home to thousands of Buddhist monks and served as a kind of Holiday Inn for traveling merchants, monks, and pilgrims.

Today those open, cold caves are used primarily by refugees from Afghanistan’s brutal, internal war.

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