NEWS FOCUS: The Bamiyan Buddha lives again

by - 17th June 2015

A CHINESE couple, dismayed by the Taliban's destruction of Bamiyan's two Buddha statues, has brought the larger of the statues back to life.

Locals and visitors can once again see the Bamiyan Buddha through the use of laser technology – this time not in stone but in light.

Carved into the great cliff face towering over the fertile valley of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, two Buddha statues stood for centuries.

In 2001 the Taliban dynamited the statues, built in the Sixth century in the Gandhara style, the larger of them standing 55 metres tall.

It was not the first attack against them.

The Mongol Genghis Khan attacked Bamiyan with his customary ferocity, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb turned his artillery on the statues, the Iranian Nader Afshar attacked them with canon, the Afgan king Abdur Rahman defaced one of the statues – but where they all failed to destroy the Buddhas completely, the Taliban finally succeeded.

From the point of view of UNESCO, representing the entire human race and our abiding interest in its culture and history, it was a horrific disaster.

As someone who once climbed the many stairs and stood on the head of the larger Buddha, looking out over Bamiyan valley, for myself it was a moment of deep personal loss.

And yet, how would the Buddha himself have viewed the event?

There’s nothing particularly sacred about a statue of the Buddha, although the religious instinct may tend to treat it as though there is.

In a celebrated verse from the Diamond Sutra, Buddha tells his disciples to view all passing things as resembling ‘a lamp, a waterfall, a star, an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble, a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning’.

A statue of the Buddha, then, like any other phenomenon, is something that was once non-existent, exists for a period of time, and then no longer exists.

It is not wise, in Buddhist terms, to form an attachment to such things.

There’s even a well-known story of a Zen monk named Dan Xia, who was freezing along with his fellow monks one winter’s night, and broke up some wooden statues for firewood.

His fellow monks were appalled, but he pointed out that the statues were just wood, not living things.

The next day, Dan Xia went into town, bought some more wooden statues of Buddha, and lit incense before them.

‘If they are just wood, why do you worship them?’ his fellow monks asked.

‘Because they are statues of the Buddha, and I honour him,’ Dan Xia replied.

Even the thought of a statue being either ‘just’ firewood or sacred is just a passing thought, ‘an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble, a dream.’

From the Buddhist perspective, then, like all things that ‘arise and cease’, the Bamiyan Buddhas had their day, and left only their empty niches behind them.

From the Taliban perspective, some idols had been destroyed.

And yet the member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia included, petitioned the Taliban to spare them.

The puritans of the Taliban turned a deaf ear to their co-religionists.

And yet, and yet..

Various attempts have been made since the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas to restore them.

One German archeologist, following a record left behind by Hsüan-tsang, a Chinese visitor to Bamiyan in 630 CE, has been searching for a third great Buddha statue, buried underground nearby.

A firm from Argentine has won the UNESCO design contest and is building a museum in Bamiyan.

And efforts are under way to reconstitute at least the smaller Buddha with a mixture of rock from the original statue and modern materials.

And yet the site is still somewhat under threat from a newly resurgent Taliban.

Julian West, at that time New Delhi correspondent for the Telegraph, visited Bamiyan both before and after the destruction of the Buddhas.

She commented, ‘Extraordinarily, the Buddhas aren’t completely destroyed: a shadowy bas relief of each image remains in the rock – suggesting perhaps, that you can never destroy a Buddha.’

Statues are transient, the Buddha-nature is unchanging – one can take many lessons from Bamiyan.

Earlier this month, a Chinese couple, Zhang Xinyu and Liang Hong, used advanced laser image projection technology to make the form of the original, larger Buddha statue appear in its niche in light.

Many religions teach that their original teacher’s physical body was in someway a vehicle for another body – a body of light – often represented in art by a halo.

In the case of the Bamiyan Buddha, the body of stone has now been replaced with the body of radiance.