Wednesday, 16 June 2010

The muddy Golden Buddha story, Part I

"Unbiddable, ungovernable - like a riot
in the heart, and nothing to be done,
come ruin or rapture."

from William Shakespeare's play
"Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter"

Sacramento homeless-help nonprofit Loaves & Fishes' "remessaging" of Jack Kornfield's story from the beginning of his most-recent book has stirred up controversy and interest. Not in Homeless World, or in the community of donors to homeless causes, but in the buddhoblogosphere1. Plus it has been noticed that Kornfield's story-with-a-message has had currency in Christiandom as church sermons published online retell the discovery of a golden Buddha, using Kornfield's words, and then append a meaning with a Biblical spin.

Allow first a recap of the now-extended controversy, with the latest, snappiest information added.

Jack Kornfield told a story. It's based on something true, but he didn't get it right. Kornfield's begins his 2008 book The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology, and is the lead item in a compilation of the Best Buddhist Writing in 2009. Here's the whole of it:
In a large temple North of Thailand's ancient capital, Sokotai, there once stood an enormous and ancient clay Buddha. Though not the most handsome or refined work of Thai Buddhist art, it had been cared for over a period of five hundred years and became revered for its sheer longevity. Violent storms, changes in government, and invading armies had come and gone, but the Buddha endured.

The monks who tended the temple noticed that the statue had begun to crack and would soon be in need of repair and repainting. After a stretch of particularly hot and dry weather, one of the cracks became so wide that a curious monk took his flashlight and peered inside. What shone back at him was a flash of brilliant gold! Inside this plain old statue, the temple residents discovered one of the largest and most luminous gold images ever created in Southeast Asia. Now uncovered, the golden Buddha draws throngs of devoted pilgrims from all over Thailand.
Loaves and Fishes used the story -- minus references to geographical locations -- in their June, 2010 newsletter, which was emailed out and posted to their website. I thought it mightily uncool that L&F used this Buddhist story from which Kornfield, a renowned Buddhist guy, crafted a sweet Buddhist meaning. L&F created their own meaning to the story which has Christian overtones, didn't make much sense (to me, anyway), what sense it can have made was condescending, and was used as a heart tugger for a donation-seeking request.

The buddhoblogosphere weighs in

I put up a blogpost in Sacramento Homeless, voicing my complaints, and three downright-famous Buddhobloggers put posts up in their blogs regarding the matter.

Mumon, blogger of Notes in Samsara, writes in "Go Read This Post by Tom Armstrong" [boy, I like THAT title!] that he finds the fundraising pitch by Loaves & Fishes to be "disturbingly reminiscent ... of the pitches of 'missionaries' to Native Americans and Alaskan Indigenous People for money from the middle classes using metaphors akin to the 'foreign' 'noble savage.'"

I don't think Loaves & Fishes intended to be that crass, let me point out, but I think they stumbled into a thick field of crassness.  The Kornfield message was one having to do with everybody being noble and good; the Loaves & Fishes message was pointing at this designated subpopulation of pitiful people, whom, by the grace of God, aren't us. Don't mistake them for us!

Nathan, in a post to Dangerous Harvests, "Buddhist Bloggers Digging In," writes

Tom goes on to comment, "Catholics, like other Christians, see people as essentially sinful. The Buddhist view is the opposite: People are essentially noble and good."

... it's worth looking at partly because I think some convert Buddhists, who were immersed in Christian traditions before becoming Buddhists, really struggle to flip over the narrative that people are "sinful by nature."
Doctorate-in-Buddhism-candidate middle-aged2 middle-way Justin Whitaker writes in American Buddhist Perspective, in a post titled "Buddhism and Catholicism: a Fundamental Difference?", following a donations plea [hey!], that "A LOT of Buddhism and Catholicism aims to make us see the foibles of our 'human condition' (be-it sinful or ignorant) and to work toward its alleviation. The vehicles are certainly different, true. And at times even contradictory, yes. But even different schools of Buddhism, or different teachings within schools might be seen as contradictory.

"But when we find these contradictions, they might just be a call to look deeper. One of my teachers expressed the notion of 'views' very well with a figure of a pyramid or triangle. We get stuck to 'views' on one edge or the other, but it's only in the middle (when we let go) that we can move upward toward Truth. And guess what - when people on the 'other side' do the same, we both end up at the same place."

Grumble, grumble.  That pesky Justin.  Just like a lovey-dovey right-speech-doing gritless fence-sitting Buddhist, filing away at the sharp edges!  [Showing True Grit or a sort, perhaps. Or perhaps not, I'd say!]

And, now, back into the thickening controversy 

Since that tempest in a cul-de-sac, I have done some googling and found other users of Kornfield's story for their own purposes - all from liberal Christians' sermons:

  • A sermon titled "Narcissism and Spirituality" at Second Unitarian Church of Omaha, by Steve Abraham, used the Kornfield story, complete with the Thailand geography, and Kornfield's parable, to make a psychological point.
  • Ian Lawton used the Kornfield story in his sermon, titled "Reflecting the Image of God," for a sermon on September 14, 2008, at Christ Community Church in Spring Lake, Michigan. Lawton's church bills itself as Progressive Christianity, which is described as accepting of evolution and "finds metaphoric meaning in sacred text and religious imagery." The church is also integral, in the Ken Wilber sense, which means it accepts "many perspectives as possible, and traces the development of thought and culture through discernable stages."
  • And then there's Rev. Dr. Matthew B. Braddock, Pastor, who used a varietion of Ian Lawton's sermon for one of his own at his church, The Trumbull Congregational Church, in Trumbull, Conn., on May 9, 2010. The Trumbull church and the one in Spring Lake, MI, have a close - albeit, perhaps, unofficial - affiliation. I think it is a fair assessment of the church's statement of core values to say that it is a liberal Christian organization.
It is easy to understand why the story of the discovery of the Golden Buddha is so compelling. A nearly ten-foot high, 5 1/2-ton solid-gold buddha statue was hidden just out of sight for five centuries, in humble disguise.

Only, what Kornfield tells us isn't quite what happened.

The buddha statue, in its clay-and-plaster disguise did not survive "violent storms" for five centuries [as Kornfield tells us], it was for only two centuries and it was a storm that was the disguise's undoing - in the 1950s [sources vary as to whether it was in 1955, 1957 or 1959].

The statue was being moved when it slipped from a crane into the mud from a storm. It was after wading in this mud that a monk with a flashlight saw a glint of gold in a crack in the plaster, which resulted in the discovery of the inner treasure.

Mistelling, at the seeming margins, the story of the Golden Buddha discovery isn't the only "whoops" on the first page of The Wise Heart. Kornfield also misquotes Thomas Merton's famed so-called Vision in Louisville, in a way that  conveniently/accidentally services his ends.

One sentence, that Merton wrote [a part of his Vision in Louisville], originally in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander reads thus [emphasis, mine]:  "Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes."

In quoting Merton at the top of his first page of Kornfield's book, Merton's words, for that sentence read thus:  "Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in the eyes of the Divine."

Here's a Kornfield quote from the beginning of page 378 of his book in hard cover: "Marcel Proust once said, 'The voyage of discovery lies not in finding new landscapes, but in having new eyes.'" Harumph.

As you can see [through your own damn eyes], God was taken out. Kornfield, or his editor, deChristianized the Merton quote! Clearly, this was deliberately done to dummydown the clear Christian focus in Merton's feeling and words to make it more appropriate in a Buddhist book. That is deplorable. [And I deplore it.] But it gets worse ...

If you google the quote with the sentence, how Merton wrote it, you get 280 hits. [Note your number of hits will vary do to how google works, or course.]  If you google the quote with the sentence how it is misquoted in Kornfield's book, you get 406 results. I have looked at those 406 results and they all are recent, after the misquote first appeared, in a Shambhala Sun article Kornfield wrote in advance of the publication of his book AND the ellipsis that Kornfield put in is there, where Merton wrote something that K omited.

Effectively, Kornfield (or his editor) has 'changed' what Merton wrote. And I do not know how you put this stinking opened Pandora's box of falsehood back into the box! History and what Merton miraculously said has been perversely changed, by how ever little.

[In his book, on page 380, Kornfield writes, "Remember how Thomas Merton counciled not to depend on the hope of results but to concentrate on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. ... When we act for the long term, there will be pressure to take sides, grasp opinions, constantly measure the results, and try to control everything."]  Yeah, right.  Yeah, sure, Kornfield.
1 buddhoblogosphere:  the virtual sangha of bloggers who write about Buddhism.  It some usages of the word, the virtual sangha very much includes Buddhism blogs' noble readers.  Alternate spelling:  Buddhoblogosphere.  Though the prefix buddo is often used to refer to Buddhism [as in Buddology], the spelling buddoblogosphere has been 'abandoned' due to another, urban meaning of the term buddo.
2 The first digit in Justin's age increased 50% just last week.


  1. (2) - I hope 30 doesn't qualify me for anywhere near 'middle age' but I do appreciate the kind (kind of) remarks regarding my remarks regarding your remarks. And not a donations plea, just a 'click the darned ads to send me nickels' plea. Same goes for Progressive B'sm (see ads below the 'comment' link) and of course, Homeless Tom.

  2. Regarding your age, Bud Phil: Let us say you can expect to live to be 90. That's probably optimistic, right? Then 0 to 29.99 is young; 30 to 59.99 is middle-aged; and 60 to 89.99 is old; and at age 90 you're dead. A middle is the center 1/3rd!

    I was just teasing regarding the ads thing, but don't snare H.T. in your nickel-nabbing drive! Encouraging people to click on ads for the direct purpose of filling bloggers' pockets is perfidious. We should earn money from google wholly as a result of readers' uninterfered-with interest in what's advertised. That's the understanding/contract we have with Ad Sense.

  3. Mmmm, pesky contracts. Thanks though for the clarification; I've removed the plea. Yet I do think there is something quite non-perfidious in requesting clicks; somewhat thwarting the invisible hand of the market for the sake of good (bloggers). Perhaps akin to shopping local, perhaps buying the same thing at the corner market as at Walmart, but by buying it *through* the market, you help the little guy. But a contract/agreement is a contract. Hmm... definitely worth future thought :)

    As per age, good point. Given your numbers I'll aim to live to 93 and put off middle age 'till next year...