Generation Zen

Zen has been modified to suit Western youth's desire to 'pick and mix'

Aidan Campbell

Topics Politics

Return of the Buddha: The Qingzhou Discoveries, The Royal Academy, London, until 14 July 2002.

Unlike Islam, many hip Westerners feel an affinity with Buddhism.

Hollywood celebrities may be renowned for their decadent lifestyles, but many of them back film star Richard Gere’s campaign to support the Dalai Lama and free Tibet from its Chinese occupation. It is no accident that the late rock star Kurt Cobain’s band was called Nirvana after the Buddhist version of heaven, meaning ‘nothingness’.

There was much Western sympathy for Buddhism in February 2001, when the Taliban regime in Kabul ordered the destruction of two Buddha statues in Bamiyan, in retaliation to the UN imposing sanctions on Afghanistan. Now, the Royal Academy in London is putting on a show of splendid Buddhist statues from fourth- to twelfth-century China.

Buddhism was founded in India in the sixth century BC. By the first century AD, it had more or less died out in India and had spread to China. In 1996, builders found a hoard of 400 Buddhist statues in Qingzhou, a small town not far from the north Chinese coastline. In China, Buddhism had to compete with a number of indigenous religions: first Taoism and Confucianism, and later Christianity and Islam. Subsequently, Buddhism was often persecuted in China as an alien faith.

Archaeologists found the faces of the Qingzhou effigies intact, suggesting that they hadn’t been cast away during religious persecutions but might have been ritually buried as a pious act, perhaps when they began to decay. It is also thought that some of the Chinese Buddhist images had been carved out of cave recesses, just as the Twin Buddhas at Bamiyan in Afghanistan had been. These were built at around the same time as the Qingzhou Buddhas, but their faces were destroyed hundreds of years ago.

However, when the Taliban regime blew the remnants up in March 2001, the Western intelligentsia denounced them as outrageous barbarians. In the aftermath of 11 September 2001, as Bush and Blair sought a scapegoat to take the rap for the nihilist assault on New York’s Twin Towers, the iconoclasts of Kabul fitted the frame perfectly.

Compared to Islam, or even Orthodox Christianity, Western youth feel an affection towards Buddhism – but not total agreement. With its deification of doing nothing and being nothing, Buddhism suits young slackers well. But while Zen may be the least fundamentalist of all the Oriental religions, even it is a bit too zealous for Generation X.

Zen has been modified to suit Western youth’s desire to ‘pick and mix’. To the average Westerner, Zen is just another lifestyle that can be adopted and dropped from one day to the next. That is one reason why the Tibetan cause never really took off. Pro-Buddhist supporters identify themselves only to the extent of personally wishing the Tibetan people were free, or voicing outrage when a Buddhist icon is destroyed.

Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan was always a Western creation. Washington and London sponsored the Mujahideen, which included elements of what is now the Taliban and al-Qaeda, to take on the Soviet authorities during the last decade of the Cold War in the 1980s. Once that contest ended, the days of the Mujahideen became numbered. Unlike the Mujahideen, Beijing is not a Western creation – and it doesn’t need to lose sleep over a struggle that relies more on Western whimsy than weaponry.

Aidan Campbell is the author of Western Primitivism, African Ethicity: A Study in Cultural Relations, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1997 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and a contributor to Art: What Is It Good For?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

Read on:

Fanatic for 15 minutes, by Aidan Campbell

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Topics Politics


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