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Thursday, July 13, 2006


Is it OK to worship a teacher?

One of the huge differences between the "Big 3" monotheistic religions and those of the East is the attitude toward the teacher. In monotheism, the teacher is a vehicle of the teaching, and is to be respected, and even taken as a role model, but never to be worshipped. (This statement gets a bit hazy when we talk about Catholic saints, but that's for another day.) Never mind that that is exactly what Christianity does--worships its teacher. He's said to be unique.

And so Westerners--especially certain kinds of Christians, it seems--are quick to cry "Foul!" when they apprehend that Easterners are worshipping a "Master."

You won't find it any more--Wikipedia is by its very design one of the most volatile entities on the net--but a year or so ago, I read this in their article on Master Hsing Yun:

Many critics in Taiwan and the United States think that Fo Guang Shan members treat Master Hsing Yun as an idol.

Now, I worked for Fo Guang Shan for a while, and met dozens of monastics and hundreds of devotees. (Heck, I even co-edited the English translations of a couple of his books.) And, although I never spoke with him, I was in his presence quite a few times, and I can honestly say that I saw respect, reverence, and appreciation, but never anything like (gasp!) idolatry.

Last summer, when I visited Hsi Lai Temple on a trip back from China, I was delighted to see this statue at the foot of the courtyard:

It captures the Master's lively spirit: the joy on his face, and the vitality of his carriage.

A week or so later, I visited Fo Guang Shan's small temple in the suburbs of Tokyo. I was greeted with great hospitality, and considering that there were no grounds-- only a building-- I was quite impressed with the atmosphere.

I was invited into a sort of conference room/work area for tea, where I spoke (mostly in Japanese) with a Taiwanese lady who had immigrated to Japan. When she was called away, I looked around the room, and was surprised to see this:

This statue is based on a well-known painting of the Master (a copy of which hangs in the conference room at the former Hsi Lai University, now University of the West, where I completed the coursework for a PhD--but didn't graduate). That is no surprise. What is surprising is the incense "boat" in front, and the sticks of incense, and the lighter. Are they lighting incense to an image of the Master? Clearly they are. THAT'S IDOLATRY!

Just hold on, now. This is not idolatry; it's a kind of guru-bhakti, "Devotion to the Teacher." Rightly understood, guru-bhakti is the practice of realizing that the Teacher and his Image represent the Teachings themselves. "Hindus" are absolutely unapologetic about this; and the 88-temple pilgrimage that I completed in Japan explicitly included prayers to Kobo Daishi, founder of Shingon Buddhism.

I guess the rub comes in for some people when the person to whom the devotion is directed is still alive. And at this, I can only think of an event in the life of Jesus. A woman (claimed by many to be one of the Marys, perhaps the Magdalene or Mary of Bethany) came and anointed Jesus' head from an "alabaster jar" of expensive perfumed oil. Some objected that this was a waste; the oil could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus told them to leave her alone, that what she had done was good. Then he said: "The poor you will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them, but you will not always have me." He went so far as to say that, wherever the story of his life was told, this woman would be remembered. This whole affair ticked Judas off so much that it was the catalyst that sent him straight "to the chief priests to hand [Jesus] over to them." (Mark 14)

Love me while I'm here, says Jesus. (My dad has a homier way of saying it: "Treat me good while I'm here; then, I don't care if you bury me in the back yard when I'm dead.")

And what was it that made Jesus deserving of such devotion? At that point in his ministry, there had been no crucifixion. Mostly what he had done is teach. (True, he had performed miracles, but it is agreed that these were meant only to prove the validity of the teaching).

So there is a precedent, at least in Christianity, for guru-bhakti. And if people want to reverence the teacher as an embodiment of the teaching, well, it isn't my way, but I see it as a perfectly valid expression of spiritual feeling.

I can't help but think of this when a new "pop idol" comes along: Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Beatles: all had the ability to drive their followers into a Dionysian frenzy. It's not that common anymore, at least on a mass scale, as "consumers" have become more "sophisticated" (and we have become saturated with media). But it still happens on smaller scales, and especially on individual bases: the kid who sleeps with a memento of a sports star, the girl with the posters in her room, the Madonna Wannabes, and, in perhaps the latest real craze, that whole Britney thing. Sometimes it's good to be an expat; the fads roll in and out again virtually unnoticed.

Anyway, all I'm saying is, I guess the "worship" of a teacher who stands for something is better than the cult of celebrities who look pretty. (Though I'll never give up my devotion to the Beatles.)

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