Those Cartoons

Feb 2006

The world-wide controversy started by those now infamous cartoons took much of the secular west by surprise. Those who chose to frame their response solely in terms of the free-speech issue seem to have missed an important lesson. Just because we are free to do something under law, does not make it right. What is lacking in those who chose to print or reprint the cartoons is very simply respect.

This is a difficult point, perhaps, for the secular mind to grasp. At least this seems so from the comments of Mr. Ezra Levant, publisher of the Weekly Standard (the only main-stream Canadian media which has so far printed the cartoons) when he called them "tame," "bland," and "innocuous." Quite obviously they were not seen as such by Muslims.

It is not for non-Muslims like Mr. Levant or myself to judge the Muslim prohibition against any depiction of their prophet. It is possible, however, to understand how the printing of the cartoons has been seen, rightly or wrongly, as a deliberate provocation.

As a follower of the Buddhist religion, my own feelings about the whole affair are mixed. While I deplore the violent reaction, which seems to say the least excessive, I can sympathize with the Muslims feelings of hurt when their most sacred values are deliberately insulted.

Secular people just don't get it. They don't understand the value religious people put on symbols of the sacred, or the offence taken when these are insulted gratuitously. Buddhists know about this, having seen the image of the Buddha exploited in all kinds of inappropriate ways. Most of the incidents involving Buddha images have been inspired by commercial promotions, that is to say in the service of the one true god of the modern world. In recent years these have included a franchise chain of taverns with a trademark Buddha image, and even a line of women's underwear.

In contrast to these uses, a Buddhist will always treat a Buddha image with respect. It will always be put in a place of honour, never handled by the head, nor used in any mundane fashion such as a book-end.

It should be noted too, that sometimes our imagery has been insulted by followers of other religions, such as missionaries in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, and let's not forget that deplorable act of cultural vandalism, the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas.

The secular mind says that the cartoons are just rather silly drawings, the Buddha images are just lumps of clay or bronze. This line of thought is not foreign to the Buddhist either, as the Buddha cautioned against falling into the superstition of rites and rituals. But what is missing from the secular world-view is a sense of the sacred; that-which-is-not-this. The drawings or sculptures are not in themselves sacred, but they are symbols of the sacred and should be treated with some reverence. And it is really only those who hold those values sacred who are competent to define what constitutes proper respect.

There is a saying from Zen; if you think the image is something special, you are attached to form. If you think it is just a bit of bronze, you are attached to emptiness. Either way, one hundred blows.

Free speech is an important value, which is worth defending. So is separation of religion from politics, especially in a multi-cultural society like Canada's. Religion and religious leaders ought not be immune from reasoned criticism. And we should be very cautious about using the state to enforce limits to free discourse. However, we should all learn the lesson that respect for one another is the basis of tolerance and civility.

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