The Power of No Images

Posted by on Jan 27, 2015 in Blog | 1 comment

Mosque decoration II

The punk versus the monk

In the wake of the recent horrific attacks on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in France, there has been a vigorous debate waging in my online circles and in much of the media. While all unequivocally condemn the violence with which this attack was carried out, there are those who pose the matter entirely as one of free speech and the rights of cartoonists to lampoon whom they please, while others (many of them Muslim, or members of other religions) say that the cartoons are indeed offensive, and show an arrogance born of colonialism in general and an insensitivity to Islam in particular.

For myself, I have differing impulses, depending on what subpersonality is dominant in this loosely held system I call “me”: the punk and the artist insist that commentators absolutely must have the right to call out any belief system, any institution, anywhere around the world, that our job listing entails making people uncomfortable. (Or, in the words of longtime punk Jello Biafra: “All religions make me want to puke.”) Meanwhile the monk (I lived ten years in a Zen Buddhist monastery and am ordained in that tradition) insists that reverence to every religious tradition is called for, that cooperation with the community is often more important than individual expression, and that we must use speech carefully, gently, and only when needed. (Or, in words attributed to the radical English reformers known as the Diggers, “May the good Lord keep your eyes open and your mouth shut.”)

A multitude of voices

I’ve long since stopped trying to get one personality to “win” over the other. Mostly, I get into group huddles from time to time and tune into the multitude of voices so that the good business of life can proceed without them tearing up the joint too much. What I’ve discovered, when I lay the elements of this debate out on the table, is that there’s a crucial configuration where the world of the artist and the monk come together: the sacred image.


On the one hand, there are religions where images are used continuously and perhaps even obsessively as a way of communicating the sense of the divine, and as an act of reverence in and of itself. On the other are religions where the prohibition against images serves to protect the divine from human misrepresentations and misunderstandings.

A brief world tour

Images of the life of Christ forms the basis for much of what is great in Western art. The short life cycle of Jesus, from an idyllic birth in a manger to a cruel death by crucifixion, is lovingly and faithfully portrayed on canvases, in churches, and in popular art, evoking a rich array of situations and emotions. While the later Protestant movement split with Catholics on this subject, calling the paintings that adorned cathedrals idolatry and removing images from their churches so that congregants could focus inward, the image of a wise and gentle Jesus, belted and bearded, continues to roam the popular Western imagination. Baby Jesuses dot the lawns of both Protestants and Catholics during Christmas time.

Of course, many Christians do respond with anger if they feel that images of their religion are being denigrated, as in 1987 when American artist Andres Serrano exhibited a photo called “Piss Christ,” featuring a crucifix that was supposedly immersed in Serrano’s own urine. (This controversy has just resurfaced and merged with the new one when the Associated Press, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, decided to remove Serrano’s photo from their image library.)Yet most Christians, along with most residents of the Western world, are used to passing images of the divine human who gave their religion its name several times a day—on calendars, on t-shirts, in discount stores, as well as in churches.

Christmas Jesus

Judaism, on the other hand, forbids images of the Hebrew God to be portrayed—in art, in temples, in prayer books, or anywhere. The idea is that any depiction of God drawn by human beings would limit something which is illimitable, cut down to size something which is all-pervading.

While the primacy of the image is downplayed in Judaism, the power of the word (or “Word”) is all-pervading. In Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible, after establishing that “The Word was with God,” the Almighty then proceeds to creates the world through a series of verbal commands. Much of the innate human tendency to decorate and embellish is played out in Judaism not through the replication of images but via that vessel of words, the Bible. One of the most joyous holidays in Judaism, Simchat Torah, culminates when the Bible, wrapped in velvet cloth, is taken out of the ark in the pulpit where it kept yearlong and paraded throughout the temple.

Simchat Torah

The Jewish star, symbol of a religion and a people, is not a portrayal of a person as in Christianity so much as a revelation of sacred geometry. (I won’t delve into the details here.) Of course the Jewish star, and the Jewish people, have been the recipient of virulent attacks from time immemorial, including anti-Semitic cartoons drawn both in Hitler’s era and in our own. Yet the attacks haven’t focused on producing images of the Jewish God—perhaps rendered into harmless pabulum anyway by the Hollywood image of the old man with a beard—the same way that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons focused on drawing Mohammed. Anti-Semitic cartoons, and anti-Semitic attitudes and attacks in general, focus more on the perceived behavior of Jews as they interact with non-Jews in a secular world.

Once we get to Asia, the prohibition against the portrayal of divine beings gets flipped on its head, and becomes an exuberant invitation. Hinduism, with its plethora of divine, semi-divine, and mythical beings features temples sporting religious images of human beings everywhere—sometimes busily engaged in erotic acts. (India’s the exact opposite of the U.S. and Europe in that way: it tolerates the depiction of sexual acts in its temples but not in its television and movies.) I remember watching a statue of a Hindu deity paraded around a temple at a religious festival I attended in India, evoking the same kind of ecstatic adoration in the crowd as the parading of a Bible in the Simchat Torah celebration I attended as a child at a Chicago synagogue.


Hinduism and Buddhism, its later offspring, share the tradition of “opening the eyes” of a statue. This is a ceremony where the just-completed statue is infused with the spirit of the being it portrays, so that it becomes not just a piece of stone or wood, but a very replica of the entity itself.

In Buddhism, the very act of replicating the image of Buddha, of disseminating and revering it, is considered meritorious. In northern India, I visited a monastery of Tibetan refugees whose main practice was carving soapstone Buddha images. I currently live in Northern California near a large Taiwanese Buddhist community called City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. The main worship hall, along with several large statues of Buddhas and bodhisattvas (helpful beings, sometimes mythical, sometimes based on actual people) contains just that—ten thousand small statues set into symmetrical compartments on opposing walls that, with their glowing golden color, help the room resemble an enormous beehive. From China’s Spring Temple Buddha, which at 420 feet claims the title of tallest statue in the world, to the pop Buddhas that flicker on people’s screensavers or grace coffee mugs, images of the nobleman born in India around 400 B.C. who renounced the world are everywhere.

Kamakura Buddha

Pop Buddhas

It’s not that Buddhism, or Hinduism for that matter, is encouraging people to replace the images in front of their eyes with that of the ultimate. Both traditions contain admonitions to draw one’s senses inward, in order to find a subtler and more lasting state of being that is not caught by the shifting and unreliable constructs that our minds miscontrue for a stable reality. A Buddhist sutra (scripture) says, “Those who free themselves from all appearances are called Buddhas.” Thus, the appearances of Buddhas are employed in order to remind people to free themselves of appearances. (Just the kind of paradox that Zen folks like myself delight in.)

Aniconism (banning of images) in Islam

That leaves Islam uniquely positioned, it seems to me, to bear the brunt of the world’s misunderstanding in this realm. While some images are Mohammed do exist, especially where Islamic civilizations existed in or came into contact with Asian civilizations (for example, in Iran, which was influenced by Chinese art), the mainstream consensus of Sunni society as it evolved in the Arabian peninsula explicitly prohibits such images. In the Koran, Muhammed objects that such images will create misunderstanding—he doesn’t want to be revered like a god, as Jesus is, but seen as a human being, a messenger of the one God, Allah. Later hadiths (commentaries and sayings of Muhammad recorded by some of his followers) ban any drawings of a living being, humans and animals as well. That means that any depiction of Mohammed, even one meant to be a goodwill gesture such as Charlie Hebdo’s cover in response to the terrorist attacks, is offensive to a good deal of Muslims.

I believe that, while condemning the violence of the attackers in the strongest terms, we would do well to understand the reason why these cartoons, and the mere depiction of the founder of Islam, creates this kind of offense, one that secular people are eager to shrug off. I also am fascinated by the fact that this prohibition, and its attendant negative association of Islam with medieval taboos and angry imams, actually gave birth to one of the most stunning expressions of religious art in the world.

Mosque.detail door

Rather than show an image of a person who is both human and divine at once, as Jesus and Buddha are perceived to be, Islamic art focuses on a dizzyingly intricate replication of geometric images. Painted onto walls or tiles and placed into the soaring, elegant walls, niches and columns of any number of mosques and palaces, the reiteration of leaves, flowers, Arabic letters, stars, circles, and squares are crafted with an exquisite detail that, reflected thousands of times over a large surface, evokes a feeling of majesty and awe as effectively as any golden Buddha or marble Pietá. Fashioning a panorama that brings the mind to contemplate infinity was a fitting task for the Muslim cultures of the Middle Ages, which produced some of the world’s most essential breakthroughs in mathematics.

Mosque decoration III

Back to square one

And so I’m back where I started from, as all good pilgrims know—back to a series of patterns repeating endlessly through space and time, each wanting credence, clamoring for a chance to tell its story, any story. The punk and the monk are still arguing within the bounds I call my body/mind, one of them calling for moderation and respect, the other ready to grab a pen and stride the streets, decency be damned. I don’t know if they’ll ever really resolve their differences. I do know that we now live in a world where not knowing about another culture is no longer a good excuse. If we want to deliberately press someone’s buttons, it would be good to know exactly what those buttons are, how they work, and how they get there. My whoopee cushion may be your Abu Ghraib. Your favorite voodoo doll may be my flesh and blood. And my sacred cow may be your next meal.

One Comment

  1. These remarks are brilliant, Roberta. Thank you!