Finland! Again! and Idolatry

GorillaI arrived in Helsinki at about Noon on Monday. This is my fourth trip to Finland. I seem to have a following here. The very first foreign translation of my first book Hardcore Zen was into Finnish. That was astonishing because up till then all I knew about Finland was what I learned in a song by Monty Python.

I’ve learned to love Finland since then and always enjoy coming here. Today I will travel from Helsinki over to the West Coast city of Turku where we will be screening Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen.

Somehow I’ve been able to live this very interesting and privileged life. I don’t earn much money or stay in the finest of hotels. But I get to travel the world and make friends and eat weird food and look at five-meter tall statues of gorillas made out of tires. So that’s pretty amazing.

On Thursday I’ll be doing a speaking gig back in Helsinki hosted by a Discordian Pagan at a coffee shop owned by an eccentric Christian artist lady. That should be weird and wonderful. I don’t know much about Discordianism or Paganism, but I’m sure I’ll learn some things on Thursday. I feel like there are lots of valid approaches to life. People ought to do what makes the most sense to them.

Typical FInnish cuisine.

Typical FInnish cuisine.

On Friday I’ll be hosting a three-day Zen retreat at the Helsinki Zen Center. That should be exciting – not! But unexciting in a good way.

Multi-day retreats are always a challenge, especially in places where I’ve never led them before. For the participants it’s three days of gazing at a blank wall, while for me it’s usually three days of sitting in a little room talking to them one after another. Those one-on-one interview sessions, called “dokuasn,” are a combination of entertaining, enlightening and exhausting for me.

On Monday we’re showing Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen again, this time in Espoo.

After that I fly down to Germany to lead some talks and retreats in Munich, Benediktushof, Bonn and Hamburg before heading off to the Netherlands and then England.

I hope to see you there!

Someone named Ray Purdy posted the following to Facebook in response to my last blog:

Brad I read your post on Secular Meditation, and I wonder if you really understand how important it is to Christians and Jews not to bow to idols, or participate in what even appears to be idolatry. Rather than write a long winded post about how persons with religious beliefs deserve to be able to mediate without moral conflict, I will just ask if you have read “One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi?”

I have not read that book, but I’ve seen it around. In the blog Mr. Purdy was responding to I wasn’t really considering this position at all. I was more thinking about atheists who are terrified of religion rather than Christians and Jews who are terrified of so-called “idolatry.”

I have to admit this position is very hard for me to understand. I try to wrap my head around it, but with very little success. To me the idea of there being any sort of moral issues regarding bowing in front of a statue… well, it’s just hard for me to see that as a moral issue. I don’t see the moral aspect of it myself.

To me morality involves matters that could cause harm to others (or self, for that matter). It’s hard for me to get any sense of how bowing before anything has the potential to cause harm to anyone. To me, the root of the Judeo-Christian prohibition against idolatry seems to be more of a matter of establishing the Judeo-Christian path as better than the Pagan path. The Jews and Christians defined “idolatry” as an sin before God as a way of making people scared to engage in Pagan rituals.

But OK. Maybe some people feel really strongly about this, yet still want to meditate. Lucky for them, there are all sorts of places where they can do that. So there’s really no problem as far as I can see.

What I was saying in the previous blog post was that there are aspects of meditation that go beyond sitting and staring at walls. One could just as well substitute Christian rituals or Jewish rituals – or Pagan, Muslim, Flying Spaghetti Monster etc. rituals – for the Buddhist stuff. In fact all of this has already been done. There are Christian, Jewish and Muslim forms of meditation that are nearly as old and established as the Buddhist forms. I’m sure the Flying Spaghetti Monster folks have them by now too.

I do not believe in Buddhism as a religion that’s better than all other religions and that everyone must convert to. I don’t believe in it as a way to divide people from one another. But I do believe in honesty. And the types of meditation that are getting the most press these days belong to the Buddhist tradition. I think it’s OK to say so and so I do.

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My tour is largely supported by your kind donations. Thank you very much for your continued support!

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Here’s my upcoming events schedule:

Oct. 1 Turku Panimoravintola Koulu, Finland– Movie screening

Oct. 2 Helsinki, Finland — Lecture Event

Oct. 3-5 Helsinki, Finland Zen retreat at Helsinki Zen Center

Oct. 6 Movie Screening in Espoo, Finland

Oct. 8 Lecture in Munich, Germany

Oct. 10-11 Retreat in Munich, Germany

Oct. 12-17 Retreat at Benediktushof near Würzburg, Germany

Oct 18-19 Retreat in Bonn, Germany

Oct 20 Hamburg, Germany

Oct 24: Lecture in Groningen, Netherlands

Oct 25: Day-long zazen in Groningen, Netherlands

Oct 26: Movie screening in Eindhoven, Netherlands at Natlab

Oct 27: Evening zazen in Eindhoven, Netherlands

Oct 28: Evening zazen in Nijmegen, Netherlands

Oct 29: Lecture in Amsterdam, Netherlands  at “De Roos” bookstore from 19.00-21.00  (P Cornelisz Hooftstr 183)

Oct 30: Lecture in Utrecht, Netherlands at “De wijze kater” bookstore from 19.00-21.00 ( Mariaplaats 1,  Utrecht)

Nov 1-2: Retreat in Utrecht, Netherlands

Nov. 2: Movie screening in Utrecht, Netherlands at ACU

Nov 6-8: Retreat in Hebden Bridge, UK

Nov 9: Noon — 5pm  Manchester, UK

28 Responses

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  1. Farmer Grimmace
    Farmer Grimmace October 1, 2014 at 12:35 am |

    Idolatry implies worship. As a former Southern Baptist turned Skeptical Agnostic, I wasn’t aware that there was any worship going on in Zen, but I have also never heard of anyone’s Zen suffering for lack of statuary.

  2. sri_barence
    sri_barence October 1, 2014 at 5:38 am |

    I think the difficulty comes from the idea that we are bowing TO something or someone. This is different from bowing IN FRONT OF something or someone. “Bowing to” means veneration or worship. “Bowing in front of” simply implies the location where bowing is taking place; it is neutral.

    Christians, Jews and Muslims are specifically forbidden (by God no less) to bow before any kind of “graven image,” be it a statue or otherwise. So it is understandable that they would have a problem with ‘bowing to Buddha.”

    If we can allow our ideas about bowing to drop away, and just simply engage in the practice of bowing, then we should not have a problem. Or, if you are a God-believer, you can take the view that you are bowing before God, in the place where a Buddha-statue exists.

    As Zen students, we should ask, “Buddha and God – are they the same or different?”

    I would like to go to Finland some day.

  3. dougleader
    dougleader October 1, 2014 at 8:57 am |

    Anyone concerned about idolatry in Christianity has clearly never set foot in a Catholic church.

  4. Dan_Brodribb
    Dan_Brodribb October 1, 2014 at 10:47 am |

    Catholics don’t have a prohibition against idolatry.

    The ten commandments Catholics follow have a couple differences from the Jewish or Protestant versions and that is one of them.

  5. Nesshindo
    Nesshindo October 1, 2014 at 12:16 pm |

    Catholics do have a prohibition against idolatry. As well as being raised a Catholic and attending Catholic School for 12 years…I also confirmed it with a Catholic Priest! (of course I’m a Soto Priest now…what a waste of those 12 years, eh?)….But like Buddhists, when they kneel or pray in front of a statue, its not the statue they worship but simply a representation of Christ, Mary (or one of the Saints…it apparently helps get those prayers to God quicker!) . As Buddhists …when we bow to an image of Buddha, its not to worship Shakyamuni, but to honor the awakened nature of all sentient beings. We bow to our Buddha Nature out of respect to our practice and the practice of all!

    Of course Jews and some Protestant Sects don’t go for this, but many who I have practiced Zen with come to an understanding over time. I have bowed with many Minister’s and Rabbi’s in the past 30 years….some don’t and thats fine with me…No problem!

  6. Fred
    Fred October 1, 2014 at 1:30 pm |

    John said:

    “Now I don’t sit, (but could, its all the same, sitting, standing, walking, lying down) I just walk around thinking not thinking doing zazen all the time.

    When the ocean moves, you move with it.”


    1. Fred
      Fred October 1, 2014 at 1:39 pm |

      Mark said:

      “The zazen that gets up and walks around resembles sleep-walking; as in sleep-walking, the action occurs in a state where volition in activity has been surrendered. ”

      Volition in activity is surrendered at birth. The self sleepwalks through life,
      believing that the conditioned content of the brain is free will.

      Zazen that gets up and walks around is the realization on the mat that manifests
      in the content of everyday life.

  7. Harlan
    Harlan October 1, 2014 at 1:36 pm |


    What you wrote on your earlier post reminded me of some things from my own neglected sitting practice. I sat for years where other people could walk in on where I was sitting and move around me. I hated that. Whenever it happened I would get pissed off and stay that way for the remainder of the time I sat.

    It was like you were saying about the dog barking.. It was something I let bother me beyond the 5 seconds of actual disturbance. I made it into a big thing. But when I finally got used to it, it was almost like those intrusions were part of the practice. Like a dog barking became sound instead of noise. Maybe not beautiful but not ugly either. Being disturbed while sitting pissed me off before, and then it became became miraculously different. It was what I needed. I just had to see it differently.

    Similarly I thought Brad’s rubber gorilla was a big rubber Buddha. I expected to see a Buddha and that’s what I got..

    1. Mumbles
      Mumbles October 4, 2014 at 9:53 am |

      Yeah that’s why in noting/labeling practice (something I no longer do) its beneficial to generalize, as in saying to yourself “hearing” (or “sound” as you said) instead of “dog barking.”

      That’s a rubber gorilla? I thought it was a big pile of Finnish dog shit. Like maybe Brad was standing near the dog park where they pile it up. Ok, Finnished now.

  8. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer October 1, 2014 at 3:02 pm |

    But does Brad’s rubber gorilla have Buddha nature?


    1. A beginner in Texas
      A beginner in Texas October 5, 2014 at 3:47 am |


  9. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 1, 2014 at 8:01 pm |

    Wonder what happened to page one of the comments on secular meditation. I’ll never know!

    Apple core; baltimore, who’s your friend (traditional dance in Finland follows)

  10. Michel
    Michel October 2, 2014 at 2:40 am |

    Protestants have always held that Catholics were idol worshippers. Which led to some extreme degradations at some times and places. The cathedral in Nimes was demolished and rebuilt four times, between the 16th and 17 centuries. Whenever the protestants would seize a city, in Southern France during the Religion Wars, they would start demolishing all churches: which is why medieval churches have often disappeared here.
    But the point is precisely that: do you bow TO a statue or do you bow IN FRONT OF a statue. And, like some muslim extremists, do you bow to some image that you have of your god, inside of you? Which would be defeating the reason itself why the worship of idols was forbidden.

    Example: the reason why it was forbidden to make a representation of Muhammad, the prophet, was that he didn’t want his image to become an object of veneration. So, when Muslims protest against caricatures that are made of their prophet, they are actually bowing to the image that they have of him in their heads…

  11. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon October 2, 2014 at 4:50 am |

    I’ve read that the statues used in Hindu worship are considered to be communication devices similar to telephones. Devotees don’t pray TO the statues they pray THROUGH the statues. (Roaming charges may apply.)
    Another explanation is that when a ritual is performed properly, the deity will enter the statue and inhabit it for a while. After the ritual is over, the deity leaves. That sounds more like a Star Trek transporter than a telephone. Either way, the statues are not gods, they are just technology used for communicating or communing with gods.
    Most Christians, Muslims, and Jews would condemn it as idolatry no matter how it was explained because, according to them, Hindus do not worship the “One True God”.

  12. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 2, 2014 at 9:30 pm |

    Bowing to the wisdom of my peers is somehow uplifting.

    The worship of the many true telephones, I love it.

    1. Fred
      Fred October 3, 2014 at 8:28 am |


      Press 1 for Brahma, press 2 for Vishnu, press # for Shiva

  13. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 3, 2014 at 7:42 pm |

    “I’m sorry, the number you’ve reached in not in service in this milennia. Please hang up, and try prostrating yourself to the dharma again. Good-bye…”

    hey, minkfoot, I never heard that about the prostration to the dharma. Fire-sermon, isn’t it, where he relates the bit about his two gurus, and his realization that they had already passed when he lost his marbles. I haven’t read the Vinaya, but I’d like to . didn’t know that about the full moon-new moon ceremonies and Bimbasara, either.

  14. Mumbles
    Mumbles October 4, 2014 at 9:59 am |

    As for idolatry, most boys hitting puberty worship their phallus, girls worship their yoni. Simultaneously, depending on their orientation, they idolize the opposite sex. This, kids, is why the earth’s current human population is 7.125 billion.

    Makes you feel real special, don’t it?

  15. mb
    mb October 5, 2014 at 10:33 pm |

    Chogyam Trungpa’s “son” is the NBC cameraman who contracted ebola in Liberia and will be treated in a hospital in Nebraska. I saw a documentary about him a couple of years ago when he refused to take on the traditional ceremonial role after being identified as a “reincarnated lama”

  16. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 6, 2014 at 10:24 am |

    Fuxi’s poem has been very helpful to me. I’d like to offer today my understanding of Fuxi’s practice, for the review and the response of everybody here:

    All serious remarks and wise-ass comments appreciated! 🙂

    1. Fred
      Fred October 6, 2014 at 4:03 pm |

      “The empty hand grasps the hoe handle”
      Dropping the self and the trances it lives within

      “Walking along, I ride the ox”
      Riding the insight of illumination back to the original state

      “The ox crosses the wooden bridge”
      gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha

      “The bridge is flowing, the water is still”
      Observing all that is without a center, the universe is flowing

    2. anon 108
      anon 108 October 6, 2014 at 4:37 pm |

      Mark, your ideas about trance, sense of location and he relinquishment of volitive activity made sense to me for the first time. I’m pleased about that. I’m not sure I’ll ever bother to educate myself about the anatomy, so that remains a mystery. But I got the feeling it might all make good sense! Impressed.

  17. Mumbles
    Mumbles October 6, 2014 at 5:11 pm |

    I read your piece, too, Mark, and found most of it very clearly rendered. That which is unclear is dependent on the ignorance of the reader (me) as Anon 108 said, in the areas of anatomy you refer to. Nice job!

    The absence of volition is what I was talking about when I said:

    When the ocean moves, you move with it.

  18. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 6, 2014 at 10:12 pm |

    Thanks very much, guys. I really appreciate the feedback.

    I do have some illustrations, and I hope to get them up within a week or two.

    The anatomy is an aid to me in relaxation. Sort of like sorting out direction and strength as a wave flows back into the ocean, the better to keep my feet.

    feets, don’t fail me now.

  19. Fred
    Fred October 7, 2014 at 8:46 am |

Comments are closed.