Against The Stream ~ THE SWASTIKA

TOO LONG HAVE I WAITED TO WRITE about something that should have been explained long ago; had I written earlier, some trouble might have been averted. However, it is ‘better late than not at all’, and I write these words now in the hope that they will obviate more trouble in the future.

If we think about it, we will soon see how much we live by symbols, which are not realities in themselves, but only indicative of other things. Money, for example, is the most obvious symbol in our lives: it is a symbol of wealth, a token of exchange; but in itself, it is not worth much. It has often happened that a government has suddenly devalued its currency, and, overnight, it was much reduced in value or become even worthless! While it has value, we use it as a means of exchange to buy things with; but what happens if there is a famine, with no food available? Can we eat money?

All kinds of crimes—including the worst crime of all: War —have been and are committed because of symbols. The Communists carried their Hammer-and-Sickle flag with them into battle, just as the Christians carried the Cross in their unholy ‘Holy Wars’. Buddhists have never debased their religion by violence. There has never been a Buddhist war, and hopefully never will be; indeed, it is difficult to imagine how a war could be carried out in the name of Buddhism, the first principle of which is Reverence for Life.

Words are symbols, and not the things they represent. All words are adjectives, no matter whether we call them nouns, verbs, or whatever; an adjective is a describing-word, but is not the thing it describes.

The Buddha-image is a symbol of the wise and compassionate Teacher who lived so long ago, and who gave us good advice to live by. Who treats the images as living things, mistaking the symbol for the symbolized? Who, for a moment, imagines that this Teacher, who was born a Prince, but gave up all his worldly wealth and position to become a homeless wanderer, and finally an Enlightened One, really looked like the images we have made to represent Him? How would you feel if you saw someone looking like the Buddha-images on the street—with a lump on his head, ear-lobes touching his shoulders, hair curled into tight little knots like snails, and the other signs which—according to the books—are supposed to be the distinguishing marks of a superman? Would you not feel rather surprised? Some people, without a doubt, would think they were seeing an extra-terrestrial being! Here, by speaking thus, I am not intending to be—and hope I don’t appear to be—disrespectful, but am merely trying to indicate how we get stuck on symbols, and never see beyond.

In 1985, I went to visit Vietnamese refugees in Norway. While there, I was told of something unfortunate that had happened not long before—something that, with a little bit of foresight, could have been avoided. A Vietnamese Buddhist had died, and his family had had a Swastika sign engraved upon his tombstone. Now, the Swastika, to Vietnamese Buddhists—as it is to people of various religions in Asia—is an auspicious symbol, else why would these people have placed it on the tomb-stone? Many Vietnamese and Chinese Buddhists also wear small gold swastikas around their necks, or have them tattooed on their arms. Having inquired of a number of people wearing this symbol as to its meaning, however, I discovered that not many knew. Well, according to one account I came across, this symbol originated in ancient Persia, about 3,500 years ago. It therefore predates Buddhism by 1,000 years, and whichever way it is used in Asia—either clockwise or anticlockwise, it symbolizes Safety, Well-Being, or Happiness.

However, while in the East, the Swastika always symbolizes something good, in the West, because Adolph Hitler adopted it, it has come to be regarded as a symbol of evil. Very few Westerners know of its ancient origin and meaning.

Norway, like many other European countries, was overrun by and suffered under the occupying forces of Nazi Germany during World War II. So, when some Norwegians saw the Swastika on the Vietnamese tombstone in a public cemetery, the memories of Nazi terror rushed to the surface, and there was a furore. At first, the Vietnamese did not know what all the fuss was about, as they say the way the Buddhists use the Swastika—clockwise—is different than the way Hitler used it—anticlockwise. Well, this might be so to them, but I’m sure most Westerners are not aware of the difference, and so it was in Norway. Antagonism flared, and the Vietnamese had to explain and apologize publicly, and remove the mark from the stone.

I know there have been other incidents regarding this symbol in the US, and therefore, because I do not want to see the Vietnamese Buddhists in trouble or danger, I have tried to explain, various times. It is advisable not to use this symbol anymore, as it may cause confusion and misunderstanding. It is not the only symbol that Buddhists may use, after all; there is the Lotus, or the Dharma-Wheel, too. We should be practical in this, as in all things. It would be impossible to explain to everyone, that the Buddhist Swastika is different from the Nazi Swastika—impossible! And not only might the use of it cause trouble, but it can only impede our efforts to propagate the Dharma in the West; some people, who might otherwise be sympathetic towards Buddhism, would feel alienated by the presence of Swastika signs in temples.

Therefore, it is we who must understand, bend and adapt on this point, not they. If the Vietnamese and Chinese Buddhists continue using this symbol in the West, they will only invite trouble and have only themselves to blame for the consequences. This is my well-meant advice, meant to preserve, prevent and protect, to bring about a little of the quality that the Swastika originally symbolized: Safety and Well-Being.

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