The Sacred: It’s Meaning and the Role of Free Speech

The Sacred is that which gives life its profoundest meaning. It tells us why we are living and – why we must die. For myself, this is the Buddhadhamma, the teachings and practice as taught by the Buddha. These provide my core values.

It is symbolised in the Wheel – originally a cart wheel. And the founder, teacher, exemplar and archetype is Siddhartha Gotama to whom we give the title, Buddha, the Awakened One. At first he was symbolised by a tree, an empty chair or footprints. But after 500 years, the Greeks who were the first Westerners to be converted to Buddhadhamma began producing statues.

The Sacred itself should not be confused with the way it is expressed through the speech and actions of human beings. For we are all deluded and our expressions are conditioned by history, culture and our personal experience.

Free speech and its companion, free expression have never been absolutes. Political correctness protects minorities and any expression inciting violence is illegal.

However, there are those who say that this freedom includes the right to insult. It is one thing to express our disagreement with another’s views and actions with the intention to insult them. And another to follow the Buddha’s own advice about Right Speech, that it should be kind, truthful and spoken/written at a suitable time. The purpose would be to persuade the other to change their minds. So rather than coming from the heart of angry arrogance raising only angry resistance from the other, the Buddha asks us to approach with humility - first understanding the other’s position, then pointing out the errors and suggesting a different view.

The Prophet Mohammed is the founder, teacher, exemplar and archetype for over a billion Muslims. As in early Buddhism, his depiction in form is seen as a sacrilege – an offense against the Sacred. Whatever means cartoonists and political satirists have to lampoon, satirise and ridicule Islamists, turning the Prophet into a figure of fun does nothing but insult all Muslims. Not distinguishing the Sacred and its symbol from how it is used in this case has cost lives and it could even be argued that it is incitement to violence and therefore unlawful.

Buddhadhamma disavows all recourse to violence such is the commitment to harmlessness, though one is allowed to defend oneself. Even so the figure of the Buddha is often abused. At Bamiyam, the great statues were exploded by the Taliban. At a more banal level is the use of the image for commercial reasons. The Buddha in the lying posture used to advertise BA flights to USA that now offer beds. There is also a Buddha Bar and, of course, Buddha statues as pretty garden gnomes. And Buddha statues have even been used in pornography. There was a case of this in Thailand which scandalised the whole country.

Here Buddhists may feel somewhat constrained. To complain may seem an expression of attachment and to get angry a sign of weakness. But I see no problem in asking people to respect what others consider sacred. Respect after all is but a facet of love. Only the most cynical materialists will fail to respond, paradoxically wanting their own views to be respected.

So this is a good moment to ask ourselves:

What does ‘the sacred’ mean to me?

Do I hold anything sacred?

How should I respond to someone who shows no respect for what I hold sacred?

Personal Experience:

I was in a new-agey nick-knack shop and a small statue of the Buddha was on the floor by the door. I told the assistant who I was and how offended Buddhists would be to see a Buddha statue on the floor where it could be kicked even inadvertently. I suggested he could place it up on a shelf. When I went in next time it had been moved.

We bought some toilet cleaning material it had the Buddha image on it. I phoned Tesco. The assistant said she would contact the manufacturers.

Even if the statue was sold and the assistant simply raised her eyebrows and put the phone down, slowly but surely the message might get across that there are somethings that need to be respected.

An excellent book on this which I found most useful, covering all sensitive issues is the small:

Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) by Nigel Warburton

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