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Field Notebook

September 11, 2010
An 'antiquities' interview with Zen Master Sheng-Yen just before his death

The easiest way to remove the head of a stone Buddha is to wrap it in blankets and strike it with a wooden bat. If it does not break free after a few blows, a quick scribe around the neck with a diamond-bladed saw usually does the trick.

This is how looters took the head off a famous old statue at the Shentong Monastery in a northern coastal province of China one spring night in 1997. The statue was inside the stone square of a 7th century shrine: the Four Gate Pagoda where four large Buddha statues sit facing inward from each cardinal direction. The one they got was seated against the west wall, a heavy-chinned figure, its face set in a small, contented smile, its hands nested in its lap. It is called the Akshobya Buddha, in Sanskrit meaning Imperturbable Buddha. Akshobya embodies a wish to never be moved by anger.

Akshobya was found the next morning still in supreme repose, but without its head. Only a rough crater remained on the stub of its neck. Police were called, and eventually three suspects were apprehended, but the head was already gone, vanished into the folds of the antiquities market. At a going rate of over a million dollars, a head like this could not be expected to be seen again until fetching full price.

Police closed the case.

Then, in 2002, it turned up on the art market where nobody knew where it came from, its history expertly laundered. In New York it was bought by lay followers of Buddhism who offered it as a gift to a venerable Zen master living in Taiwan, Master Sheng-yen.

Sheng-yen is one of the most revered living teachers of Zen Buddhism. In almost every picture one sees of him he is smiling, his expression both unassuming and strikingly present. Skinny, bald, and bespectacled, he descends from lines of Zen masters going back to the 9th century.

When he received the larger-than-life head, Sheng-yen immediately noticed the fresh cut marks on its neck. Having been to many ancient sites around China and Southeast Asia, seeing statues hacked apart, he knew what he was looking at. He told his followers that if they really were going to give the head to him he would have to find where it came from and return it. They responded that it was a gift, his to do with as he wished.

Sheng-yen called in experts who agreed the head was from the Chinese Sui dynasty of the 7th century, which placed it at a particular monastery, and finally at the very pagoda where the Akshobya Buddha sat not headless, but with a replica that had been glued in place so as not to be a disturbing sight.

After negotiations and agreements between Taiwan's government and the Chinese, Sheng-yen nested this 150-pound head into a crate. He traveled with it at his feet. Each time they passed, crew from the China Air flight paused at the old man and his crate, hands pressed together, bowing.

When he arrived in the city of Jinan near the Shentong Monastery it was a freezing winter day. He was greeted by crowds. People thanked him over and over as if he were returning a beloved family member. A limousine was sent for him, but the old master respectfully declined, instead taking a public bus to the monastery, heavy crate in tow. At the pagoda, Sheng-yen addressed a crowd saying that this head had probably been revered by countless Buddhist followers through the centuries, its value in this place far outweighing what it could have had in a museum or in private hands.

A metal rod was bored down into the body of the Akshobya Buddha, and the head seated upon it, epoxied into place with the seam meticulously restored.

Four days later at the unveiling ceremony, Sheng-yen stood in the cold stone pagoda. He wore a robe and a warm cap, a scarf around his neck, while next to him sat the Akshobya Buddha concealed beneath by a yellow sheet of silk. A tight crowd pressed into the pagoda. Sheng-yen announced, "Many people claim that starvation leads to theft. In reality, this is not entirely true. People's covetous deeds and desires stem from their minds. Moreover, spiritual starvation needs to be addressed and dealt with even more than material starvation."

Along with Jinan's Vice Mayor, Sheng-yen reached out and pulled down the silk sheet with one swift gesture. Out flushed the Imperturbable Buddha as it had sat for 1,400 years, head in place, eyes narrow with catlike serenity.


The story of returning the Buddha's head was told to me by Master Sheng-yen himself, his voice soft and enfeebled by age. He was ill and had no plans to ever leave Taiwan again. He needed a new kidney, and though transplants were offered, he turned them down, saying he would die soon anyway, no use in wasting a good organ.

I had requested an audience with the old master because I thought he would be able to explain this deep attachment so many of us feel for objects of the past.

"Shifu," I said. "I am interested in ancient objects. I am wondering why it is important to keep them in their places."

Sheng-yen did not speak English, and my words were relayed through Chang Ji, a nun ordained in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. She repeated to the old man what I had asked. As Sheng-yen responded I had strained to hear the low chime of his voice.

With a kind and academic tone, Chang Ji explained that Sheng-yen was a lover of artifacts. He thought that they reflected beliefs of the Buddhist followers and artists of that time. They are extensions of the people who were here.

"When Sheng-yen's followers gave this head to him," Chang Ji said, "he thought about people of that time, how they made sculptures to venerate the Buddha, and it made him sad that this head was not with its body."

I posed another question, why ancient relics are of such consequence, why they even matter. Why is it so scandalous and chilling to see a thousand-year-old statue missing its head? Is it not just an object, an immaterial thing in the Buddha's worldviews? The answer came back quickly, and he merely said that one is saddened upon seeing such desecration.

To be honest, I was hoping for more of an answer. I was not, however, in a position to badger an old man for a good quote and I thought back to my list of questions.

"Shifu," I said. "Does being old make an object different?"

This time the translation went long, the two speaking back and forth until Chang Ji said, finally, no. "They are simply objects, like anything else," she replied.

"That's what he said?" I asked.


I was not sure what to do next. That was it? A renowned master who spent six years in solitary retreat, a monk at the age of thirteen, tells me there is no difference between an object a thousand years old and one brand new? I had spent several years asking people questions about the intrinsic value of artifacts, holding out a microphone looking for someone to come up with the right words. Not a single one had the answer I wanted. I listened to the gripe of nationalistic governments and the ceaseless carping of archaeologists. Shifu was my last hope. As he spoke, he used words like sadness and disappointment. I had expected something less quotidian. I wanted a punch line of an answer, an explanation of wheels turning within wheels, the hinges of reality put askew every time we damage the past, but Sheng-yen said nothing of the sort.

It was not until we said goodbye that I realized Shifu had, indeed, enlightened me. In the most common terms he had spoken of raw emotion, adoration and discomfort. A headless statue, he said, made him sad. With the head back on, he was heartened. There is no right or wrong. There is only doing what you believe is the best thing.

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