An intriguing image of Zen


Veena describes an unusual rare stele she saw at the Shaolin Temple on Song Mountain in China.

Zen Symbol on stone stele

In the Shaolin Temple on Song Mountain there is an ‘image’ of Zen carved into a stone stele. I find this stele  intriguing for many reasons. The image is not trying to be a symbol of the essence of Zen – for example, like the well-known circular brush stroke attempting to depict the nothingness or emptiness of Zen – but rather an attempt to define its origins.

The explanation the young guide at the Temple gave me was that the image tries to depict how Bodhidharma fused China’s three major spiritual and philosophical traditions – Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism – into something new and ultimately very different: Zen, or Ch’an, as the Chinese call it. Her words triggered something in me as I remembered Osho’s comments:

Zen goes beyond Buddha and beyond Lao Tzu. It is a culmination, a transcendence, both of the Indian genius and of the Chinese genius. The Indian genius reached its highest peak in Gautam the Buddha and the Chinese genius reached its highest peak in Lao Tzu.

And the meeting… The essence of Buddha’s teaching and the essence of Lao Tzu’s teaching merged into one stream so deeply that no separation is possible now. Even to make a distinction between what belongs to Buddha and what to Lao Tzu is impossible, the merger has been so total. It is not only a synthesis; it is an integration. Out of this meeting Zen was born. Zen is neither Buddhist nor Taoist and yet both. ¹

 In this context, Osho does not mention Confucius – in fact he was always rather scathing about him, calling him a man of rules and regulations, which does not fit with Osho’s way of looking at things! But when Bodhidharma was living in China, Confucianism would have been very strongly prevalent in everyday life – it still is, to this day. So both Bodhidharma and the talented sculptor who carved this image over 350 years ago would have given at least a ‘nod’ to this famous philosopher.

In this Shaolin Temple image, the sculptor merges the three figures – Buddha, Lao Tzu and Confucius – into one and produces an amazingly modern abstract carving which is possibly difficult to decipher at first glance. It is like one of those trick drawings where, if you look at it in one way, you see perhaps a vase, or a young woman, but if you change your perspective, you see two side portraits, or an old woman.

Illusion Collage

Looking at the Zen image you first see a figure of Buddha, but if you change your perspective, you see the side views of two figures who, I was told, are Lao Tzu (right) and Confucius (left). Blending the three figures together, the sculptor depicts his visual impression of the origins, and thus nature, of Zen. Genius!

To make the change of perspective easier, in the image below I have deleted the colour in the carving because it is possibly easier to visualise it in black and white. I have also enlarged the head of the figure so you can see the three heads quite plainly.

3 faces on stone stele

For me, this carving, made so long ago by an unknown sculptor in a temple, is a brilliant depiction of the very abstract, almost undefinable, concept of Zen and its origins.

¹ Quote by Osho from Ah, This! Ch 1


Veena is the author of a trilogy of books about her path to and with Osho.

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