Blasphemy from Jesus, Joseph Smith, and a Zen Master.

We’re big believers in blasphemy here at Mind on Fire, where we believe that the blasphemy taboo is mainly a means of control and social censorship. In honor of International Blasphemy Day, I’m resubmitting this post from two years ago:

“All great truths begin as blasphemies” – George Bernard Shaw

1) Jesus:

Jesus saith unto him, Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven. Then the high priest rent his clothes, saying, He hath spoken blasphemy; what further need have we of witnesses? behold, now ye have heard his blasphemy. What think ye? They answered and said, He is guilty of death.

– Matthew 26:64-66, KJV

2) Joseph Smith was repeatedly accused of blasphemy. The following excerpt is from a sermon on the plurality of gods, certainly a blasphemous teaching to most Christians then and now:

I will preach on the plurality of Gods…I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods…Paul says there are Gods many and Lords many. I want to set it forth in a plain and simple manner; but to us there is but one God that is pertaining to us; and he is in all and through all. But if Joseph Smith says there are Gods many and Lords many, they cry, “Away with him! Crucify him! crucify him!”…Search the scriptures, for they testify of things that these apostates would gravely pronounce blasphemy. Paul, if Joseph Smith is a blasphemer. you are.

3) When Zen Master Unmon was asked by a young monk, “What is the Buddha,” he replied, “A dried shit-stick!” (i.e, something with which to wipe your butt)

I’m an on-again, off-again scholar of Japanese Buddhism, and it is in part this Zen approach to blasphemy that inspired my blasphemy post earlier this week. Here is some commentary on the above quote by a student of Zen Buddhism:

In Zen, blasphemy and irreverence is actually hard wired into the scriptural canon. For Zennists the real blasphemy is holding fast to our own ideas of the absolute.

Buddhism is the oldest of the world religions and Zen has learnt to employ blasphemy in a radical and creative way.

Ummon’s statement has no complex symbolic meaning and is intended mainly to shock.

In medieval China a stick was used as we now use toilet roll and Ummon was telling his questioner in the plainest possible terms that he could wipe his ass with Buddha, or at least his ideas of Buddha.

Subverting the sacred is a standard tactic in the Zen teacher’s armory. It is used to shock the pious into re-examining their fundamental assumptions so as not to commit the real sacrilege of defending their own opinions as absolute truth.

This all highlights another problem with the blasphemy taboo–it’s all highly subjective. Blasphemy in one context is a sublime truth in another one.


  1. “Blasphemy in one context is a sublime truth in another one.”

    Nicely stated.

    Some truths, though, are eternal. Cheese, for instance. Blasphemy against Gruyere can neither be forgiven in this life, nor in the life to come.

  2. Nice! It’s one thing for religious folk to remember when they get all worked up about blasphemy — their religion was probably blasphemous to someone else.

    Via another blog, found this wonderful quote from Robert Ingersoll:

    “Imagine a vine that grows at one end and decays at the other. The end that grows is heresy, the end that rots is orthodox. The dead are orthodox, and your cemetery is the most perfect type of a well regulated church. No thought, no progress, no heresy there. Slowly and silently, side by side, the satisfied members peacefully decay. There is only this difference — the dead do not persecute.”

  3. I like the idea that not examining your own assumptions of what is sacred is blasphemy. What a glorious thought, to always keep the mind open and questioning. Beautiful!

  4. I relate to this approach.

    One comeback I’ve found useful when some Protestant is raving about Mormons being “polytheist” is:

    If you can make “One God” out of three beings, why can’t I do it with three thousand?

  5. Paul

    “What would happen if the Buddha and the Christ were to meet traveling on the same road?” the question was once asked.

    A most venerable, spiritual, (and courageous) person that I have come to know by reading many of his books, listening to him speak and visiting one of his satellite Sanghas, is Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk born in 1926 and still living today.

    His book (among many, and most notable, “Peace Is Every Step”) “Living Buddha, Living Christ” contains the following statements (I’ll share them with you):

    p. 151 “The Buddha was not against God. He was only against notions of God that are mere mental constructions that do not correspond to reality, notions that prevent us from developing ourselves and touching ultimate reality.”

    p. 170 “Simple and primitive images may have been the object of our faith in God in the beginning, but as we advance, He becomes present without any image, beyond any satisfactory mental representation.” and then he says, “We come to a point where *any notion* we had can no longer represent God.” (asterisks added for emphasis).

    He states on page 21, “In Buddhism, we never talk about nirvana, because nirvana means the extinction of all notions, concepts, and speech.”

    T.N.H. emphasizes the importance of “communtity” (worshiping together — the Sangha, “Without a Sangha, you will be lost.”) and the presence of the Holy Spirit (a seemingly strange doctrine for a Buddhist monk to advance).

    I don’t think he would use the term, “blasphemy” in a positive way to advace spiritual understanding. With all due respect to you, John, I understand “where you are going with and coming from” by using this term (at least I think I do), but I just wouldn’t use this word. The Jews that wanted to destoy the Christ used the term, but the Christ (or the Buddha as far as we know) never used the term to promote spirituality and enlightenment. Using the term in your post can, perhaps, smack of bitterness or allude to an ulterior, derogatory or deleterious agenda.

    You stated, “Blasphemy in one context is a sublime truth in another one.” Mmm… do you really believe that is “right mind” to think that way? A rose by any other name is still a rose. “Shit on a stick” still stinks and is somewhat revolting; I wouldn’t employ the concept of shit (or even have it as a thought) to promote enlightenment or for the purpose of inviting the Holy Spirit to attain same.

    Is there another word which can be used instead of “blasphemous” to illustrate the point(s) you are making?

    Just my thoughts.


  6. Part of the appeal of the word “blasphemy” for me is that religions are so frequently trying to moderate non-believers by throwing the word at them. For example, a relative told his mother, in the process of revealing his lack of faith, that he didn’t believe in Jesus, and she told him to stop blaspheming in her house. She employed the word right away to shut him down and restrict his ability to share his thoughts with her.

    “Blasphemy” a powerful word, a hateful word, and like “queer” and “bitch” and “cunt,” I think it’s positive to reclaim it. I describe myself as an apostate quite openly, which at least gets an uncomfortable “heh. heh.” out of believers. In part, I hope it causes them to pause and think about ascribing that word to others, especially with the typically-dismissive tone in which it is used, and especially because I use it with believing members who are otherwise my friends.

    Paul, you are also attempting to moderate John in this discussion with your reference to “right speech.” You refer to right speech to chastise John for using a word that you consider useless and unkind. You are using right speech as a doctrine with which to correct others’ behavior. This is exactly the attitude that Blasphemy Day is addressing.

    Personally, I find the idea of blasphemy quite instructive in considering the different ways that we are resistant to challenges and change. Blasphemy makes us all a little more flexible, I think, and flexibility allows us to appreciate each other better, and to evolve.

  7. But there is a positive point to the word blasphemous. The word can mean (depending on where you decide ‘blas’ comes from) either an injurious statement (pheme: utterance; blas possibly from blastikos: hurtful) or an ignorant statement (blax: stupid). By defining something as blasphemous one should be, ideally, defining it as hurtful or ignorant. So the point is to refuse to allow the closed, restrictive definitions that state, ‘this cannot be said because it is anathema – blasphemous,’ and insist on examining whether and why the statement is hurtful or stupid.

    It’s the first definition that causes all the trouble because we have to accept some one else’s definition of what does and does not injure God – a ridiculous position really. The claim immediately shuts down discussion and growth by setting out boundaries (you cannot say this/think this/question this for it hurts God/church/saint/prophet). But if, instead, you choose the second definition and say that blasphemy is simply a statement of ignorance then the opposite happens; by defining ignorance you then define new avenues of exploration and questioning. Instead of saying ‘don’t go there,’ you say, ‘find out more, ask more, learn more.’

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