While preparing notes for a lesson for this coming Sunday I recalled the story of Winston Churchill’s Buddha statue. It is a peculiar story, showing up in anecdotes and talks in a variety of different forms depending on who is telling it. It goes something like this:
Winston Churchill kept a Buddha statue by his bedside, or on his desk throughout the Second World War. Some versions of the story explain his reasoning for doing so, while others will even evoke words of Mister Churchill himself, and recall the serenity the peace that the statue gave him during the most trying of times.
None go so far to claim that Winston Churchill was a Buddhist; and that is not really the point. The story is trying to get at those self-evident elements of Buddhism that change minds and move mountains; things like compassion and harmlessness that sit on the surface of Buddhism, inspiring many to delve deeper, but moving far more people simply by their presence.
Its a great story; but it is the kind of story that sounds like a story. So I decided to see if I could get to the bottom of it!
I had heard the story in speeches and recordings from a number of different teachers, but the first and most prominent source I was able to find in writing was from K Sri Dhammananda’s What Buddhists Believe, first published in 1964:
Once a general sent an image of the Buddha as a legacy to Winston Churchill during the 2nd World War. The general said, ‘If ever your mind gets perturbed and perplexed, I want you to see this image and be comforted.’ What is it that makes the message of the Buddha so attractive to people who have cultivated their intellect? Perhaps the answer can be seen in the serenity of the image of the Buddha.
But certainly K Sri Dhammmananda was working from some source, and if the Buddha Statue had actually played any significance in the life of Winston Churchill it would show up in his writings. And it turns out that the details of the account can mostly be confirmed, if not the words of the general. Churchill, an accomplished amateur painter, had apparently painted the Buddha statue in question. The painting and some notes regarding it recalled by his daughter, Minnie Churchill, can be found in Sir Winston Churchill: His Life and His Paintings
“1948 [Painting] In his will, General Sir Ian Hamilton left his old friend Churchill a figure of a black Buddha. Churchill painted the Buddha with a scarlet hippeastrum, which had been a get-well present from Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, after he caught bronchitis in Marrakech.”
The painting is dated 1948 and the general is identified as Sir Ian Hamilton, who passed away in 1947, who would thus have willed the statue to Churchill after the conclusion of the war. So the Buddha did not get the leader of Britain through the blitz.
While the story is still an article of interest, it is part of the larger tradition, shared not only by Buddhists, of taking figures we respect and re-imagining them as in agreement with us. This is where things like theories that Jesus went to India to learn Buddhism are born, and while I find the Winston Churchill story charming it has the quality in common with the Jesus speculation of being completely unnecessary. Jesus and Churchill are great figures in their own right, with much to teach Buddhists and all people. Similarly, the value of Buddha statues and Buddhism in general has enough greatness in itself that it need not be enhanced by association with these men.
That being said, one of the benefits of Buddhism is that Buddhists have the ability to read the words of great thinkers, be entirely convinced that they are not Buddhist in the slightest, and at the same time know that, in their words, they have gotten at the Dharma. Churchill writes in My Early Life:
In the regiment we sometimes used to argue questions like “Whether we should live again in another world after this was over?” “Whether we have ever lived before?” “Whether we remember and meet each other after Death or merely start again like the Buddhists?” “Whether some high intelligence is looking after the world or whether things are just drifting on anyhow?” There was general agreement that if you tried your best to live an honourable life and did your duty and were faithful to friends and not unkind to the weak and poor, it did not matter much what you believed or disbelieved. All would come out all right.