The other day, after dropping Dana off at the ol’ BART station, I caught one of NPR’s little sound bites between station identification:
A Singapore retailer has pulled a line of Jesus cosmetics after receiving complaints about the American-made products branded “Lookin’ Good for Jesus.” They included a “virtuous vanilla” lip balm, as well as hand and body cream. Their slogan: “Get His Attention.”
Which I love. (A BBC version of the story can be found here. And if you’re interested in getting His attention, you can find these products here or, interestingly, at the GTU’s bookstore in Berkeley.)
This morning, while perusing the Worst Horse’s Dharma-Burgers, which I also love, I found a link to the BuddhaCat (not to be mistaken for the real Buddha Cat), and the commentary of “could you imagine the repurcussions of creating a ‘Jesus Cat’?”
Those in Singapore obviously can.
On a related topic, I stumbled across a story (and I use the term incredibly loosely) about punk rock on a site called “Zen Habits,” which (you may have already guessed) has very little to do with Zen. But this site, like a great many things in this world that the Worst Horse ably documents, has co-opted “Zen” or “Buddhism” or “Eastern spirituality” or whatever for specifically non-religious purposes.
And now (as you may have already guessed again) for some deep, important commentary from yours truly.
I have three general reactions to Buddhism-in-pop-culture used for non-religious purposes. And this “non-religious purposes” is the crux of my argument, so keep it in mind while you read. By this I mean, if Buddhists are injecting Buddhism or Buddhist ideas into pop-culture deliberately and with the intention of “spreading the dharma” or of getting people on-board the Buddha Bus, that’s one thing. I think we, as Buddhists, could have an interesting conversation about the necessity of this sort of activity, upaya and skillful means, etc., etc., etc. But that’s a very different conversation than the one I’m about to have. The one I’m about to have is about non-Buddhists using Buddhist stuff for non-Buddhist purposes, i.e., selling shit.
My first reaction is a general feeling of hypocrisy. As the Lookin’ Good for Jesus products and the BuddhaCat demonstrate, it’s somehow accepted in this culture (and other “modernized” cultures) that we can be flippant and ironic and funny about Buddhism but if you try to pull this over on Christians (let alone Muslims or Jews), you’re in for it. If you market a parody of Jesus, you’re being offensive. But a manufacturer of belt buckles called “Buddha Buckle Company” is perfectly acceptable. What’s with that?
My second reaction is more of a question for the larger Buddhist community. How do we feel about this? Is it okay? Is it offensive? Should we be offended? Is it a strength of our particular religion that allows us to be above the petty “don’t you dare offend us” arguments of conservative Christians and other religious zealots? And, most important, how should we react to all this?
My third reaction comes from the first two. It’s a bit more intellectual, academic, and long-winded. And here it is: it seems to me that all of this stuff is happening within a discourse of objectivity, power, and suppression. That is, the act of turning a religion into a marketable product somehow diminishes its effectiveness as a “pure” religion. It’s damned hard to take Jesus seriously if he’s little more than the object of young girls’ sexual desire. In other words, he becomes nothing more than a pop icon, not the savior of all humanity. (For some reason Teen Beat comes to mind and I’m suddenly aware of the fact that all my cultural references here are at least twenty years old. If you’re more in touch with who pre-teens are swooning over these days, let me know.)
Co-opting elements of one culture into another is a surefire way to make the original culture submissive to the dominate culture. This has been a particularly thorny thorn in the side of many African-American (and other oppressed peoples) social critics for decades. Think about everything from Jazz to hip-hop. This is black music that gets stripped away from its black heritage and becomes increasingly less threatening to the dominate culture. Jazz a century ago was music of rebellion and revolution. Now it’s something middle-aged white guys listen to on high-end audio systems. The same thing is happening to hip-hop, and in particular “gangsta rap,” a sub-genre which began as an expression of the frustrations of living as second-class citizens and is now little more than a style of music manufactured and marketed to suburban, middle-class white kids.
By removing elements of culture from their native places where they enjoy a certain status or relevance or power and sticking them in some other cultural context, you diminish that status, you take away that power, and you completely change the meaning of the original.
Now, I’m open to debate on whether or not this is, in all cases, a bad or a good thing. In the case of music or pop-culture, I’m going to remain firmly one the fence (largely because I really like Jazz and hip-hop, even if that makes me a culture-vulture). But I’ll have to say a thing or two about co-opting religion because, well, it’s why they gave me that fancy degree.
If you refuse to allow elements of your religion to be co-opted for non-religious purposes, you’re in a much better position to argue for your religion’s lasting relevance and value. If we only ever see Jesus on the cross or looking benevolent and soulful, then Jesus (and by extension, Christianity) retains his stature of Lord and Savior. If we start seeing him as teen pop-sensation, Jesus (and by extension, Christianity) becomes no more significant to human kind than the Nintendo Wii or the next Indiana Jones movie or a Hannah Montana movie.
Since we live in a de facto Christian country, of course we live in a country that regularly denigrates one religion while staunchly defending another. Rather than presenting and representing Buddhism as a legitimate religion on par with the Judeo-Christian hegemony in this country, it’s something you can trademark and use to sell everything from scented candles to sex toys.
So, from this point of view, I can’t help but see the BuddhaCat and all the other Dharma-Burgers as part of a social discourse that seeks to minimize the importance or relevance or power of Buddhism. In this regard, it’s an act of suppression.
But having said that, I’m still at a loss to answer my question up there in point two. What do we, as Buddhists, do about this? I’m loath to take a cue from zealous Christians out there and denounce all of this stuff as patently offensive. But I’m also hesitant to let it all go as not relevant. I’m hesitant, probably, because I’m a firm believer in the actual power of Buddhism (spiritually, psychologically, and even politically), and wouldn’t it be great to promote it and have it taken seriously, as seriously as Christianity? But the question then would be how? How do you spread accurate and meaningful representations of Buddhism while diminishing the relevance of this pop-fluff while also maintaining a healthy sense of humor? And, simultaneously, your dignity? And, most importantly, without being an asshole?
So that’s the Big Important Question of the Week. Your turn.
(Hm. “Get on the Buddha Bus.” I like that.)