What I found irritating: they talk about this statue that sold at Christie’s in this context of people decorating their homes. That statue (pictured here) wasn’t sold to a private collector as a way to spruce up the house. It was bought by a Japanese Buddhist temple where it’s being treated as a national treasure. I know, I know. I’m splitting hairs. I just wish newspaper editors would do a bit more fact checking sometimes.
What gave me a giggle: in the attached photo-gallery is this image of a Hotei statue sitting next to someone’s bathtub. The accompanying text says that Buddha statues symbolize peace and serenity…. even though Hotei symbolizes good fortune and wealth. I wonder what sort of good fortune and wealth one can expect while soaking in the tub?
What I found surprising and no doubt taken wildly out of context: William Bodiford being quoted:
Most Americans don’t know much about Buddhism, so statues, wall carvings and paintings don’t “come with baggage,” he says. “It’s a blank slate that they can accept on their own terms.”
I wonder if the subtext of this quote is lost on the reader? Does the reader understand that what this means is that, when you take a cultural artifact out of its context and stick it in your home, you strip it of its original meaning. Devoid of its original meaning, you are then free to have it mean whatever the hell you want it to mean. That we are capable of doing this to Buddhism and not to other religions has always struck me as a form of cultural imperialism, what my old boss would call being a “culture vulture.” The problem with being a culture vulture is that you invariably strip the culture you profess to love of any agency in claiming its own meaning. Buddhism ceases to be whatever it is and becomes “a blank slate” that you are free to define however you like. Leaving us with the very real and important questions, “Is it Buddhism? Is it not Buddhism? What is Buddhism? Is Buddhism about peace and serenity? Or are we just claiming it is because we’ve got this blank canvass?”
What I was reassured by: this quote from the minister of a Los Angeles Shinshu temple:
At Japanese temples, it’s common to have a statue outside in a garden, “but it would be placed with utmost care and consideration,” he says. Positioning a Buddha on some sort of base is preferred to putting it on the ground, he says, and it should blend into the natural beauty of the surroundings and be kept clean.
The guiding principle, Ito says, is respect. How would you respond if your religion’s sacred symbol was used as a coaster, Jell-O mold or bobblehead?
I am thrilled to see a Shinshu perspective in a major metropolitan newspaper and I am thrilled to see that Rev. Ito is at least attempting to remind people that these images aren’t just decorative tchotchke but religious objects that should be treated with some care.
At any rate, those were some reactions that came to mind when I stumbled upon this piece. Would love to get some other perspectives.