dainichi nyorai (borrowed image)
I both love and hate this article from the L.A. Times. (Thanks to the ever-wonderful WorstHorse for the link.)

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.

6 thoughts on “buddhamania

  1. Is it wrong to have a symbol like the buddha in your home as both something that symbolizes a way of being for you as well as something that decorates the home like a vase? I have a buddha statue, as you may have judged, on my mantel. It was my grandmothers, bought in China in the 60’s. It’s next to some early 1900’s vases that were my other grandmother’s. Both have familial context and are somewhat sentimental. The buddha came with little attachment from my grandmother, but I’ve attached my own poser-like beliefs to it (we’ve discussed this before). How do you respect and embrace a way of being that comes from such a open and accepting religion without stripping it when you are not “from there”?

  2. That’s the question, isn’t it?

    For the record, I don’t think anything’s wrong with anything. You’ve seen my ridiculous collection of Buddhas. Including the Buddha with a laptop (that squeaks like a doggy toy, used to drive Kai mad). At least your Buddha has sentimental meaning.

    I mean, I’m pretty on the fence about all this. I think some buddhamania stuff is horrible. But I also sort of dig it. And I do think that Buddhism is an open religion and we shouldn’t go around condemning people who like to have a little Hotei in their bathroom.

    I think, at the end of the day, one answer to your question would be that respect begins with being conscious and mindful of where these artifacts came from, their history and tradition. If you then have some other meanings attached, I think that’s okay. It’s going to happen. All the stuff on my altar has dual meanings; first the “correct” Buddhist meaning, and second the personal sentimental attachments I have to all that stuff because each part of my altar has a backstory.

    And I don’t think feeling guilty about stuff helps. Take it from me. Guilt never helps!

  3. I walk by that Los Angeles temple every week as it is only a few blocks from my work. The garden in front is very nice. I will have to look for the statue the next time I walk by.

    Regarding the article, on one hand I feel that what people are doing with the statues is harmless. If it gives them a little sence of joy or peace as the priest says, then that is good.

    On the other hand, I feel that the way the Buddha statue is handled or displayed by many people or sold in stores is disrepectful.

    I would hope that people who chose to have the statue would at least have some idea of its significance.

  4. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that the image of Lord Buddha has been incorporated into American culture as a sort of peaceful and natural teddy bear symbol. It could be worse. I can imagine an alternate world where such a statue is portrayed as an epitome of foreign ignorance and backwardness…

    The peace-and-serenity attitude also makes our own statues of Lord Buddha less threatening to non-Buddhists. When my parents moved to rural Illinois, I remember how shocked they were to so often see a crucifix over the fireplace. Seeing a Buddhist statue doesn’t evoke the same reaction. Thank heavens!

    Of course, sometimes the use of Lord Buddha’s image goes too far. At least for me. Remember the Victoria’s Secret fiasco?

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