The Decapitation of the Buddha.

The appropriation of Eastern religions by the West is nothing new. In the 1970s, “hippies” were drawn to Hinduism the way they were drawn to ganja– there is even a Hindi song about it. These days, globalization has made our world even smaller, and Westerners are able to easily access information on Eastern cultures, traditions, and religions (Hinduism and Buddhism for the most part). The popularity of the two cultures has risen with the popularity of yoga and Western ideas of Eastern spirituality. Unfortunately, the popularity of these ideas have stripped Buddhist and Hindu religious icons of the respect given to them by actual followers of the religion. Focus on Buddha demonstrates his decapitation in the name of aesthetics and “spirituality”.

Gautama Buddha
Gautama Buddha

Buddha was from India- a prince named Siddhartha. He renounced Hinduism and went on his own path when he was unsatisfied with some of the teachings of the broad religion. Thus, Buddhism was born, and with it a great spiritual leader.

Neo-religious and Western pagan traditions have begun severing Buddhist traditions from their religious fabric. People choose the parts that they like, and discard the rest in their efforts to appear or be “spiritual”. For the most part, it is the aesthetics that are pleasing: the mala beads, and the icons. These icons include Buddha and Budai- many people may be hard pressed to tell you the difference between the two. This is because Buddhism has been ripped from its religious foundations, and turned into a trendy aesthetic decor item.

Buddhism population percentage.
Buddhism population percentage.

There are over 8 million Buddhists in India, and over 70% of the Sri Lankan population is Buddhist. The religion spread widely in the Eastern Asian countries, and that is where it is most popular. Countries with over 90% Buddhist populations include Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar/Burma. These people practice Buddhism as a religion, and it is also a part of their culture. The two are necessarily intertwined. Unfortunately, many Buddhists face persecution because of their religion at the hands of others. In 1963, a monk named Thích Quảng Đức even burned himself alive to protest the persecution of Buddhists in Vietnam. He was willing to die for his people, his religion, and the teachings of Buddha. Buddhism is important to followers of the religion in ways that you or I may never understand, as we are not Buddhist. However, we can empathize with groups by showing solidarity and respect to their cultures and historic figures. The Western world needs to learn this in regards to their use of the Buddha as a prop.

stone-garden-buddha-head-statue-40cm-x-30cm-[2]-768-p
Thieves would cut the heads off of Buddha sculptures and statues to sell illegally. Purchasing Buddha heads is a part of a disrespectful history to Buddha.
A walk into any home decor store in Toronto will reveal the cultural appropriation of Buddha and Buddhism. Shelves are lined with Buddha statues and heads for sale. Put them on a table! Leave them in a corner on a shelf to give you “positive vibes”! Put them outside on the floor of your garden as an ornament! Just don’t use them for prayer. Don’t use them for what Buddhists use them for, and disregard the respect that they give to these idols. Buddhists place their idols on elevated surfaces, and lower themselves when praying. Using Buddha for merely aesthetic purposes disrespects traditions that are thousands of years in the making.

An unlikely comparison arises in the way we approach Christianity, and the figure of Jesus. When we think of him, we recognize him as a part of that religion- people do not [usually] use Jesus as a prop, or as an aesthetic device. While many may not see this as a form of respect, it is one; we allow Jesus to exist within the Christian/Catholic faith and do not divorce him from those traditions. Furthermore, one would never consider decapitating Jesus for aesthetics, nor would it be considered a sign of respect if it was done- could you imagine a Jesus head tucked into a corner of a garden? Why should the treatment of Buddha be any different from the treatment of Jesus? While I compare the respect given to Buddha and Jesus, I wish I didn’t have to. As global citizens, we shouldn’t have to understand how to respect the traditions of an individual from one religion by way of comparison with another. It is something we should already realize.

The way the West views the East participates in a tired tradition of Orientalism. It is an ignorant view of the world, and extends itself to the way that people with more power and privilege- the West- decide how they will conduct their relationship with the East on their own terms. When borrowing traditions and cultures, shouldn’t they be respected and utilized in the ways they have been used by people within those cultures? In this manner, how is the use of Buddha as a prop okay?

There is a lot of grey area in the question of cultural appropriation, and it’s not always easy to understand right from wrong. The best one can do is understand how privilege exists within their daily lives, and ask ourselves (or others) if it’s okay to use cultures that we have not interacted with or are a part of. If you cannot believe in Buddha as a Buddhist, or (though some would disagree) as a pagan might, ask yourself how the Buddha validates your existence. Can you receive the same “positive vibes” by engaging in acts that do not disrespect cultures and cultural icons? If so, try to follow those paths instead, and become an ally to other ethnicities as they look for equal footing in a globalized world.

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13 thoughts on “The Decapitation of the Buddha.

  1. This was a really interesting article, I particularly like the comparison you drew between Jesus and Buddha to strike the point home. I’m not religious but I could certainly emphasize with religious people of any faith and their issues with appropriation and defacement of sacred images. I’d say Buddhists have really shown their maturity as a religion and their tolerance as a people to manage these waters with composure, unlike other extremists in the recent news.

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    1. Thanks for your comment Nicholas. I think that appropriation is a topic that doesn’t see much air time, because dominant cultures don’t think it’s a problem. This is similar tho the way specific cultures and groups of people are viewed in mainstream media. We only see what the dominant, powerful and privileged group (which is predominantly white America) wants us to see. This is why black people and black culture, and Islamist people are viewed in such a stereotyped way. I think it is worth it to see that one group or one person does not define an entire nation or cultural group. This link will bring you to a video about the way the media portrays people depending on their skin colour. I think it’s worth it to look at it, and re-challenge stereotypes that we may place on people because of the media.

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    2. i just found this post in my attempt to find a solution to my giant buddha head in my garden. Once my sons Vietnamese girlfriend explained the above to me, Ive been woke as the kids say. Now what. What does one do with a previously purchased head of a diety. I can completly see how utterly thoughtless it was for me of me to buy the severed head of someone elses diety. Do I now- smash it? Give it away? What?

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  2. Very interesting article. I agree with you and believe we should very cautious and respectful when dealing with religion, culture and traditions. I like the examples you use about Bhudda. It is risky to use the symbol of any religion, no matter what, if you don’t understand what it represents. You can put in your garden whatever you want, but why a figure representing Bhudda? Sometimes consumerism and trends make us look very stupid.

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  3. Thank you so much for the history lesson about the desecration of Buddhist statues! I will pass it on, it needs to be more widely known. I think there is confusion about the Buddha head statues because of the long tradition of “busts” in Western artwork. You can find many “decapitated” statues of Jesus or Mary by simply googling “jesus bust” or “mary bust”, it’s not unusual or disrespectful at all. Another source of confusion is due to the fact that Western people have a long tradition of displaying images of people they admire, but don’t worship. For example Catholics display images of saints that they admire and wish to invoke or imitate, but they don’t worship them (despite the long history of protestants and muslims accusing Catholics of saint-worship). I can’t imagine my of my Catholic family being upset because non-catholics use the image of St francis to show their affinity for a man who shared their beliefs about love and respect for animals, even if he is an exclusively Catholic saint. Many Western composers and other artists in the 1800s for example, had the traditional bust of Beethoven in their house to inspire them in their own creative endeavors. Government buildings in Christian countries often have depictions of Greek and Roman deities as a symbols of the qualities they embody or realms that they rule—like justice, agriculture etc. American nerds often display the image of Einstein, vegetarians and anti-war activists display images of Ghandi. I’ve often seen the Buddha’s image displayed by therapists—people whose job it is to help others end their mental suffering. Ironically, the Buddha seems to be popular with those who are advocating nonviolence or religious tolerance, by promoting an alternative to what they see as exploitative and intolerant Abrahamic religions.Those people don’t wish to add to the violence by cultural appropriation, although that may be what they are doing through ignorance. There is a great need for Westerners to be educated on this subject, I’m so glad you are doing just that.

    I think a line needs to be drawn between commercial and personal use of the Buddha’s name and image. The commercial use of Buddhism is very irritating, although it may stem from some good intentions about ethical products, it is also very likely just stemming from greed. Personal use can be for vanity or from real devotion or admiration, it is hard to judge just by appearances. Those who truly admire the Buddha do need to learn the rules for properly displaying his image, however many Westerners are unaware that these rules even exist. Some are unfamiliar to us, such the kitchen being an “unclean” area, or tattoos being “unclean”. Many, many Christians have religious tattoos to show their identity and devotion. I’ve noticed that Christians display religious items in the kitchen more than any other room, perhaps because they spend the most time in the kitchen and it is associated for them with family and service to others.
    Also, Muslims and Hindus pay respect to Jesus/Issa, even though they aren’t Christian. Hindus have portrayed him in artwork, as a spiritual role model. Muslims and Hindus both pay respect to his shrine at Roza Bal, and the Christian community is not upset by this. In fact I think most would welcome it because it means those non-Christians who honor Jesus are coming closer to the “true” religion of Christianity.
    BTW the proper distinction is Protestant/Catholic, not Christian/Catholic. Catholics are 100% Christian despite what some Protestants continue to claim. It’s a very common misconception.

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  4. Thank you for this informative post! I have recently been learning about Buddhism from a local temple (in the US) and since I started going there I started noticing the Buddha heads. I saw them at the craft store Michael’s and at an upscale jewelry store. I thought it was a bit weird but I didn’t know the history behind the decapitated statues.

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    1. Thank you for reading! It’s wonderful to see that you were able to take your learning here and apply it to your lived reality. That’s super important when talking about all kinds of inequalities or oppressive behaviours. 🙂

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  5. great article. as an east asian woman this is something that has bothered me but i did not have the vocabulary to explain it. thank you for adding your voice to the conversation

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    1. Solidarity under moments of oppression are important for us to be able to overcome those injustices. I’m glad that my voice could help. I’m also sorry that this is something that you have to contend with to begin with 😦

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  6. So basically, if you aren’t a Buddhist, don’t keep Buddhist imagey? Or just learn all the various rules about how to show it off when your mates come round – so you can say “Yeah, you know in the south Tibetan tradition, the inclusion of various deities stems from the original shamanic culture which previously…blah blah.”

    Yeah yeah, whatever. Most Christians have a Mary or Jesus Floating around at home and haven’t read the bible in any great detail. It’s up to individuals to decide how they relate to the intellectual, spiritual and philosophical content of a system of ideas and values and equally, their choice about how to rememer and display that relationship to themselves remains out of your realm of concern.

    If you’re upset that pretentious yuppies have a little Buddha head in the garden ‘cos of the “good vibes” – fine, that is rather annoying. But pedantic judgements regarding the rules for display or how “unclean” tattoos are is clearly just rubbish. Just let people get on with it.

    “If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha”

    My Buddha sometimes wears sunglasses and a Santa hat.

    Buddhism has been tremendously important to my development as a human being and I have spent a good deal of time on it. As a consequence, I keep several idols – but then also have symbols from many religions in my home, not to mention different icons from opposing schools of Buddhist thought (No doubt that should not be in the same room!?).

    As such, I would never show “Disrespect” to the images, I just ignore the dogma which attempts to instruct people on diet and sexuality. Rather, what is the content? What are the metaphysyical, ethical and emotional implications of Buddhist teachings? They are the more important issues to ask. Why not write an article expressing discontent with the people who don’t ask those questions?

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  7. Thank you so much for this powerful article & for shedding light on this issue. I have been studying Buddhism for years but, as a white woman, have been hyper aware of the privileged lens through which I understand the religion, culture, traditions & history. The fear of appropriating or offending has limited my spiritual practice & held me back from truly applying Buddhist principles; this article made me see how “unBuddha” this fear is because it takes away from the big picture of alleviating our collective suffering & societal injustice. I know this revelation was not at all your intention & maybe I’m completely off base…I guess I’m asking if you think it’s possible/appropriate to develop a Buddhist practice without appropriating?

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