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”.
Buddha was born in Lumbini, Nepal- he was originally named Siddhartha. He renounced the Hinduism of his Kshatriya class and went on his own path when he was unsatisfied with some of the teachings and answers 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.
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.
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.