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Mistreatment of Buddha Iconographies across the Globe

by Emi Hailey Hayakawa, BTN, Sept 28, 2015

Seoul, South Korea -- With the increasing popularity of Buddhism and Zen culture across the globe, especially in the West, there had been a surge of interest in Buddhist iconographies and statues.

With this trend, many fashion and contemporary items, and various businesses tried to profit by implementing images of the Buddha within their merchandise and branding. The Buddhist community across the globe have been continuously insulted and outraged by the mistreatment and casual use of Buddhist iconographies as trendy and fashionable items by these businesses.

There have been numerous cases of the mistreatment of Buddha images across the globe: From the creation of Buddha “bars”, shoe and fashion designs, artworks and posters, to Buddha head stools. These controversial items go against Buddhist sentiments because for all Buddhists alike, the representation of the Buddha is considered as one of the most revered in Buddhism.

Moreover, for devout practitioners, Buddha images make their practice much more vivid and significant as they have a tangible object to focus on and to inspire them to perfect their rites and rituals.

Institutions that serve alcohol, tobacco products and other stimulants under a large Buddha statue, the so- called “Buddha Bars,” unfortunately exists all over the world. It has been reported that such Buddha Bars have been established in Malaysia, Myanmar, United States, France, and many other European countries.

Buddha Bars >>

To the general public, the Buddha Bar is “just a bar” with contemporary design (usually a large Buddha statue) and a place to feel peaceful and “zen” while enjoying their social lives. For Buddhists however, a bar is not the ideal place for a Buddha statue to be placed.

In their homes and temples, Buddhists create a special zone for their prayer altar, complete with a Buddha statue. Thus, Buddhist communities find it very difficult to accept these decadent outlets because of the deep rooted devotion for the teacher, and which they take as an insult to the religion.

Needless to say, most Buddhist communities will not tolerate the general public who does not truly understand the importance of the religion, the dharma, and the Buddha statue and image itself. Moreover, the fifth precept of the Buddhist precepts states “"I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented and distilled intoxicants which are the basis for heedlessness.”

Thus, it is against the sentiments of the Buddhist tradition to place a Buddha statue in a place where unwholesome consumption of stimulants (including alcohol, and at times other substances such as tobacco, etc) as it is inappropriate to use the Buddha’s name and image to attract more customers.

Furthermore, Cristina Richie, Theology Scholar of Boston College, notes the importance of Buddha statues in her academic paper as she states, “In Asian statues of the Buddha, each part of the statue is highly symbolic and contains physical articulations of religious ideals. These sculptures are done with the intention that devotees will enhance their understanding of enlightenment through the viewing and internalizing the meaning of the Buddha.”

In 2012, the California-based company, Icon Shoes, designed and promoted a shoe line that portrayed Buddha images on the body of the shoes. When the shoes appeared in the markets and published in catalogues for purchases, the US and global Buddhist community was outraged by this disrespect for the basic Buddhist traditions to be worn on the feet and outspokenly protested to have the images and shoes withdrawn from the markets and catalogues.

In most Asian cultures, shoes are removed before entering the building, and especially the shrine room. In some cultures, even pointing your feet toward the Buddhist altar or teacher is regarded as disrespectful. Thus, many Buddhist communities were outraged and insulted in seeing shoes that portray the image of the great teacher. Bhuchung Tsering, from International Campaign for Tibet, had stated, “it is a basic Buddhist tradition to treat images of Buddhist deities with reverence. Having the images on shoes is disrespect to the Buddhists.”

Since the large scale online complaints from Buddhists and offended from across the globe flooded their company, Icon Shoes has removed the controversial shoes with Buddha images from its website.

In 2015, in Seoul, Korea, KARE, a German furnishing company, produced a Buddha head stool and sold it in the local department stores and their flagship store in Shinsa-dong, Seoul.

The Korean Buddhist community found this outrageous and called upon the Korean Branch of KARE to stop selling the products at once stating that “The Buddha is not an art object" and "Buddha's image is not furniture.” To some sects of Buddhism, especially Thai Buddhist, the head is the most sacred part of the body and is not to be touched, let alone sat upon. BTN has sent several letters to the headquarters of KARE in Germany to demand the removal of their products from stores.

The image of the Buddha serves a symbol where practitioners can put aside negative thoughts and to be reminded of Buddha’s compassion and loving kindness, and helps practitioners evoke feelings of peace, tranquility and calmness.

When manufacturers and business owners casually use Buddhist iconography for the promotion of their business, many people over look the sentiments of billions of Buddhists around the world, and often find that these images are not treated with respect.

As with any religion, religious iconographies should not be used lightly and as a product outside of it’s religious and spiritual context so that it does not offend the religion itself, the culture it belongs to, and the society it portrays.

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