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Unholy Shoes

by Bhuchung D. Sonam, Phayul, June 17, 2010

New Delhi, India -- More than 2554 years ago Buddha said, "Above all do not cease your desire to walk. Everyday I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts and know no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it."

Buddha, of course, did not care much whether one wore canvass shoes or Nike Air or wear nothing at all, as along as one walks into a state of well being. He may as well be talking to us today when walk less own more shoes. Some of the shapes and colours of the shoes are outrageously bright. Some designs on them outrageously offensive.

Recently Keds, a unit of Kansas-based Collective Brands, Inc. and a mass-marketer of canvass-top sneakers came out with a brand of canvass shoes called 'Tibetan Buddhist Shoes'. These canvass shoes bear on them images of the Dalai Lama, a world's renowned spiritual teacher, the Buddha, holy mantra and other sacred images that Buddhist all over the world revere. Buddhists keep these images in temples, monasteries and on altars in their homes.

Keds' commercial says:
"Gorgeous shoes! They're Keds, so they're sturdy and comfy, yet they're beautiful because of the images on them. How unique is this! A Tibetan Buddhist image in brilliant pinks, yellows, oranges and blues. Colorful and Beautiful!"

The last three words should read — Shameful and Disrespectful!

It is beyond one's imagination as how the designers of a multinational company come to such an idea. Worst still is the fact that Keds mass-produce and mass market them in their stores and online. If a designer comes up with an idea to put Holy Bible or images of Christ or for that matter Prophet Muhammad and Koran, the people concerned at Keds would have vehemently opposed it.

We live in 24x7 interconnected world, where information are available at finger's click. Thus people at the Keds cannot feign ignorant about these sacred images and their importance in Buddhist culture and the practice of the dharma. Hence Keds Buddhist shoes are affront to Tibetans and a total disregard to their cultural values. These shoes have also hurt the religious sentiments of over 350 million Buddhists in the world today, out of which, according to Prof. Robert Thurman, about five to six million are in the US.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) instigated by Mao Zedong, chairman of the People's Republic of China, over 6000 monasteries in Tibet were destroyed by the Red Guards. The images of Buddha made from bronze and gold were melted and taken to China, sacred religious scriptures were used as soles of shoes or as fodders to feed the animals. Holy mantras written on stones or slates were used to build toilets or to pave the roads.

The Cultural Revolution was a result of Mao's hatred towards religion. During his final meeting with the Dalai Lama in 1954, Mao, edged closer to the Tibetan leader and whispered, "... but of course religion is poison. It has two great defects: it undermines the race, and secondly it retards the progress of the country."

Keds Buddhist shoes resemble vestigial activities from the Cultural Revolution. Claiming itself as an ethical and eco-friendly company, in March 2009, Keds launched Keds Green, shoes reportedly made from organic cotton and recycled rubber with non-toxic inks and dyes. The company also claims that they collaborate "with top designers to bring original designs from some of the most cutting-edge minds in fashion, art, music and pop culture." It may, perhaps, need ethical guidance and awareness about other cultures and to respect them.

In his book Unequal Freedom: The Global Markets As An Ethical System, John McMurtry argues that "there is no purchasing decision that does not itself imply some moral choice, and that there is no purchasing that is not ultimately moral in nature." Taking a cue from McMurtry, we should, for the moment, not purchase any of Keds' Buddhist shoes. Secondly, we also need to write to Mathhew E. Rubel, Chairman, CEO and President of Collective Brands, Inc. to state that Keds Buddhist shoes bearing images of Buddha, the Dalai Lama and other sacred Buddhist objects must be recalled from the market immediately.

In their book A Cultural History of Tibet, David Snellgrove and Hugh Richardson write that "...the civilization of the Tibetan people is disappearing before our very eyes, and apart from a few gentle protests here and there the rest of the world lets it go without comment and without regret."

Keds Buddhist shoes themselves may not be the agent to destroy Tibetan Buddhism and its culture, but it is a dangerous precedent. Leaving such instance without a protest or raising critical voice may lead to a pattern where profit-at-all-cost companies may further engage in activities that tremble upon people's cultural values and religious beliefs.

Collective Brands vision statement is to be "the leader in bringing compelling lifestyle, performance and fashion brands for footwear and related accessories to consumers worldwide. "If the company is to fulfill such a vision, it may not want to offend the followers of the world's fourth largest spiritual tradition. Moreover, as the Buddha said, if it wants all Buddhists and their friends to walk their best thoughts in Keds canvass shoes, the president of the Collective Brands, Inc. might want to say, "We are sorry" i.e. if it has already not done so.

Writer can be reached at bhuchungdsonam@gmail.com

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