Let’s Stop Commodifying and Appropriating Eastern Religions
Recently, I visited a trendy shop in Vancouver that primarily sells musical instruments from around the world, but also sells a variety of Eastern religious items like Tibetan singing bowls, mantra beads, and statues of Hindu and Buddhist deities like Ganesh and Green Tara. All of these musical instruments and spiritual products seemed to be sourced directly from makers in places like Nepal. However, for actual practitioners of Hinduism and Buddhism, the question arises: are shops like this, shops that sell “healing crystals,” New Age bookshops, and yoga stores that sell incense alongside representations of “Oriental” religious figures, a positive or negative phenomenon? The answer: it’s complicated. However, I believe, as a dedicated Western Buddhist practitioner, but also an anthropologist and activist sensitive to cultural issues, that this “New Age” phenomenon is largely detrimental to the image and reputation of Buddhism and Hinduism as rich philosophical and religious traditions. Here’s why.
- Buddhism and Hinduism are stereotyped as peaceful and “chill” in the West: companies take advantage of this to sell products aimed at “spiritual” Western consumers.
There is no denying the powerful pull of Hindu, Buddhist, as well as Taoist and Confucian images in the West as something exotic and foreign, but also as symbols of peace and calm. Buddhist teachers argue that these teachings are spreading so rapidly in the West because of the fast pace of modern life, and people are seeking out meditation practices as an ailment for modern ills. However, most Western people’s (mainly white Europeans) knowledge of these ancient traditions comes from movies, Asian restaurants, and, increasingly, “New Age” yoga shops. For instance, I have often found that most Americans believe Buddha is fat. However, that is only the Chinese representation of a particular Buddhist monk known as Budai, venerated as the incarnation of the Buddha of the future, Maitreya. Shakyamuni Buddha, the original historical Buddha, is thin and usually portrayed as sitting in meditation posture. So next time you buy a fat Buddha, if you are Christian, imagine what it would be like if a Chinese person bought a fat Jesus statue, or confused St. Mary for God. Would you be offended? Let me be clear: the fat laughing Buddha is found everywhere in China, even in restaurants, and is also a pervasive cultural icon. But it would be disrespectful to put a fat Buddha as a doorstop or table ornament without doing any research on what it means or where this style of Buddha comes from.
2. There is a long history of Orientalism in the West that perceives all of the diverse cultures of East Asia as one big “melting pot” of essentially the same thing. This practice is the basis of misrepresentation, misconceptions, and racist stereotypes about these cultures.
Scholars such as Palestinian anthropologist and activist Edward Said, author of 1978’s Orientalism, define Orientalism as “the exaggeration of difference, the presumption of Western superiority, and the application of clichéd analytical models for perceiving the Oriental world.” Simply put, “Oriental” people have been seen in the West for centuries as weaker, more irrational, and feminine, in contrast to the masculine, powerful, and rational West. However, the worst stereotypes were reserved for the Islamic world, who were perceived as violent barbarians ever since the Crusades. By contrast, vaguely positive but still detrimental stereotypes existed about India, China, and the Far East, based on old misunderstandings of the cultures and religions of these distant places (for Europeans). Even though Buddhism and Hinduism are perceived as more tolerant than Christianity and Islam by some modern people, Hinduism has a complicated history with the caste system, and Buddhist cultures were not immune to violence. Despite the generally positive image people have of these religions, misunderstandings and generalizations based on 19th century tropes prevail. One thing is for sure: Buddhism and Hinduism are very different religions (not just philosophies) with millions of worshippers all over the world. It’s also not accurate to say Buddhism does not have deities: there is just no supreme creator being, but in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, there are many deities that are just as holy as any Hindu god. Therefore, think twice before buying a statue or tapestry of a Buddhist goddess or Hindu god: are you mixing traditions in a way some believers would find disrespectful? Keep in mind that in some forms of Buddhism, it is not even acceptable to place a statue or holy book on the ground. Again, imagine if these yoga stores were selling crystals alongside wall hangings of Jesus nailed to the cross. Needless to say, someone in America would complain, but perhaps due to cultural differences, Buddhists and Hindus in America do not complain, or at least feel they don’t have enough power to make a difference.
3. “New Age” teachers, books, and spiritual people may mean well, and find inspiration from many sources. However, frauds, charlatans, and profiteers often profit from New Agers’ tendency to ignore problematic aspects of appropriation.
By now, most Americans are familiar with the debate about appropriation. Is it right for white people to wear dreadlocks? Does it matter if a black person plays the sitar? I’d argue these are fine- the latter is even encouraging. However, most people would agree that naming a sports team after a racial slur for black people is beyond the pale. So why do we still accept it for the Redskins? The same problem exists for Native American headdresses, which are seen as symbols of honor that can only be earned. Wearing it as a Halloween costume is just as offensive as wearing a Purple Heart when you aren’t a veteran. So, I’d argue that once you get into items believed to be sacred to a certain culture, that is where the danger of appropriation starts. Does that mean, if you buy a Buddhist statue from a reputable source, have it blessed, and put it on your altar, are you still being disrespectful? No, of course not. If you put a fat Buddha statue in your garden, is that offensive? Perhaps not all Buddhists would be offended, but you should consider that at the very least, you may be contributing to the degradation of these traditions.
However, the biggest offenders are authors and “gurus” who use Buddhist and Hindu teachings for profit, such as authors who write books like “The Power of Now” or “Meditation in Five Simple Steps”, while they misuse and haphazardly mix ideas from different traditions. These New Age self-help gurus prey on vulnerable people who do not know how to differentiate authentic, ancient spiritual traditions from people who may or may not have good intentions. These charlatans in turn repackage these wisdom traditions into a more commercial and easily digestible form, often corrupting their original meaning. In short, the problem of the degradation of Eastern spiritual traditions is intimately connected to the commodification of concepts like “mindfulness” and “meditation”. These concepts can be sold as relaxation techniques to an overworked audience, while ignoring some of the more challenging teachings of wisdom traditions, such as compassion, training the mind to avoid evil, avoiding indulging in every pleasure, and other “old-fashioned” ethical philosophies.
Finally, let me offer a word of advice for those who are sincerely interested in Eastern religious traditions, or rather, let His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama. His Holiness advises that one must be very careful when assuming a new religion, saying that “when someone takes a new religion, they must avoid a negative view toward their original tradition, which often comes up as part of human nature. Even if you find your old tradition not very helpful to you, it doesn’t imply in general that it’s not very helpful. All religions offer help to humanity. Especially when facing difficult situations, all religions offer hope. Therefore, we must respect all religions.” In other words, let’s avoid disparaging or misunderstanding any religion, from Christianity to Jainism, and everything in between, and the world will be a happier, more compassionate place.
So even though it doesn’t harm anyone directly, please stop using Buddha statues as doorstops!