Thursday, March 25, 2010

What Would The Buddha Think?

"Is it ok for producers of the music video, to use a Buddha statue in the backdrop of that video?" asks VIC in his post on the subject here. Mr Mahasen Bandara goes on to answer the rhetorical question with "no, not at all". What exactly is a rhetorical question anyway?

Here in the UK we have rather strict employment laws. They're complicated, expensive to comply with and I'll be buggered backwards with a large fish fried in batter and a touch of chilli if I can understand them. But, the one thing I do understand is that sexist language, racist talk and most offensive behaviour is in the eye of the beholder.

I can go up to a member of my team, call them a "stupid Indian fuckwit" and, if they or anyone else isn't offended by it, then there's no issue. On the other hand I can ask a person to do something politely, add the word "darling" to the end of the question and, if that person is offended, all hell can break loose. One person's witty banter is another person's hurtful sexism.

Yes, it's all about whether one causes offence or not. Subjective, I believe is how intelligent people would refer to the matter. And it's the same, in my humble o, with regards to religion and Buddhism. Here in the west we have Buddha bars, clothing and all sorts of imagery, as documented by DD here, used for purely commercial purposes. Just about every other white person's garden has a statue of the Buddha, available from most garden centres, peering out from behind the plants.

Most of the statue buyers would no doubt be horrified if they thought they were offending Buddhists throught their actions, I doubt there's any intended malice. To them it's a nice looking staute, a cool looking bar to hang out in or a trendy pair of jeans. The kids who wear the jeans will hang a cross around their necks because they think it looks good, the parents will make every effort to get their child into a Catholic school, not because they're Catholics but because it's the best school in the area.

The west, for the main, has an opt in attitude towards religion. People choose a religion if they so desire and then practice it. The eastern way is different, most are born into a religion and then choose to opt out if they want to. When I compare Sri Lanka with the UK one of the biggest differences is that religion is a backdrop to so many aspects of life in Serendib in a way that's not so here.

Which is better, which is worse?

I have no firm opinions on this. I've brought up my daughters with the western approach, hopefully trying to create an awareness of religions and faiths and a level of tolerance in all of them. I know that the reality is that they'll probably grow up as people who don't practice any particular religion. I'm okay with that.

VIC asks in his post for a yes or no answer to the question, "is it use a Buddha statue in the backdrop of that video?"

My answer is in the affirmative, with some conditions. I think it's okay, that doesn't mean that you think it's okay. I'm not trying to persuade you either way, if you're offended by imagery like that then that's your right. If Mr Akon wants to gig in a Buddhist country then perhaps it wasn't the biggest act of sensitivity around to put that in his video.

Am I offended when people here put Buddha statues in their gardens? No.

Am I offended when I see kids wearing crosses for decoration? No.

Was I offended with the Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad? No.

But those are just my opinions.

I wonder what God or Buddha would think about the matter?


Sach said...

RD, first, I think this whole thing is blown out of proportion and made a bigger deal than it should have been. I bet Akon is anything but delighted by this; how many of us islanders got to know that such an artists exsits (me included) because of this? I'm sure the financial gains from this concert if it were to happen must not have been so huge, but the publicity he got sure is huge. This is not the first time something related to Buddha is used in an offensive way, but them all didn't cause such a fuss. I remember one; I think most of the Sri Lankans thought "The Day After Tomorrow" was a very good film - at least they watched it - and by all means was an OK film. I'm sure many not have noticed it, but the name of the dog in that movie is Buddha! Wonder why nobody thought that was an offense. Funny. The thing is, this is not the first time and neither it will be the last time. I don't care.

Then, I've got not one but many things to say about your points. First, I think neither way is 'better' when it comes to western way and eastern way. They are two different ways, they do exists, and we might as well get along with them. Also Sri Lankans may openly admire and talk about their religion, but that doesn't mean they are in a personal level so pissed with this thing - at least not most of them. I mean, it is in a larger scheme that this protests is hapenning, and also only a few that actually organize and fuel it. But it goes on every Buddhists - the are being generalized. As I said in one of my posts it is no different than some of the westerners' idea of every Muslim is a terrorist - or at least that there is a possiblity of them being one.

Then, I wouldn't think that though individuals in western countries may not be religious, so to speak, that the states are. You, living in a western country, should know the 'authority' of the catholic church over there. And need I tell you that how easily it is offended? How it labels homosexuality as a sin - the prominent (or I should say dominant) religion of the supposed to be free thinking west? But still there are a shit load of gays over there right? The point is, at an individual level, most of the catholics wouldn't much care if the image of Jesus was used in any offensive way, and neither would most of the Buddhists if Buddha's image was used in such a way. But when the state or organizations or whatever is there to fuel a situation like this, many would nod in agreement - be it east or the west.

And about what would Buddha have said - he would probably have laughed it off for I think he was a man with great wit and by all means a jolly fella. Now there is a great risk of me offending some people by calling him a jolly fella even though I meant it in a nice way. Such is the way of the world.

Dee said...

The Buddha wasn't an egoistic leader. So I doubt he would be all up in arms about it. He would sympathies and ask people to do good for their own sake.

But as a Buddhist, it kind of pains me how people use a great leader's image for decoration, but I understand its ignorance and that's that, because Buddhism and understanding is within one.

Mahasen said...


I think I like Prasad's answer to VIC's question over mine..

"Due to the very long answer I have to give. I would actually avoid properly answering following question "is it ok for producers of the music video, to use a Buddha statue in the backdrop of that video?" The question itself is based on the assumption that good/bad and true/false are absolute measures. However the short incomplete answer would be that it is obviously NOT OK given the consequences, and any wise person would avoid it. But hey, in my second thoughts, if a religious community can be provoked so easily and big uproar can be created, and then pacified as quickly by sending a canned apology few weeks later, that would be an instrument of advertising. Obviously I am answering the question from music producers point of view, and that perhaps was not the intent of voice in Colombo. Due to the long list of perspectives, I would stop at that."

Magerata said...

Hi RD, VICs question is not easy to answer yet I am with your opinions. Only time I was offended about a Buddha Statues was when I saw what taliban did to those those centuries old statues in Afghanistan.
I am also saddened to see my fellow Buddhists, including priests believing that AKON could tarnish Buddhism. Fools always point the finger at someone but themselves.

David Blacker said...

There was a similar uproar recently about a Facebook group called 'Fuck Jesus', with people emailing around a petition to the Pope and stuff.

The thing is, when someone says "you are offending/disrespecting my religion", you gotta ask how that can be possible. How is a religion offended? A religion isn't a person. Nor is it possible really to offend Jesus or the Buddha or Allah or whoever. I hardly think such a supreme god/deity/being would really be offended by Akon or Dan Brown or Salman Rushdi. So in essence what the person is saying is "you're offending my sensibilities as a Christian/Buddhist/Muslim/whatever. Which then begs the question "why are you offended by an ineffectual attack on an invincible being?"

The essence of a religion is its practices and beliefs by the individual, and not how one's religion is viewed by others. I really don't care if someone in LA wants to Fuck Jesus. What is far more protest-worthy is the religious intolerance that prevents believers of minority religions from practicing their faith in many countries, particularly in the Middle East, but more recently in South and Southeast Asia, including SL.

Janith said...

You're right on with the opt-in, opt-out thing. I think if a Sri Lankan artist did what Akon did, to any religious symbol belonging to one of the four main religions practised in this country, I can safely bet that his home would've been burned down and he would be in hiding, or worse.

Sadly this passion that Sri Lankans seem to have for the things they love seems to always end up in violence. If you insult the President, you're dead. If you insult the cricketers, you're dead. If you insult your neighbours mom, you're dead. People just need to learn to chill, and understand that not everyone is aware and culturally-sensitive.

Siribiris said...

Nice. I like your writing style. Make perfect sense to me; but after all, it is in the eye of the beholder.

Wat to do? No ( he..he...) said...

'I wonder what God or Buddha would think about the matter?' - I think the answer is given here by Chavie. :)

ViceUnVersa said...

Sensitivity and tact mate! Can you imagine what would happen in East and North London if we opened a Pub called 'Allah Bar' or 'Funky Allah'?

Or we don't see a 'Jesus Bar' or 'Funky Jesus'? Actual a jeans brand called Funky Jesus sound cool doesn't it?

What if there was a tequila called 'Yahweh'? Jeans with 'Judaism' printed on it's ass?

It's all relative and majority rules. So context matters. Sri Lanka is a predominately Buddhist country.

The point I was trying to make and failed I guess is that, maybe the majority of Buddhists do see their religion commercialized way more than other religions in terms of being used as a brand.

You know it, I know it, they know it:

There never will be a 'Funky Jesus' Bar, eh?

Anything with funky in front sounds cool. Anyone for 'Funky Baby P'?

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Sach - thanks for the lengthy comment. Your point about the feelings of the individual vs the state / organisations is a good one. As I said I think that there isn't one better way in terms of opt in or opt out, but I think Akon's video, made and shown in the western world, probably didn't cause much of a problem.

Dee - I don't mean to start an argument and mean this out of genuine interest but may I ask you why it pains you when a great leader's image is used for decoration?

Mahasen / DB - For me it's enough to accept that people can get offended by almost anything. It's then a decision for the offendee (?) to decide on whether they want to modify or change their behaviour in the future. They don't have to, but at least will have a better benchmark of what might cause offence. I too am amazed at the acts some will get offended by. As you're aware I'm not a religious person but can't help but think that, if God exists, he/she would just be shrugging his/her shoulders and laughing at us.

Magerata - Yes, I reckon there are many people within Buddhism who have tarnished its image far worse than Akon.

DD - Yes, it's all about adapting behaviour to suit one's audience I guess. Though I'm not so sure about the lack of "Jesus" things in these parts. If I remember rightly there was a brand of jeans called Jesus back in the day and Jesus is a very common name in many countries. If a Sri Lankan called their child Buddha I suspect most people would disapprove strongly of the idea.

Thank you all for reading and commenting.

PseudoRandom said...

They way I see it, the East and West follow two schools of thought: the West upholds the right to offend, and the East doesn't. But surely if we have an inalienable right to offend (intentionally or otherwise), we also have an inalienable right to be offended?

It's not just a Buddhist thing, or a Sri Lankan thing...or even a religious thing. People don't like it when people and concepts they respect are trivialised. Think Danish cartoons of the Prophet (as you mentioned), Madonna's use of the crucifix on her Confessions tour, Mont Blanc's 'Mahatma Gandhi' pen...the latter wasn't meant to offend or shock at all, but it was ignorant and insensitive.

Like Dee, I feel uneasy when I see Buddha statues, which symbolise the very core of my convictions, being used as an ornament/selling point. It's a respect thing. The way I deal with it is by disassociating myself from that product. If I'm asked for my opinion, I'll give it...but otherwise I'll get on with the more important aspects of my life.

But that's just me. Other people's religious sensibilities are different, and I respect that.

Sach said...

RD, answer to your question of why would someone get offended/saddened/uneasy when a religious figure is used for other purposes can be answered this way:

Why is calling someone 'son of a bitch/whore/slut' etc etc is considered an insult? More often than not the mother in question is not such - yet people get offended. Why? Because it is human nature to get offended when someone says something disrespectful about someone/something you hold dear to your heart. It is the same with religion.

I personally do not care and do not get offended in either case, yet I seldom do that to others for I know that just because I am such, not everyone is. It is all perspective.

Sigma Delta said...

Personal, I think the Buddha would be far more tolerant of this issue than some Buddhist are - tolerance is a fundamental part of what the Buddha preached and while the video itself is hardly offensive, surely resorting to violence is! BTW, just how 'spontaneous' was this demonstration, from what I've read so far it seemed more a publicity stunt to garner support at the elections rather than a legitimate issue

Anonymous said...

kudos to you for taking on this very delicate subject matter. & handled quite diplomatically. i concur and definitely see eye to eye with you on this.

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

PseudoR - I cocncur with your statement about having the right to be offended. I guess it's all about how much each person is bothered about the next fellow's reaction.

Sach - It wasn't so much about people saying negative things about a religion that I was asking. More I'm trying to figure out why the use of a statue for decorative puropses would be considered disrespectul by some. I think PseudoR might have answered when she said that people don't like it when people/concepts are trivialised. Perhaps that's the key.

Sigma Delta - Yup, I think Buddha. God, Allah, Java Jones or whichever deity/God one follows would have far better things to worry about.

Dandelion - thank you.

ViceUnVersa said...

In Sinhala the Buddha is known as Bodhi Sathwa or Budhu Rajun.

Bodhi is a very popular Sinhala name.

So is Buddhika for male and female.

My name is derived from:

Dhammika - Dharmishta

Dharmawardhane - Metaphor to a buddhist carpenter, one who crafts buddhism.

Jesus is a very popular spanish name in South America. In Spanish the J is pronounced as H. So 'Hesus'.

Common mate you and I will never see the Funky Jesus Bar in London, will we?

Anonymous said...

I agree with what PseudoR says and some others who echo similar sentiments.

It's a matter of respecting someone elses right to consider something sacred, may be the intention of these artists was not to offend, but it would do a world of good to be sensitive to someone elses beliefs.

Having said that, nationalistic elements must not hijack buddhist principles to promote their political aspirations.

I remember when SRK was to come to Sri Lanka, the protest about his coming was because his event coincided with the birth or death anniversary of a prominent modern monk.

There have been hundreds of thousands of great monks who trod on Sri Lankan soil ever since Buddhism came to SL, and if all their birth/death anniversaries were to be sanctified so militantly nothing can be done in Sri Lanka at all.

If someone said that SRK coming to Sri Lanka and performing would accelerate moral decadence (hypothetically speaking), then surely there may have been factions from all religious communities rallying behind a common cause.

The myopia employed and instigated by the nationalist forces has to end, if not end at least buddhism and buddhists must not be dragged into the fray.

Serendib_Isle said...

Well RD, my sentiments exactly.

I’m Buddhist and I believe Buddhism is philosophy, not a religion. I have nothing much to add – David said it beautifully.