For who the Buddha is…

I recently received a late Christmas present from a friend and of all things he could have given me, he gave me a Pocket Buddha, the exact item I wrote about on my ” Buddhism for Sale” post. It comes with a set of stickers and a quote from the Buddha – “Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace”. Though a direct product and example of the commercialization of the image of the Buddha, I have to admit that I really like it. It’s cute and a rather dashing ornament to put on my bookshelf. Pocket Buddha Gift

A few days later, I went to go shopping for a birthday present. In one particular store, I found more interesting religious products – not only that of the Buddha but also that of Jesus. From Jesus bandaids to a Nun Bowling kit, it seems that the commercialization of religious figures (or any popular figure really) is nothing new. In a largely Christian nation, maybe having the Buddha sit side by side next to Jesus in a novelty gift store isn’t so bad.

The problem I have with the interaction between the West and the Buddha has less to do with commercializing the Buddha and more to do with misunderstanding the basic background of who the Buddha is in relation to Buddhism. I find most people who have never studied Buddhism assume that the Buddha plays the same role in Buddhism as Jesus does in Christianity. As a child who grew up in a Buddhist environment, even I misunderstood the Buddha as a god figure. As Buddhism becomes more prevalent in America, I hope that others unfamiliar with Buddhism can at least come to know the Buddha not as  a mysterious Oriental god with mystical powers but as who he really was – a fellow human being, a teacher, and a guide. When that time comes, it will no longer matter whether the Buddha shows up on a bottle of soy sauce or journals or candles – people will come to respect the Buddha for who he really is all the same.

Jesus Bandages

Nun Bowling

Nirvana Candles

Buddha Soy Sauce

Buddha Journal

7 Replies to “For who the Buddha is…”

  1. Cool post. Yeah, everything seems to be commercial nowadays so why not Buddhism too? Some fools pay thousands of dollars to learn a mantra and to worship an “authentic”, “enlightened” teacher, so of course it’s justified to make Buddha figures and other commercial things. Still, practice is always here, right now, right here. Buddha’s Way is always right here, right now, despiting those “Buddhist” jerks who rob money from ignorant, innocent people; despiting those commercial figures. Still, those have also a place in this society and that’s not so “bad” necessary. Kids love those little Buddha figures and if they can with their help to learn compassion and kindness, awesome! And if someone is so rich that he/she has thousands of dollars to pay for total scam, go for it. If it helps him/her to live better life, then it’s awesome! And that “teacher” can buy a new home theater set, awesome! Everybody wins! 🙂

    Thank you for your post.

    With palms together,
    Uku

  2. Last summer I enjoyed reading Daniel Radosh’s book “Rapture Ready!” about just this kind of pop culture phenom (his blog is here: http://www.getraptureready.com/blog/). He points out that Christian kitsch (including novels, Bibleman action figures, and “Testamints” – get it?) is a 7 BILLION dollar industry…so if there is a market for the same for Buddhism, then there you go. However, he points out that most of this stuff is made by Christians for Christians (even if there certainly are Christians who are offended by Testamints) with some idea of glorifying God and leading people to Jesus, in a roundabout way, or lacking that, providing a RELIGIOUS ALTERNATIVE to secular pop culture. But for the Buddhist kitsch, who is making this stuff, and does it have any other purpose other than enriching the manufacturer? Is someone making this stuff to, in fact, lead people to the Dharma? Or just jumping on the Christian pop kitsch market? I would be more interested in a story about anyone who did in fact become practicing Buddhists as a result of buying “Buddha in a Box”!

  3. This is an interesting post. Where did you find this store? Yuinen has a good point with regards to the commodification of religion. For me, there’s a sort of acceptability continuum, where I’m okay with a Buddha t-shirt on one end and then on the other end you have Buddha bikinis, which I would organize against (which in my case means mass bloggings, online petitions and emailing the manufacturer). A lot of this other stuff falls somewhere in between.

  4. “Buddha bracelets! Woohoo!”

    Remember the days when it was a trend to be sporting a Buddhist bracelet that was obtained from either (a) a quarter machine, (b) the 99 cents store, or (c) the Oriental Trading Company catalog? I’m surprised they (the bracelets) gained a substantial amount of spotlight time considering the WWJD bracelets were out, and how little our Western culture understood Buddhism.
    But I am awaiting the day Scientology will procure a product of their own. It’s going to either be bobbing Tom Cruise heads, or Hubbard spaceships. The spaceships seem more appealing don’t you think? Though, I suppose it’s best to ask, WWJD???

  5. Wow, thank you everyone for your comments.

    Uku, your comment reminded me of the time I found a flyer on the windshield of my car promoting a Buddhist meditation workshop event, all for the price of only $40. $40?! To learn and practice meditation? Man, money really does make the world go round – at least the materialistic world.

    Yuinen, you bring up some really great questions about where these products come from and what are the intentions behind making Buddha products. I will write more about these questions in my next blog post.

    arunlikhati, these products all came from various stores.
    The Pocket Buddha came from Urban Outfitters. (http://www.urbanoutfitters.com). The Jesus Bandages, Nun Bowling Kit, and Buddha Candles came from a gift store called Aahs!! (http://www.aahs.com/). The Buddha Journal came from Borders (http://www.borders.com).

    a senseless reply, I know exactly what you’re talking about. In fact, for the longest time (even now), I stopped wearing my own Buddha bead bracelet because when everyone else started to wear them, I felt the meaning behind wearing the bracelet changed. Every time I put them on, I couldn’t help but feel like I was following the latest fashion trend. I guess the commodification of Buddhism isn’t always harmless.

  6. In Asia, many meditation courses are free, while in the West, some friends say there is a tendency to value courses by their prices. Not sure if it’s a skilful means then, to charge for the free Dharma!

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