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.
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.