Philippe Caland, best known as the writer of the decidedly unusual film Boxing Helena, never expected to become the target of millions of angry Buddhists. But that’s exactly what happened when he released an unfortunate promotional poster for his new filmHollywood Buddha. The poster showed Caland, who wrote, directed, and starred in the movie, sitting casually on a large Buddha head. Plastered on thirty billboards around the Los Angeles area, it wasn’t long before local Thai Americans noticed the poster. And that’s when the trouble began.
In Thai culture, the head is the holiest part of the body—people generally avoid touching another’s head, and it’s strictly taboo to touch the head of a monk. At the same time, the Buddha is viewed with great reverence. So it’s hard to imagine a more insulting gesture than to physically sit one’s behind on the top of a Buddha. To make matters worse, the Thai consider the feet to be the most defiled part of the body, and the poster showed Caland’s feet dangling directly beside the Buddha’s eyes. And the statue just happened to be—you guessed it—of Thai origin.
Some Thai Americans took offense at the picture, but the situation really exploded when they sent pictures of the poster to people in Bangkok. Angered Buddhists began to bombard Caland with thousands of emails and phone calls demanding an apology. Buddhist websites denounced the director and his movie. As word of the insult spread, monks and their supporters in Sri Lanka marched in protest, insisting that the movie be banned in that country, while Thai officials began preparing rules designed to deny culturally insensitive foreigners the right to enter Thailand. Meanwhile, none of offended Buddhists had actually viewed the film itself.
Faced with such unanticipated outrage, Caland pulled the poster. Publicly, he issued a contrite apology for
his unintended offense, calling it a “terrible mistake.” Privately, he offered personal regrets to each one of the many people who kept his phone ringing off the hook for days. As he explained, the image had been created by an art production company that took two separate photos and combined them into the image of a man atop a Buddha. No one had ever actually sat on a Buddha statue.
A watershed moment came on September 16, when the Sri Lankan Consul General, members of his staff, and eighteen Sri Lankan monks attended a press screening of the film. Caland greeted the guests and offered new apologies. Afterward, the Consul General and the monks expressed satisfaction at Caland’s handling of the situation and declared that the movie was in no way “harmful or anti-Buddhist.”
Hollywood Buddha tells the comedic tale of a hard-luck director who gets some advice from a questionable guru. He’s told to chant a mantra and keep a certain Buddha statue in his room. Though the movie spoofs the spiritual commercialism so common in Hollywood (and elsewhere), the main character’s good-heart eventually causes his luck to improve. Maybe Caland’s fortunes will follow suit.