When I was a monk in the Thai Forest tradition, I took a meditative camping trip to the mesas of Southwestern Utah along with a group of mostly Thai monks. This occasioned a drive through Las Vegas, where we passed a billboard advertising a sushi restaurant called Buddha Bar, whose ad campaign featured an image of the Buddha along with lingerie-clad waitresses offering trays of drinks. “Ai!” cried one of the Thai monks, followed by several other exclamations of discomfort and indignation. It wasn’t the presence of the erotic that disturbed us (nude or erotic imagery can be found in Thai temples, too), but rather the use of Buddhist imagery for such crass commercial purposes.   

In the Thai tradition, Buddha images, along with other embodiments of the dharma like stupas, relics, and sacred texts, are treated with the utmost respect. They are always placed highest in the room. One does not point one’s feet toward them. And one should never sit on them, put their images on secular clothing, or use them for commercial purposes. Yet such “profane” uses of sacred Buddhist objects or imagery have become common in North America and Europe. And Asian Buddhists have noticed.

The Knowing Buddha Organization (KBO) was formed in Thailand in 2012 to combat global disrespect toward Buddhist imagery. The KBO—which boasted 5,000 members in 2016, according to a study by religious studies scholar Michael Jerryson—has been rapidly growing and is now even receiving support from the Thai government. The group has pressured manufacturers in France and the Netherlands to remove decorative Buddha images from toilets and caused Maxim magazine to cancel a photo shoot in the US that featured buddhas. They have also created an online guide to avoid showing disrespecting to Buddha images, making such suggestions as greeting one with a wai (hands pressed together in respect), not placing Buddha images on the lower part of the body or in the low parts of a room, not decorating mundane objects with them, not featuring them in tattoos, and not selling them as merchandise.

“We speak out to protect Buddhism by giving correct knowledge on proper treatments [sic] to Buddha images and symbols,” reads the KBO website. “In recent years, Buddha images and statues have been used as ‘Buddhist Art’ for decorations—such as furniture, rather than as a remembrance of his compassion with respect and gratitude.”

But are such concerns with the way people treat Buddha statues Buddhist? In the Brahma Net Sutta (DN 1), the Buddha says, “Monks, if others were to speak in dispraise of me, in dispraise of the dhamma, or in dispraise of the sangha, neither hatred nor antagonism nor displeasure of mind would be proper. If others were to speak in dispraise of me . . . and at that you would be upset and angered, that would be an obstruction for you yourselves.”

In other words, being upset about or monitoring others’ respect toward the Triple Gem can interfere with our practice.

In addition to concerns over the obstacles that our anger can create, the KBO’s campaigns may strike some people as uncomfortably reminiscent of violent protests over cartoons of Mohammed or Hindu riots in India against perceptions of Muslims disrespecting sacred sites or religious rules. Although KBO is explicitly nonviolent, at their annual thousand-strong marches down Khaosan Road in Bangkok, they identify themselves as a “Dharma Army” (kawngtaptham)—which is likely to provoke unease in some observers. 

Related: The War on Words and Images

On the other hand, it is admittedly curious that in a time when there is a passionate debate about cultural appropriation and someone can get mobbed online for wearing a Chinese dress to a prom, no concern over the insensitive appropriation of Buddhist imagery seems to have arisen in the public sphere. There may be several factors behind this: a more laissez-faire attitude toward religious imagery in the largely secular West, an ignorance of the vocabulary of respect with which traditional Buddhists treat such images, or a perception that Buddhists would be easygoing about such things.

Although customs about what constitutes respect and disrespect will differ among cultures and lineages, traditions around the world believe in the importance of showing respect for the Triple Gem—the Buddha, the dharma [Buddhist teachings], and the sangha [the community of practitioners]. In this view, disrespect of the Triple Gem has negative spiritual consequences—it creates bad karma. In most cases, however, Buddhists trust the law of karma to work out the consequences of disrespect, and don’t police others’ respect themselves.

Nothing in the Brahma Net Sutta mitigates against the KBO’s campaign to educate people in how to respect Buddhist sentiments and avoid cultural appropriation and insensitivity, although it also suggests such activities carry dangers for those pursuing them. The sutta reminds us that such activities should always be carried out without anger or ill-feeling, and in ways that don’t pose obstacles to our actual practice of the dharma. According to the study by the religious studies scholar Jerryson, Acharavadee Wongsakon, the Thai entrepreneur who founded KBO, made the following reassuring statement at a 2016 march: “With a campaign of over a thousand people, this army does not possess guns or swords. It has no malice or any hidden ill-intent.”

Nevertheless, the secretariat of KBO in 2016, Sayan Chueyuksorn, remarked to Jerryson that he agreed with Sri Lanka’s deportation of tourists for having Buddha tattoos as well as Myanmar’s jailing a bar owner and manager for featuring a Buddha wearing headphones, saying that KBO hoped and expected Thai laws to move in that direction. Faced with the prospect of people facing the real world violence of jail time or deportation for conceptual violence against mere symbols, it would seem wiser for Buddhists to lean err on the side of tolerance as a prophylaxis against sliding into strong-arming others in the name of Buddha.

The last time I was in Vegas, no longer a monk but passing through with my wife and son, Buddha Bar and its like-minded confrere, Little Buddha Restaurant, were both gone. The Buddha warned us not to speculate over the specific workings of karma, so I’ll refrain, but the law of impermanence was clearly manifest.

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