Perhaps in your travels through cyberspace, you’ve seen something like this from an online store: “This stunning wrist mala bracelet of softly-colored, pastel beads is suitable for mantra practice and for wearing as jewelry.”
One premise of this Bodhisattva 4.0 series is that in the modern world, design is a central component of our experience. Until we mature in our practice, we often mistake the pointing finger for the moon. In many cases, that finger is adorned with beautifully designed Buddhist stuff. We live in an end-to-end exchange economy of designed objects, relationships, and institutions, so it is sometimes difficult to see that system from outside itself.
In my training as a technological design teacher, I have been influenced particularly by two books: The System of Objects (Verso 1968) by Jean Baudrillard, and On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Duke University Press 1992) by Susan Stewart.
From this perspective, I have very mixed feelings about companies selling Buddhist stuff, such as meditation cushions, benches, shawls, statuettes, incense, jewellery, home and garden decor, giftware, rosaries, stickers, postcards, braided bracelets, and the like. I know there is a legitimate place for ritual objects, but when they are commodified, I feel conflicting emotions. On the other hand, I appreciate the efforts of Buddhist organizations to raise funds by selling things (even at inflated prices), and I have purchased a significant number of objects from them over the years (not to mention cherished ritual artifacts I have received as gifts). So is the problem the Buddhist stuff itself, or the intentions of the folks who are selling or buying it?
In China, a search on Alibaba tagged “Buddha” yields 37,849 items available from wholesalers. The vast majority appear to be plastic resin or cheap electroplated metal and designed for the mass decor market. That seems to me to be a tremendous number of objects made from toxic substances serving no benefit to humanity or the planet beyond a very superficial and ephemeral sensory bump. Not only will the pollution be with us for generations, but the energy needed to move these items through the supply chain to the dump is enormous. The cost/benefit ratio is way out of whack. Nevertheless, it’s easy to get hooked. I freely admit that I too am not immune to the blandishments of things: I perk right up whenever I see a solar-powered Kalachakra prayer wheel on someone’s car dashboard!
As our experience becomes increasingly mediated and abstracted, souvenirs—not the same as decor—stand in for authentic experience in our private, nostalgic reverie of contact and presence. (I was there; I saw that.) These objects evoke connection with the past but they also evoke longing for that which is distant, making them inherently incomplete. (I wish I could feel that again.) Many Buddhist apps are merely the digital equivalent of physical souvenirs, designed to recreate certain mental spaces.
Similarly, we revere Dharma books, not because the pages themselves possess any magical power, but because the ideas they convey are powerful. How we relate to them as objects provides us with a way to act on our understanding of what they mean. We just have to be careful not to treat them too literally by reifying their sacred nature. We also have to be careful not to settle for the mediated experience of reading print, as opposed to the directly experiential wisdom that comes from intimacy with nature and meditation.
Outwardly, our objects serve as talismans, projections of our identity. We all know how rich collectors fetishize famous works of art, rare cars, or antiques. Most of us are unable to own originals and so we must settle for simulacrums (knock-offs). Nevertheless, we fetishize these in the same way and thus our objects become more about us than about their original use and materiality. Buddhist things would qualify here as specimens of the exotic and as trophies celebrating our immediate experience of it. (I have a denim jacket adorned with Swayambhu eyes, that I had a tailor in Kathmandu embroider onto the jacket back. This is my second, replacing an older one that I outgrew and gave to one of my teenage kids.)
This self-referential identity-building is a form of meta-consumption. It is the adoption of a persona, the psychological equivalent of a selfie. You might say that Buddhist stuff is an ironic counterpoint to consumer culture, in the same way as kitsch or camp, virtue-signalling our recognition and transcendence of the contradictions inherent in our late-stage capitalist exchange economy. However, I’m not buying it.
And what about when Buddhist ritual objects and clothing are part of a recognizable uniform, identifying a symbolic social role? All those fancy Tibetan Buddhist clerical hats come to mind. Is it the hat that confers the authority, or does the authority give one the right to wear the hat? Humans have created a dizzying array of garments to signal subtle distinctions in institutional power dynamics—in our case, a matrix of who’s more Enlightened and in what way. Even ngakpas and yogis with their white shawls and repa robes are part of the system, although their uniforms indicate their status as “outside” of it. Rare indeed is it to find a true man of no rank. When I saw Kalu Rinpoche wear the Gampopa hat, I was transfixed. When I saw His Holiness the 16th Karmapa bestow the Black Hat empowerment, I was transported. Something else was going on there with those objects.
Buddhist stuff in museums takes this to an entirely different level. Stewart, in the aforementioned book On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, describes the collection as a paradise of consumption, where an object’s intrinsic meaning is sublimated to a display value within the symbolic system of the collector. It’s all about organization and classification, presenting that narrative as the normative representation of reality. Indeed, there is even the peer-reviewed Journal of Material Culture dedicated to theories of collecting. This is why we feel the tension of seeing Buddhist relics and artifacts in a museum, consumed as art, mediated by the labels and explanations provided by the curators (and as such presenting the worldview of the institution). Bear in mind, too, that nine-tenths of the museum’s collection is usually out of sight in limited-access archives.
I experienced the museum effect on a grand scale at Borobudur. The dissociation of the world’s largest Buddhist monument from its sacred function is viscerally inescapable as one experiences the decapitated statues (their heads looted during the colonial era), the throngs of Japanese tour buses, the explanatory signs, the multilingual publications for sale, and the gauntlet of T-shirt and trinket vendors ringing the site. (The T-shirt souvenir I bought on the site shrank and shredded long ago, but the memories remain.) My solitary Lama Chöpa puja in a remote spot halfway up the Amitabha side of the mandala felt like a rebellious act of reclamation.
In 2015, after 15 years on the road, the Maitreya Loving Kindness Tour organized by Lama Zopa closed down and settled in for permanent display at two sites in India. The tour consisted of more than 3,000 sarira relics and ritual objects from Shakyamuni and 44 other Buddhist luminaries. I attended on several different occasions when it cycled through Toronto. Like shards of the True Cross, or the Shroud of Turin, these relics were created, collected, and then “consumed” by visitors in an atmosphere of profound reverence and promise.
Another object-centred experience like this was the world tour of the Jade Buddha for Universal Peace—also a Lama Zopa project—that has ended with the rupa permanently on display in Australia.
In both cases, the experience was the exact antithesis of going to a museum: attendees came with a triple goal: awakening faith, reaffirming intentions, and generating blessings. I doubt any were disappointed.
Baudrillard, Jean. 1996. The System of Objects. London: Verso.
Stewart, Susan. 1992. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
The Journal of Material Culture (Sage Journals)
The Maitreya Relic Tour Is Closing Down after 15 Years on the Road (Maitreya Buddha Project Kushinagar)
Advice on Holy Objects, Lama Yeshe (Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive)
Jade Buddha for Universal Peace (The Great Stupa of Universal Compassion)