There is a lounge bistro bar in downtown Brisbane called Jade Buddha. I was studying theology at university when I first went there. We were in sneakers and jeans, stalking the streets for a cheap pint to celebrate my birthday (these were the days before I converted to Buddhism). At Jade Buddha we were quickly shown the door by two burly, brusque bouncers. “Come back when you’re wearing a bloody tie,” we were told, although I am only paraphrasing. I visited this upmarket haunt (in much smarter attire) at least twice. Entire rooms and floors would be booked out for the completely appropriate Asian ambience, with plenty of posh booze and tipsy fondling amidst the pseudo-Chinese décor. All of this was themed around, of course, the giant Buddha statue that welcomes you at the entrance. But this abuse of a sacred image pales in comparison with the scale of the Buddha Bar franchise, which not only has branches in Dubai, London, and Paris, but also has an influential presence in the DJ and Lounge scene through its album series.
Much like the mindfulness industry, the branding (some would word it stronger as prostitution) of the Buddha image has become reality in the West. It is once more a trendy topic thanks to the deportation of Naomi Coleman from Sri Lanka, which was sensitive enough for the online blogosphere to reignite the debate.
Fingers were pointed in two directions. Liberal secular commentators decried Sri Lanka’s harsh treatment of Ms. Coleman, who claimed that she was herself a Buddhist and was manhandled and locked up with much more sinister menace before being sent back to Britain. Of course, it is not for anyone to dispute her Buddhist beliefs and the very real fear she felt and being sent away without any chance of a defense. Notably, some Sri Lankan monks have nothing but sympathy for her plight. Ven. Walpola Piyananda outright thanked Ms. Coleman in an op-ed for the Colombo Telegraph, writing: “If wearing Buddha images on the body is offensive to our hyper-sensitive Sri Lankan Buddhist society, what should we do about the monks from Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries that have ritual Buddha tattoos on their torsos? Should we deport them, too? In many countries faithful Buddhists wear Buddha images on amulets around their necks; should we ban those people from entering our country as well?”
But devout Buddhists bristled at Ms. Coleman’s apparent insensitivity to the country’s traditional reverence of the Buddha image. They pointed to the British government’s foreign travel advice for Sri Lanka’s local laws and customs: “The mistreatment of Buddhist images and artefacts is a serious offence and tourists have been convicted for this. British nationals have been refused entry to Sri Lanka or faced deportation for having visible tattoos of the Buddha. Don’t pose for photographs by standing in front of a statue of Buddha.” but in order to understand the Sri Lankan reaction to Ms. Coleman’s minor offence, we need to look beyond the
tattoo. There were plenty of minor incidents, such as the “kissing Buddha” photo meme, that garnered short-lived ire. Rather, it is the casual use or misuse of Buddha images for secular or commercial purposes that is occurring at a global level. Locally, traditional communities may well be able to deport those who are perceived as being disrespectful to the Buddha image (recall the furor over the French visitors’ posing with Buddha statues, or R&B star Akon’s visa ban). But in the ruthlessly pragmatic marketplace, the power of the Buddha’s branding is irresistible. Traditionalists are powerless to stop urbanites getting smashed with bourbon and vodka before a Buddha statue in a hip Paris nightclub.
As far as I can tell from my interviews with local monks, it is the broader indifference of businessmen to the holiness of the Buddha image that cuts deepest. Ms. Coleman’s ordeal prompted me to reframe the problem from a commercial perspective: What makes the Buddha image more marketable in the West than an image of Christ dying on the Cross or even an image of the Prophet Muhammad? Buddhists have often complained that their faith’s founder seems to have been disproportionately targeted: yes, there are plenty of Jesus bobbleheads, but Christ rarely appears on swimwear like bodhisattva images, Muhammad even less.
In the West, Buddhism seems to suffer from several handicaps: it is not a dominant religious tradition like Christianity, which can mobilize enough activists and exert enough pressure on businesses to respect their religious symbols. In contrast to Islam, which forbids images outright, Buddhism has relied on sculpture and painting since the Common Era and struggles to mount a counter-narrative when non-Buddhist organizations appropriate its art for profit.
Most Buddhist organizations have hesitated to adopt a more “missionary” stance in the West for fear of digging up bad memories. This may have permitted a more casual approach to Buddhist doctrines and iconography, where one need not be a Buddhist to practice Buddhism (how often have we heard that before?), and more seriously, one need not worry too much if one wishes to appropriate Buddha images.
Perhaps I have partly answered my own question. A bleeding Jesus on the Cross might be unmarketable and offend dominant Christian churches, but the clean, serene, meditating Buddha is synonymous with peace and calm. Culturally, the Buddha remains fascinating and exotic, despite the gradual permeation of Buddhism throughout Western popular culture (note that this has not correlated with a significant rise in declared Buddhists). This non-committal fascination is an innocent, if ultimately unhelpful, manifestation of Orientalism. But the message is clear: you will get attention if you make the Buddha your brand ambassador, be it shoes with the Buddha’s face, risqué posing from Nicki Minaj, and yes, Buddha Bar and Jade Buddha.
Buddhist communities like those in Sri Lanka have managed to enforce consequences for perceived insults to the Buddha at a local level (even Buddha Bar had to rename its branch in Malaysia after sustained complaints). But it is an exception to the rule of the unabated marketing and branding of the Buddha image. As Buddhism grows more popular, the branding is one I am resigned to seeing more of.