eGrips, a company based in the US state of Colorado, has created a climbing grip designed in the likeness of the “Laughing Buddha,” a figure generally associated with the semi-historical Chinese monk Budai and the future buddha Maitreya. As a climbing grip, it was designed to be fitted on a climbing wall, where climbers would grip it with their hands and step on it with their feet as they ascend the wall. After widespread negative feedback, the company has removed the grip from sale.
Budai is believed to have lived around the 10th century in China, though his history is not precisely recorded and his existence may be entirely mythological. According to legend, however, he was a Buddhist monk who happily wandered from village to village. In some depictions, he is shown with children climbing all over him, as he is said to have carried a cloth bag filled with toys that he would give to children as he entered each new village.
A climber in Michigan first noticed the grips in her local gym in June. The climber, Liz George, was upset by the use of the religious figure. “If there was a crucifix up, it would be weird,” she said. “I couldn’t step on anything that’s sacred to anyone.” So she reached out to eGrips. An email reply from a company representative stated: “We feel it is appropriate and respectful to sell this hold.” (Outside Online)
George was unsatisfied, writing back: “My main point is that eGrips and other American/Western companies should not find it appropriate to sell something just because someone before them commodified and misappropriated a culture outside of their own.” (Outside Online)
The company, which had included the grip in a product category among the faces of animals and cartoon characters, has since removed it from their website, althugh the page description still mentions the Buddha, stating, “eGrips characters are climbing holds that mimic some of our favorite faces. From Buddha to sea creatures and everything in between, the characters are a great addition to kids walls, playgrounds, or climbing walls.” (eGrips)
eGrips president, Chris Klink, defended the company’s use of the Buddhist image: “It was a hold that people treated with respect and reverence,” he said. “Most people, most gyms, and, again, I can’t say it was everybody, have treated the Laughing Buddha as a finish hold or put it as a blessing on the wall.” (Outside Online)
Rock climber and mountaineer Catherine Tao was visiting her grandmother in Taiwan when she saw posts about the climbing hold on Instagram. “It wasn’t surprising, but I guess it was extra insulting given the circumstances of where I was. My grandmother’s Buddhism was a big part of her life,” said Tao. “I had just finished praying at a Buddhist altar and turned on my phone and saw this, and I’m like, ‘Ah, that sucks.’” (Outside Online)
Members of the r/Buddhism community on Reddit also took issue with the Buddhist imagery. One user wrote, “This is a deplorable act. It goes beyond just commodifying Maitreya, which has been done numerous times, but they clearly don’t understand the implications of putting your feet on a sacred image. And the lack of sensitivity when confronted about it compounds the issue.” (Reddit)
Another user added, “Would you make a climbing hold that was Jesus on a Cross with your logo on it? Or what about, say, a climbing hold that had an image of someone’s grandmother with your logo on it? If you did, I think you’d deserve to get blowback. It’d be a dumb thing for you to do. You’re free to do it, of course, but that doesn’t mean that it’s particularly skillful.” (Reddit)
After hearing that the grip would no longer be sold by eGrips, Tao said, “That’s a great first step, but I think that if that’s the only step, that’s kind of a cowardly step. I want them to make a public statement that includes an apology but also explains why they took it down. I also want them to send some kind of other statement out to gyms that have purchased this hold and to tell them not to use it. Without that, it just gets swept under the rug.” (Outside Online)