Offending Buddhist Sensibilities in a Globalized World

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

On the motorway heading to the airport in Bangkok, there are some very large billboards informing you in multiple languages that Buddha statues are not to be used for decoration, and that such a conclusion is just “common sense.”  Here’s looking at you, foreign visitor, who has a Buddha statue in your luggage heading to the airport.  Consider yourself informed that if you think it will be cool to take an exotic Thai Buddha home to Europe or America and place it in your living room for decoration, you are committing a grave sacrilege that is highly offensive to Thai Buddhist people.   

I’m not sure how many foreigners try to take Buddhas home with them or how many have been persuaded by the billboards. But apparently NOT using Buddha images for decoration is distinctly NOT common sense for foreigners, otherwise there would be no need for such billboards. 

In an increasingly globalized world, the presence of these billboards highlights a clash of worldviews between the secular, sacrilegious West and a nation where religion is still honored as the glue that binds society together and should be honored as such. 

In Thailand, a Buddhist nation, it is understood that religion, especially Buddhism, must be respected, at least formally.  Not everybody has to be Buddhist, but you sure as better not openly disrespect it by verbal criticism or physical defamation of Buddhist items, like statues or amulets.  From a Western standpoint, it might not seem like using a Buddha statue as a decoration in your living room is a big deal.  It is being treated like a tasteful piece of art, not spray-painted or hit with a hammer in an act of vandalism.  No disrespect is being shown, is there?  The Westerner might say, “no” but a Thai Buddhist might say, “yes.”  And therein comes the rub. 

Buddha statues for sale in a European shop

A major part of cross-cultural interaction is unintentional offense.  No offense was meant, but offense was taken all the same.  What are we to do then if what we don’t think is offensive (treating a Buddhist statue or amulet as something other than sacred) is regarded as offensive by someone else? 

On the part of foreigners using Buddhas for decoration, there are two choices.  One is to stop it and not use someone else’s religious symbols as home decor or a fashion statement.  This is probably the best and most respectful option.  The other choice is to say, “whatever” and continue to do whatever you want.  If you take this second option, bringing a Buddha from Thailand or elsewhere and set it up in your home, in a region where it is unlikely an actual practicing Buddhist will come visit, there will probably be little opportunity for offense since no one will see it.  However, in a globalized world, you never know who will move in next door.  And frankly, taking a religious relic from a non-Western country and using it for art in your Western home smacks of the colonialism that modern enlightened Westerners would like to think belongs to the past.

I’ve spoken of what foreigners can or should do, but now I would like to turn to the attitudes of Buddhists or others who see people from other faiths (or no faith) using their sacred items for fashion or decoration.  There are three choices here.  One is to get upset and angrily tell people that their actions are offensive, and then take action yourself to get them to stop it.  This could be a verbal confrontation, social media outrage, a billboard or a lawsuit.  A lawsuit might work in Thailand but would have little chance in a Western country.  The second option is to assume the best about the other person’s motives and to gently tell them that using someone else’s religious object for decoration is not appropriate, suggesting that they not do it. The billboards along the Bangkok motorway appear to be close to this second approach. Either of these two options may get the desired results.  The third option is to do nothing at all, either overlooking the offense and assuming the best about the other person, or secretly holding a grudge against them and their offensive behavior.

In a diverse world with many personalities and points of view, I imagine that there are numerous people who would choose each of the above possible responses, whether they be foreigners whom the billboards are aimed at, or Thai Buddhists who are unhappy with what foreigners are doing with items they regard as sacred. Everyone will make their own choice, but for what it is worth, I would suggest that we all try to meet each other halfway. Foreigners, stop using Buddha statutes and amulets as decoration, and Thai Buddhists, try to understand that foreigners who do such things are not trying to be disrespectful or rude to your religion.

Warning Sign at historical site in Thailand

As a Christian, I do not regard Buddhist statues as sacred but as a Christian, I believe that all people should be treated with respect and kindness because we are all made in God’s image.  Thus, even if I don’t share your religious beliefs, I refrain from showing open disrespect to your sacred items because I respect you.  In a globalized, multi-religious world, it is essential to try to understand and respect each other.  This doesn’t mean, however, that anyone needs to compromise their faith or try to straddle the fence between two opposing belief systems. 

In the book of Acts (in the Bible), the Apostle Paul found himself in the city of Athens and “his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16)  He regarded the statues around him as false gods unworthy of worship and there are many places in the Bible where believers in the Christian God speak very directly about idols and false gods to others in their community of faith.  But as with most controversial beliefs and statements, there is a time and place for saying exactly what you think.  In the case of Paul, he knew that a street corner in Athens was neither the time or place to say, “Hey, stop worshipping all these false gods.”  What did he do instead?  First, he spoke positively about Jesus and his own beliefs to those who might be interested, and then when invited, he addressed the local philosophers, starting his speech with these words, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:22-24).  He didn’t shy away from sharing his own convictions but he tried as much as possible to avoid unnecessary offense or disrespect of what others held as sacred.  That was Paul’s approach 2000 years ago and it remains as a good approach today, as people travel more and more and worldviews collide.

Saint Paul delivering the Areopagus Sermon in Athens, by Raphael, 1515

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