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Why It Is Offensive To Use Buddha As Decoration?

 

visiting a Buddhist Monk

Is it offensive to display Buddha heads as decoration? The short answer is yes. But to explain why and how this is becoming so problematic in Western society, in particular, the wellness industry, I want to share a story about how a spa responded to my communication of such an instance.

The spa using defaced Buddha heads as art

A few months ago I visited a spa in the Midlands that had on display a number of defaced Buddha heads. I was wondering through the corridor to the main spa area and found two long walls filled with these defaced Buddha heads.

As soon as I saw them I was shocked and upset – at that moment I caught my breath. I had just walked through the door and my jaw dropped in shock. 

There were two walls were lined with decapitated and defaced Buddha’s heads. They were displayed there as ‘art’, nestled into alcoves with atmospheric lighting above.

These Buddha’s heads had had cans of paint poured over them so they dripped down their faces. It looked like blood. There was something very eerie and violent about the display. It was just so weird to see when I was dressed in a robe ready for a spa day.

It was at the very least a distasteful display. But really it was a deeply offensive act to Buddhists. Defacing Buddha heads in the name of ‘art’ like this is a violent display that reeked of religious discrimination.

Defaced Buddha Heads

Why is a Buddha statue like this offensive?

Imagine that display had been the heads of Jesus? Or any other religious figure or a culture’s God? To display a religion’s holy figure in a decapitated state is distasteful. To display a religion’s holy figure defaced in the name of art is offensive. To use a religion’s holy figure as decoration is offensive.

It was shocking to have Buddha heads on display like this, and even more so totally unsuitable for a spa – a place of calm, restoration, and peace.

The defaced, decapitated Buddha heads at the spa

What I couldn’t understand is why a spa would display these defaced Buddha heads. A spa is supposed to be a place of relaxation and peace. And yet here was a violent display of an entire religion’s founder and spiritual icon. It’s hardly peaceful for Buddhists to see such a display.

What’s worse is that most spas in the West take their wellness practices from the East. It is disingenuous for a place like this to not only be appropriating practices from other cultures but to be disrespecting the very regions and cultures they come from.

I spent my entire stay at this spa and hotel feeling deeply disturbed. I contemplated going home, but I tried to talk myself into thinking it was an innocent mistake. We spoke to the duty manager there at the time and he agreed with us but it was not for him to decide on decor.

I contacted their head office and the response from them was shocking. They deemed the defaced, decapitated Buddha heads as ‘art’ therefore my offence was my own. They further said that as I was the only person who had complained it was not a problem. I still can’t believe that this was an actual response from a business, it was so unprofessional. They even double-down when I replied with a more detailed explanation about how disturbing, discriminatory and racist this was. They would not even enter dialogue with me about the Buddha heads. They shut me down and made me feel like a trouble-maker.

I accept that we have a long way to go in this country in terms of reaching racial and religious equality. I understand that cultural appropriation is so deeply embedded in our consciousness that it can be hard to hear when we are confronted with the reality that what we take for granted or deem acceptable, is actually painful for marginalised groups of people. What I find surprising is just how adamant this spa was that they had the right to be religious discriminatory.

Eventually, I got in touch with a local Buddhist monk. He was able to get involved and spoke with the spa hotel. He was able to explain why their display was offensive and they agreed to remove the offensive Buddha heads. 

I’m glad that the Monk was able to speak to them and that they removed the heads. But I am surprised that they still refused to speak to me about this, despite me expressing how upsetting it was. 

Buddhist Monk removing defaced Buddha heads

So why am I writing about this now?

Well, I’ve had a few people get in touch and ask me for further details since sharing this story on my Instagram a few months ago. Several people wanted to know what happened, and other people wanted more details on why it was offensive to display these Buddha heads as it was something they had not come across before. 

Buddha is not for decorative purposes

The act of decapitating a Buddha’s head is a violent act even if you see it as just a statue. Buddha is the holy figure of the Buddhist religion. The depiction of Buddha is for spiritual reverence, guidance, and inspiration.

In Buddhist societies, you will find that statues and pictures of Buddha will be elevated, placed in a high position, as something you look up to and respect.

Wat Maha That Ayutthaya Thailand

History of decapitated Buddha heads

There is a history where the decapitation of Buddha heads were used as an act of war in order to destabilise a Buddhist society. 

You can see evidence of this in Ayutthaya in Thailand, the ancient capital city. Several hundreds of years ago the Burmese army invaded Ayutthaya and ransacked the city. One such act of ransacking was decapitating statues of Buddha.

Today at the ruins of Wat Mahatat you will see rows of decapitated Buddha statues, and you will probably recognise the infamous Buddha head caught beneath growing tree roots. 

Seeing an image of Buddha’s head being disrespected is a painful sight for many Buddhists. It is rooted in a history of violence, and is deeply upsetting. The act of decapitating a Buddha head is rooted in colonialism and war.

Buddha Head Maha That Ayutthaya Thailand

Marginalising religious minorities in the West

Using images of Buddha minimises the experiences of Buddhists. In many Western countries, Buddhism is a minority religion. Their practices are often little known or understood by mainstream society.

When you take something sacred from a minority group and strip it of its meaning it becomes an act of oppression.

Cultural appropriation causes suffering to marginalised groups. Can you imagine what it feels like to live in a country where you suffer daily microaggressions against you, where you grow up having your cultural practices at home sneered at, or joked about, to be the victim of hate? And then, THEN that same dominant group takes parts of your culture and wears, eats, displays them as something they now think is cool.

It is painful.

As the dominant group, we have a responsibility to acknowledge the lived experiences of those who are marginalised. We have a duty to recognise cultural appropriation and religious discrimination. The very least we can do is respect the wishes of those who hold something sacred to them.

Hiding behind the concepts of ‘art’ and ‘freedom of speech’ is an act of supremacy, and often marginalises groups that have little opportunity to voice their concerns or live in without fear of further aggression. 

Even more so, if we are now using a practice (such is the case with many wellness practices) that has been appropriated from a marginalised group, then we should do whatever we can to respect and honour their wishes.

Should you get rid of your Buddha decoration?

Of course, it’s entirely up to you what you do next. But my recommendation is this:

– If you would like to own a depiction of Buddha or any holy figure from another religion, please treat it with respect and reverence. Buddha is a source of inspiration for peace. 

– Buddha is supposed to be displayed high up, or in a place that is respectful. That is, try not to place Buddha on the floor as that is seen as dirty. Likewise don’t display Buddha in a bathroom – again the connotations are negative.

– Many Buddhists feel uncomfortable seeing Westerners ‘wearing’ depictions of Buddha. So Buddha on clothing and jewellery is generally a no-no.

Buddha statues on sale in shops

I get it. All over the UK, and the West at large, you can easily find Buddha statues of all kinds for sale in your local shops, departments stores, even garden centres. Many of you may own a Buddha statue without realising the significance of it.

There has been a trend in this country for decades where we look to the East as something ‘different’, ‘exotic’, ‘other’. And it’s exactly this ‘othering’ that is so dangerous. People of Eastern origin are here, they live here, they are part of our culture, they are part of us. The idea that we can pick up bits of a seemingly foreign world and make it our own is rooted in a long history of colonialism, something I don’t think any of us should be proud of.

It’s not ok to walk into a department store and see rows upon rows of trinkets derived from Eastern cultures and religions, stripped of their meaning, and resold for profit to privileged Westerners. 

It’s not ok for Buddhism, or any Eastern religion for that matter, to be used as a means to capitalise on and make white people rich.

At the very least it’s weird and distasteful. At worst it is yet another instance where supremacy is working to destabilise and marginalise groups of people from less represented religions and cultures.

When you take sacred or holy figures, disconnect them from their roots, and sell them as knick-knacks, you are essentially telling an already marginalised group that their beliefs and culture are meaningless and unimportant.

Is having a Buddha statue disrespectful?

As I mentioned above, it depends on the context and meaning. If you truly want to display a Buddha statue in your home please note the guidance above and treat the image of Buddha with respect and never place it anywhere near the floor, anywhere dirty, or inappropriate. 

Be mindful of how owning a Buddha statue might feel for Buddhists. 

The wellness industry and cultural appropriation

Likewise, the wellness industry needs a reckoning. It’s a billion-pound industry built off the philosophy, cultures and belief systems of the global East. Wellness practitioners need to learn about cultural appropriation and marginalisation. If they are genuine in their practice they can find ways to share their work without harming those from whom they take their work.

I don’t have all the answers, and I’m still learning and listening myself. But we need to start making changes to our way of practicing wellness in a way that honours and respects. 

Anything else I should know?

To be honest, there is a lot more to this than I can possibly explain in one go. I have a rudimentary knowledge of Buddhism, and my experience of spending long periods of time in Southeast Asia in the past decade has taught me enough about how to respect Buddha.

What I do know is that whether it’s Buddha or any other spiritual figure. Let’s treat them with respect, and let those from marginalised communities feel safe wherever they go.

Responses and questions

I answered some questions on my Instagram stories when this situation with the spa happened. I’ll share some screenshots below of some of my responses. I also have the entire videos, photos, and responses saved on my Insta bio if you’d like to learn and understand more.

instgram explanation about defaced Buddha heads

Why it is hard to speak out as a marginalised community

 

Buddhist temple email

Hard to speak out

 

Family is Buddhist

Questions about Buddha as a holy figure

did not know it was offensive

 

 

Final thoughts – if there is ever an opportunity where you can speak up and support marginalised communities in this country then I would urge you to do so. You can make a difference.

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Buddha as decoration

  1. I absolutely love this article for drawing attention to not only this spa, but in providing food for thought about how we treat religious artefacts in the West as a whole. I’m also inspired by your quest to get the spa in question to remove the revolting Buddha heads and educate your audience. #inspired

  2. I made Jizo figurines as part of my spiritual journey, whole figurines. I am wondering would there be any problems with that? Is it a problem when you create something as part of a meditation, as part of a journey?

    1. I couldn’t say specifically about the Jizo figurines as I don’t have any understanding of that belief system. It might be worth investigating further with somebody with knowledge about that particular figure.

  3. Hi Elizabeth, I was actually looking for a Buddha head for my garden when I came across this article. You are so right!. I am sorry to say that I am one of those people who considered buying this “art” without any consideration for it’s TRUE meaning. For that I am truly sorry. As you say I would be very unhappy if it was the Sikh Guru’sof my faith? So thank you for your article I have seen the error of my ways! So the garden ornament will have to be more thoughtful and considered.

    1. I’m glad to hear that. I think garden centres and homeware stores in the UK are pretty bad for their capitalisation of symbols and figures from eastern belief systems.

  4. THANK YOU for this post! I’ve actually been feeling helpless in my desire to explain to Westerners why beheaded Buddhas for home decor is so offensive. I was beginning to think people will just not “get it” because it is now already so widespread in every major hotel/spa like you said, as well as in mainstream home goods stores. The analogy to decapitating and painting Jesus heads is totally spot on. This post gives me so much hope that there are people who actually understand and are actively trying to help, so thank you.

  5. So good of you to write this heart felt explanation. I have a beautiful sand cast Boddhi sattwa head which I have had for 50 years. I have always thought of it as a sacred object. It is displayed in a very respectful way by itself with only ghee lamps surrounding it. I greet it with palms together when ever I pass by it. I am very drawn to the Buddhist tradition. I always thought of the head as being a “bust” like the “busts” or heads honoring famous musicians, societal heros, or Greek Gods that one sees in the West. The idea of it being a decapitated head never even entered my mind. Is that always how such busts are viewed by Buddhists? I hope not because I feel spiritual inspiration and upliftment every time I look at it and would feel very sad if I had to give it away.

    1. I think it depends on the different Buddhist traditions/sects as to how a Buddha head is regarded. I couldn’t comment definitively and certainly can’t speak for all Buddhists.

  6. I want to open this with a disclaimer that I genuinely don’t want to create any further offense or pain, while realizing that such disclaimers are typically used right before someone knowingly causes offense and pain.

    Simply put, I just wanted to point out that while statues of Buddha are important to some Buddhists, to others they are not. I think those Buddhists are also included among Buddhists who don’t speak out on “decapitated” Buddha heads.

    To quote the 14th century Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk, Ikkyu:

    “That stone Buddha deserves the bird shit it gets; I wave my skinny arms like a tall flower in the wind.”

    He’s saying that stone Buddhas are okay, and that stones also collect bird shit. Stones are broken by wind, rain, and gravity – and sometimes by people. A stone Buddha is a stone that has had the parts of it that did not resemble a human figure of a man we call “Buddha” cut off of it by people. Where was the stone’s Buddha face, before we carved it? Maybe we decapitated the stone’s original head. Some Buddhists see it this way, particularly from sects in which meditation is the primary practice, rather than devotion or prayer. They see, “It’s okay to have statues of Buddha, but they aren’t Buddha.”

    As a Sōtō zen student, you could say the word “Zen” itself is our Buddha statue in the west. The word Zen is basically used to decorate any product or idea that is about indulging in something that chills out your mood. In this context, consumers of “Zen” content are receiving no real knowledge of Zen Buddhism, so they can’t understand that a lot of Zen practice is not about “chilling out,” lol. Monks in Japan run through halls pushing rags to clean the floors. They get hit with a stick if their posture is horrible, or if they fall asleep, in Zazen meditation. They get yelled at, they’re expected to endure cold or heat outside without showing discomfort, and they study sayings like, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” These things would shock the average western consumer of “Zen” media. But I’m discouraged from acting or speaking on any feelings of offense at this, because those reactions aren’t seen as necessary to preserve Buddhism. My lineage considers it very important to note that the historical, Gautama Buddha was disdainful of the external trappings and dogmas of the religions existing in India in his time. But I also can’t expect people who practice other worldviews such as other forms of Buddhism or other religions to see the trappings of their religion the same way. If Zen sees upset over a Buddha head as a mistake, it’s only because it also sees upset over misuse of the word “Zen” as a mistake, or upset over stepping on dog poop as a mistake. And in that way we don’t look down on people to whom the Buddha head is a decapitation, because even the greatest Zen master, on his deathbed, would be upset if someone started pissing on his face. No one can avoid making the mistake of identifying with what we are aware of, we just vow to continue trying to avoid it, because the vow itself is enlightenment, the continuation is enlightenment, and the trying is enlightenment, the avoiding is enlightenment, and even the “it” we’re avoiding is enlightenment – as good as enlightenment can possibly be!

    1. Thank you for such a thoughtful and insightful response Michael. That has given me a lot to think about and appreciate where you are coming from in terms of zen. It’s useful to hear that there are differing considerations of Buddha depictions across the various Buddhist belief systems. Thank you.

      1. I’m glad it’s appreciated, I realized afterwards that some of my phrasing didn’t make a lot of sense and there were parts that I wanted to change, but I think now it’s okay. The basic gist is that if you expand your concept of disrespect to the Buddha’s head – every head is Buddha’s head, even the heads of the people who have decapitated Buddha, even the head of the rock that has been cut off to create a statue of Buddha – then you can accept seeing a Buddha’s head used lightly without upset. Still, on the practical level of our material reality, it’s useful to keep Buddha’s head for the purposes of Buddha’s head and spa decorations for the purposes of spa decorations, because Buddha’s head is a useful depiction to demonstrate the practice of Buddhism. I just bought a Buddha’s head for my altar – it has four faces showing Buddha in different moods, and reminds me that any thoughts of feelings I have in meditation are just the content of my meditation.

        I’m so glad my comment didn’t create offense and I wish you the very best in your practice!

  7. Hi, I recently found a ‘buddha-bank’ in a box of old things. I think the idea is that it is supposed to bring good luck but was just wondering your thoughts on whether you consider these sorts of decorations offensive. As a Catholic I am very used to the commercialised aspect of my religion and have taken the view that it is fairly harmless as the power of religious images comes from faith. I would take offence at someone actively defacing or mocking religious icons/statues as an attack on that faith but given how far all religions have been trivialised by an increasingly atheist west it feels redundant to find offence at every encounter.

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