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Appropriation and Commercialization of Buddhism in the West

A Reader Writes:

I was wondering what your thoughts are on the increasing ‘appropriation’ of Buddhism in the west.

I’ve been noticing that there are a number of people writing blogs who are accusing people of appropriation if they have, for example, ohm or Buddha tattoos or Buddhist jewelry. As someone who identifies as being Buddhist I am not offended by this and I do not understand why some people would feel the need to verbally attack others for exploring a different culture through art or fashion.

In fact I would go as far as to say that this is a very un-Buddhist thing to do.
Any thoughts, and have you noticed this at all?


This means “I am Beautiful” in Chinese …right?

My Response:

I did a post on tattoos way back, and that still holds up pretty well. You can check that out, but as far as the Buddhist approach goes, I don’t see much wrong with having a tattoo.

I think what you are asking is whether or not as a Buddhist, do non-Buddhists wearing the symbols of Buddhism offend me? No, and I suspect most Buddhists will agree with me on that. Symbols and pictures are just things; nothing to get worked up about.

One thing I find personally annoying are people with Chinese Kanji symbols tattooed on them, when they don’t understand Chinese. The tattoo artist always tells them it means “Peace” or “Love,” or something nice like that. I always look at people and tell them with  a straight face that it means “Jackass.” Then I explain that I don’t speak Chinese either, and it could say anything. Sometimes I get a laugh, sometimes I don’t.  Still though, getting something you don’t understand tattooed on you seems like a risky proposition. Getting a Buddha or a eight-spoked wheel or a Lotus tattooed on you if you don’t really know what they mean could be risky too.

Now, from a not-especially-Buddhist-but-still-common-sense point of view:

Let’s go into hypotheticals for a moment. You get a tattoo of a Buddha on your arm. It’s pretty cool huh? Then ten years down the road, you want to marry a girl/guy who is a Christian or Muslim.  That’s going to be an issue. Maybe you’ll even want to (gasp!) convert to one of those faiths yourself.  Now you’ve got a problem. Maybe you say that would never happen; OK, but could you have a Christian or Muslim supervisor at work? Friends? Seems like a definite possibility.

This kind of situation may be exactly the cause of the “attacks” you mention in your question. People fear what is different, and, at least in the USA< Buddhism is one of those “others” for many people.

(And for the record, I have no idea what that Kanji means. Hopefully it’s not something too nasty.)


1 comment to Appropriation and Commercialization of Buddhism in the West

  • Keith Howard

    Forms. Labels. Symbols. Likes. Dislikes. Opinions. Judgements. Division. Discord.
    I have a small gold Buddha on a nice golden chain for my own personal reasons and it is “Just That” . I would think the question points sharply back on the observers reaction to object and the resulting mind stream and emotion it does and doesn’t evoke and ultimately why it is a thought it is clung to.