Unearthing the Truth : Appropriation and the Buddha head

“Knowing can be a curse on a person’s life. I’d traded in a pack of lies for a pack of truth, and I didn’t know which one was heavier. Which one took the most strength to carry around? It was a ridiculous question, though, because once you know the truth, you can’t ever go back and pick up your suitcase of lies. Heavier or not, the truth is yours now.”
― Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees

A few weeks back, one of our focus (foci?… is that thing?) was the yama of truthfulness (satya) and it has really lingered with me. So I’ve been grappling with truth, what it is, how I live it, what my conscious state of it looks like, how I see truth from others viewpoints, and how I dedicate myself to seeking the truth… and honestly- I’m exhausted. Why? Because I’ve been carrying the heavy suitcase of ignorance, and have recently traded it in for the heavier suitcase of truth… But that exhaustion is necessary, and in fact mandatory in order for us to heal and move towards the light. (*insert a reference to Poltergeist* “CAROL ANNE”!)

Pain that is not transformed is transmitted

-Richard Rohr

There is no coming to consciousness without pain

– Carl Jung

If you’ve ever pulled a bandaid off, you know the fervent sting as the adhesive is ripped from your skin. You also know that it is the space to breath and to experience the discomfort that helps the healing of the wound significantly (once cleaned, dealt with, etc.- I know my docs are freaking out right now – “SHANNON DO NOT ADVISE PEOPLE TO NOT DRESS OPEN WOUNDS!!!!”).

Through the process of excavating the truth, this is where I’m at… airing out the bloody, unpleasant sight of what ignorance and ego have covered for so long.

SO

On a recent trip to Thailand, I came across this billboard:

As I read the billboard I instantly felt a pang in my stomach and a fragility known all too well by the white and privileged- gazing up at the billboard, I instantly remembered the Buddha head I have perched on my home altar that I bought at Marshalls…

and it hit me : I had been appropriating a culture I claim to love and know. I had been SO looking forward to this trip to buy mala beads to bring home, to “confirm everything I know about Buddhism”, mindfulness, etc. and then BAM I felt completely embarrassed. Brene Brown calls the moment I was in a ‘shame storm’, and I was up to my eyeballs in one.

Now let’s step back for a second, what is cultural appropriation?

the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.

I was never raised a Buddhist. I’ve never been to a Buddhist temple prior to visiting China and Thailand. I have studied texts on Buddhism, but certainly could not call myself an authority on it… however one day while perusing the aisles of Marshalls some years back, I came across a silver Buddha head. It was during a time where I had just recently started meditating frequently and thought it would be a wonderful, mindful reminder to add to my altar. $29.99 later, the body-less Buddha made its way to my alter (which sits below hip height), and would occasionally float around to be the backdrop (with my bougie succulents) for yoga videos. This is not an image that I had particular attachment to religiously, but many a Pinterest board had suggested to me that Buddha head would be the perfect tie in to my mindfulness space.

In that moment, staring up at that billboard, I felt severed, exposed and cheap- much like that Buddha head.

If you’re still not clear what the issue is, if you recall a few years back there was a big t-shirt movement where Jesus was poised on a t-shirt in a hip outfit and the caption underneath said “Jesus is my homeboy”. People went NUTS over these because of the profane nature of the use of Jesus… I totally had one, and I’m not a Christian. By wearing it as a non-Christian, I was defiling the sanctity of Christ because I was not only absorbing a culture that was not mine, but making it less holy than those who follow it as a faith.

Also, this article BRILLIANTLY explains cultural appropriation : https://www.cbc.ca/news/opinion/cultural-appropriation-1.4119849

Cultural appropriation is EVERYWHERE in the modern yoga world (arguably in the U.S. and other countries based in colonization) from studios who refuse to chant the sound of ‘Om’ to blaspheming Hindu deities by putting them on the floor in bathrooms as decoration. It’s a complex issue that I don’t have enough Phds to fully breakdown, but what I now understand as cultural appropriation is when you use something for profit or gain without proper perspective, awareness or appreciation of the roots /origin of it.

My use of the $29.99 Buddha head was to make myself feel better, and my mindfulness space look more Pinterest worthy. I had no consciousness of what the Buddha stood for, and in my unknowing ignorant state did not know the harm that could cause. By buying the Buddha head from a for profit, non-Buddhist retailer and displaying it as if it it were a function of my faith, and not treating it with the deep respect it requires- I was culturally appropriating.

There is totally a fine line between appropriating and appreciating, so I urge you to read the article sited above for some good examples of the difference.

If you’re reading this and rolling your eyes at how lame this sounds, you probably culturally appropriate all the time and are embarrassed to admit it… trust me, that’s where I was. I spent half that day in Thailand trying to justify my choice, while occasionally scanning my facebook albums to make sure there was no proof of my abhorrent behavior.

I’m not writing all this to shame anyone, but rather to shed light. I had NO CLUE I was culturally appropriating when I bought that Buddha head, I just thought it was neat. Now that I know better, I must do better. An example : when we had our beautiful murals done by Flatland Kitchen, we discussed the importance of no specific religious iconography so as not to steal from any culture, but to elicit the common threads of spirituality that we all share.

SO what can we DO to expand our awareness and avoid cultural appropriation?

First, know that you’ll likely make mistakes. I’m still making them.

Second, know there’s no exact science to cultural appropriation. Just be open to admitting when you’re wrong, making adjustments, apologizing when appropriate and moving on.  I’m not a Hindu, but I do have images of Saraswati and Lakshmi in my house. I deeply connect with, pray to and acknowledge the sanctity of these images and so for me, right now, I’m honoring them as deeply as I can. Perhaps in a future trip to India I will learn something about the care and consideration of them that is not within my lens of awareness, and at that point I will course correct (or if someone messages me from this post who has deeper insight- which I totally welcome!).

Third, arm yourself with knowledge. A great way to slow down the acquisition of things and purchasing without consciousness is to learn about what it is you’re consuming, and from who. Before you start a yoga practice, ask about it’s roots and history. Before you imbibe in a new kind of cuisine, get to know where it comes from. Taking a trip somewhere? Read up on that origin and communities culture and values so you can respect them when you visit. My parents had us make an indigenous Hawaiian meal before we visited Hawaii as kids. This made my experience of the Hawaiian people and culture SO much richer, and I remember the uniqueness of that meal and how it tied into our experience to this day.

Fourth, give credit where credit is due. If you’re going to quote someone, site the proper source. If you’re going to tell a story from another country of origin, acknowledge them. Have a favorite genre of music? Get to know where it comes from!

For yoga specifically, learn Sanskrit, educate yourself on the history of the practice and all that entails. Be willing to be a lifelong student of whatever it is you are engaging in and always express gratitude for those who have come before.

Fifth, when possible- be a patron of the culture or person of origin. Are you a yoga practitioner? Consider studying with someone of Indian origin. Purchase mala beads from those who are crafting them for spiritual use (from tried and true places), not just as an accessory. Part of this may be limited to accessibility, just do your best.

Sixth, Check your entitlement: Just because something becomes special to you, does not mean it belongs to you or you do not owe it the respect to give it back, pay respect, etc.

In Patanjali’s yoga sutras he lists the 5 kleshas, or obstacles to life… that arguably are the way TO enlightenment, not from it.

They are:

  • ignorance
  • ego
  • attachments
  • aversion
  • fear of death

Cultural appropriation is yet another version of the first two, ignorance and ego. Often, they’re inescapable traps of life that we fall into unbeknownst to us at the time. The trick is to keep bringing awareness to your every day experience, that’s how you’ll begin to see whether you’ve landed on the obstacle or not.

Another way to consider it : My daughter and I read a book called We’re Going On A Bear Hunt, and upon every obstacle the characters come up against, they recite:

We can’t go over it

We can’t go under it

We’ve got to go THROUGH it

The process of coming into the light, and unveiling your own ignorance is tough… that’s why it’s a practice. You/I will continue to be ignorant of so much. The point is to go through it. To be in the discomfort, acknowledge where changes can be made (and where they can’t/ shouldn’t ) and course correct as necessary. You can’t see what you can’t see, you can’t know what you can’t know, but, to quote Maya Angelou:

I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.

Truly, this is what living a yogic lifestyle is, constantly shedding the layers of ignorance to unveil our deepest, highest knowing. Practice yoga long enough and you realize the light of truth is brighter than your former lens of awareness, and it will eventually seep into all the cracks in order for you to see clearer.

I hope this is helpful. I humbly submit it as someone who is deeply flawed, who daily works through my own ignorance and blind spots, and is always seeking higher truth.

namaste,

Shan

P.S. some interesting Buddha knowledge we learned whilst in China & Thailand

  1. check out this website: https://www.knowingbuddha.org/dos-and-donts
  2. Buddha heads are considered profane because antique dealers robbed many famous Buddhist temples, chopped the heads off of the statues and sold the heads on the market. Our guide in Ayutthaya shared deep compassion around this remarking on what they must have been going through to have to do such a vile act. I thought it was such a beautiful display of his faith and wisdom to consider the perspective of the thief (our tour guide is a devout Buddhist).
  3. resting a Buddha on the floor (especially in a place like a bathroom) is considered super offensive and inappropriate
  4. wearing the Buddha or using it as a piece of decoration, instead of displaying it for spiritual purposes is also considered inappropriate and offensive

This photograph was taken in Ayutthaya (the former capital of Siam) where most of the Buddha heads have been stolen. One such head that was chopped off somehow rolled into the base of a banyan tree, and has been growing within the roots ever since. When approaching the head, you are asked to sit down so that you are never above the Buddha. You are also asked to remove your hat in the presence of the Buddha.

 

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