This might ruffle some feathers. Oh well, it’s not like I have tried to avoid other topics in the past that some might deem inappropriate for travel blogs. My intention has never been to just push out nice pictures of some place you’ll likely never visit; from the get-go, this blog has been a platform for more than that, for stories and reflections on anything that touches on the subject of travel and (foreign) culture.
Is Buddha pop culture now? He seems to be everywhere. T-shirts, tattoos, those little statues that you bought from a street vendor from your last stint in Thailand but now can’t quite place in the spaces of your very non-spiritual everyday life. Do these people even know anything about this character that they’ve made their casual god, or are they just fascinated by the gentle smile of a golden statue that they hope can bring balance and inner peace to their lives? (Remember that Buddha also stated how ‘Life is suffering’.) I wonder if any actual followers of Buddhism would take part in this craze. I doubt it.
During my time in South East Asia last summer, I visited the Grand Palace in Bangkok. The palace is a magnificent sight to behold, with intricate golden details, murals depicting Thai mythology and grim-faced statues standing around the perimeter guarding this holy place. Plastered around the palace was also the text: Buddha is not decoration, Buddha is not tattoo. Buddha is for respecting.
The Western world is, largely, distancing itself from religion. No church reigns alongside the state anymore. Many don’t belong to any religion, and even of those that do only a few will actually regularly visit their church or their temple. Faith has been replaced by science and modern conveniences. Living in this bubble we tend to forget that this is not the case everywhere else in the world. In places like South East Asia, religion still has a strong foothold in people’s daily lives, and disrespecting religion can result in serious punishment. To those people, Buddha is a holy character.
Did you know that in Sri Lanka Buddha is considered so holy that disrespecting his effigy could land you some serious jail time? Reportedly a few tourists sporting visible tattoos of Buddha have been arrested. Similarly, a selfie with a statue there could also get you in trouble. As Westerners we sometimes view the world as if through a lense of our preferred values and might see some other customs as old-fashioned or superstitious. However, when we travel, we come as guests to a new country. We are just passing through, not (most likely) staying to live for the rest of our lives. It is not our place to try and change the customs of that country. Even if you don’t personally see a moral problem in sporting religious icons, you owe it to the country you’re visiting to respect their ways.
So far I’ve been talking about Buddhism, but this goes for other religions as well. How about all those Ganesha tattoos? I even feel weird to see the cross, a symbol of Christianity, shown off as a fashion item. Perhaps people today are too far removed from religion to consider it sacred anymore, even for other people’s sake; this way it doesn’t feel like blasphemy to exploit religious symbols in fashion.
Maybe I’m just talking over my head – after all, I am not a member of any church nor do I practice any religion. None of what I’ve just talked about offends me on a personal level. And what do I know about these religious practices? Maybe it is not my place to give my two cents on the subject of religion, and anyway, what kind of a claim do I have on anyone’s religious beliefs? Just like the Christian God and the ways of worshipping are different for each believer, this is the case with other deities, too.
However, I think a part of being a more conscious traveler is to consider every aspect of the culture you’re entering. If you have offending tattoos, cover them. Wear long trousers and sleeves in holy places. Show respect in places of worship and towards religious items. After all, that plastic Buddha on your shelf is not just a neat piece of decor – it is someone’s religion.
As always, thanks for reading! One of the reasons why I like writing about thought-provoking topics is to encourage discussion between people with either similar or different views. What are your thoughts on the topic at hand?