cultural artifacts?

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This topic contains 5 replies, has 4 voices, and was last updated by Michael Finley Michael Finley 9 months, 3 weeks ago.

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  • #41583


    I was curious about how others view cultural artifacts / emblems that are associated with traditional Buddhism. By cultural artifacts I mean statues, pictures, jewelry, flags etc. Personally I’m not sure where I stand with these things.

    Part of me likes these things because they are foreign and exotic to me. I also like how they could potentially identify you as someone who is familiar with Buddhism. For example I was at a meetup and I saw that someone there was wearing mala beads around their wrist. So I asked him if he was interested in Buddhism and it turned out he worked for mindfulness center near by and we were able to have a positive discussion.

    However I also dislike these things because of their connection with religious practices. Also because to me they seem superficial and it seems that some people are drawn to these things because of a certain exotic trendiness and not so much because of an understanding of the dharma.

    So I was curious what are other peoples feelings regarding these things as they relate to their secular Buddhist practice?


  • #41586
    Jennifer Hawkins
    Jennifer Hawkins

    This post reminds me of something I jotted down last month, and that I’ll share here:

    Anyways, here’s a review of the DharmaCrafts catalogue (because I’d never really heard much about them before the holidays and I’d never seen their catalogue):

    The first page is that stupid shawl that everyone (rightfully) was making fun of a while back. It’s supposed to keep you warm while meditating (a real concern as far as that goes – sitting still often equals cold)… but it has this chakra design with holes in the back. Holes. And it costs $289.

    There’s paper lanterns. Those are cool. But much cheaper at Ikea. And those aren’t really a meditation supply, imho.

    Statues of Gautama Buddha and various Bodhisattvas. I can see that (just like with selling zafu, zabuton, etc). In all seriousness, it can be a challenge to buy such things in some places. I can’t go to Walmart and pick up a Buddha (::shudders::). Having a catalogue for that makes sense, okay.

    Meditation benches. I’m super-curious about those, but haven’t tried one yet. Another thing I can see just buying from a catalogue.

    Games and books for children… maybe. I’ve seen parents look around for supplies for their children. It can be a bit hard.

    Now on to the malas and jewelry. ::deep discomfort:: This isn’t the first place where I’ve seen people selling malas made from luxury materials (and note, the first places I saw were companies based in Asia). And while part of me goes, “Ooo these coral beads are pretty and cool!” A lot of me goes, “But do I want that for a mala to be used in practice towards Liberation? Do I need a couple hundred dollar mala?” In other words, I’d buy a set of D&D dice made of these materials, sure. Some of them are really cool from a science and aesthetic outlook. But it’s weird and a bit questionable to get a mala made of expensive materials. It’s kind of counter to the point. And then the regular jewelry (variations of WWJD bracelets in my honest opinion, earrings and such) – they feel even worse.

    Various bells and gongs. Again, I can see putting them into some kind of catalogue because, again, it’s a bit hard to get the right things in some places.

    Incense I can also kind of understand, but my gosh is it needlessly expensive in here. And incense is something you can get just about anywhere (in the US / West at least). You can get it at the Dollar Tree and Walmart even.

    Tibetan prayer flags. Those are a bit complicated. Genuine ones (as in from a specific monastery in Tibet or in exile) are consecrated. They aren’t something to be casual about. So if you aren’t specifically Tibetan Buddhist, they are not a good idea (to say the least). But on the other hand, I have certainly bought some and dedicated some myself – the reason being that proceeds went to the Tibetan Nuns Project. I handle them with due respect and put them outside as a “first warning sign” (and blessing upon) to the proselytizers who occasionally come to my door. So I think it can be okay to buy/have/display them with the right intention. I think here I’d feel a bit better if there was more about where these flags were coming from and if some of the proceeds went to Tibetans or monastics or something. Otherwise, they leave me uneasy.

    Oh look a tatami bed, garden decorations, a shoe rack, a door mat… oh and “Ayurveda Inspired Chocolate” (what in the actual, literal fuck). And then, like, some craft stuff (like a fabric organizer made to have various symbols upon it). These aren’t meditation supplies or things I can’t get locally. Hell, some of this seems like straight up New Agey appropriation b.s (the chocolate because really). And a lot of it is stuff you can make yourself. I know I’ve made art that is deeply tied to the Dhamma and specific traditions as well. As I look at this, I’m not even sure that someone *should* be buying such things instead of just making them if they really want or need them.

    I know Ted wonders about DharmaCrafts. I can say that, in general, something like this is necessary because not everyone is going to have the access or skills for certain things (statues, cushions, anything that is blessed). But some of the specific things in here make me noticeably and viscerally uncomfortable – and they aren’t even necessarily of my school or ethnic heritage (it can only be worse for such people). And the prices are definitely too damn high for most of it. So no righteous tear against DharmaCrafts, but I can’t really like it either.

    Anyways, I’m… impressed? delighted?… to hear you note honestly the desire for the “foreign or exotic” in your interactions with these things. It can be difficult and rare for someone to notice and be honest with that part of themselves. Thank you for being one of those people.

    Also, I share your desire to sometimes have an outward sign of our Buddhist status as someone in a mostly nonBuddhist society (US), and I have worn a mala on some occasions for that reason (as a signal to others, a form of self-protection). I also sometimes use a mala in meditation. So I don’t think there’s anything wrong or harmful in that specific practice.

    As for “religious,” I think that we here in the “West” or Americas tend to really be thinking specifically of Abrahamic religions when we use the word “religious.” And that’s totally understandable. But I think we can all benefit from remembering that not all religions are like the Abrahamic ones (and that includes all of the forms of Buddhism). So it’s important to disentangle certain negative connotations coming from Abrahamic “religions” when we think about “religious” or Heritage Buddhism/s.

    My advice is that as your Practice deepens, the superficial desire for stuff will fade even more. This automatic negativity towards “religious” stuff probably has more to do with the Abrahamic religions than with any form of Buddhism, so that’s something to probably sit with and work on.

    Going a bit deeper, everyone is free to choose what they need at the moment as long as they are responsible about it. If you are Asian/American and have a more direct cultural connection to some particular object, go for it. Even if you aren’t, but you find that something (e.g. a zafu, a mala, an image of Tara) helps you in your Practice, go for that, but do consider how best to go about that due to the impact that it may have on others. (In other words, before you get an image of Tara, be sure you’re doing it for the right reasons and that you display such an image respectfully, etc). Personally, I find most “stuff” unnecessary, maybe unhelpful (after all, it’s more stuff that I’ve desired and wasted money on), maybe inappropriate for me as a non Asian/American… so I just don’t appropriate any of it.

    So it’s okay if it’s your culture or if you need it. But it’s also okay if you don’t. As long as you are working on non harming and a right attitude towards these things, do what you need to do.

    Last, but not least, I’m really glad that you put effort into being as careful in your wording (i.e. “cultural artifacts”) as you could. Unfortunately, a lot of terminology around the differing forms of Buddhism has not been standardized, so you’ve got people making honest efforts and others finding offense even when none is meant. I don’t know of a better term myself, and I think this is a pretty respectful one. So thank you for that effort.

  • #41593


    Haha thank you Jennifer I felt good reading your post. I did debate what to call them and cultural artifacts was the best I could come up with 🙂

    The only Buddhist paraphernalia that I currently use is this tiny cloth bracelet with a tiny buddha head that a friend brought back from her trip to Bali. I’m considering replacing it when it wears out.

    I agree with the idea that western/abrahamic religions are very different from eastern/Buddhist religion. That being said there are specific things that out I disagree with or am on the fence about regarding traditional Buddhism.

    Some stuff I’m just not sure about so I was curious to see others opinions.

    Thank you for your response.


  • #41594
    Jennifer Hawkins
    Jennifer Hawkins

    No problem

    Also, it’s more than okay to question literal interpretations of supernatural elements of Heritage Buddhisms. That’s part of why we are all here. <3

  • #41609

    Mark Knickelbine

    Hi, RT —

    I think with questions like this, it’s always good to examine one’s intention. If you want to use an item for a purpose that honors its origins and promotes your practice or someone else’s, I think that’s fine. I have a picture of Kwan Yin at my practice space in my home, because she symbolizes compassion for me. I have a big poster of the head of a Buddha statue that is in the backdrop when I lead Practice Circle, because I want to remind everyone that as little as we may discuss Buddhist doctrine, we are a living part of that tradition. But when I see something and my heart tells me I want it because it’s cool or because it would make me look spiritual or something, I usually wait until the urge passes, and it always does.

  • #41638
    Michael Finley
    Michael Finley

    Like Jennifer and Mark, I think the attitude/intention is the key. For the non-religious among us, there is certainly not any value in attaching to supernatural elements of ritual & paraphernalia, and for any one who wants a corrective to the excesses of of our society, certainly not acquisition of “Buddhist items” as so many more consumer possessions. But I do have a little Thai “walking Buddha” of pressed metal. It gives me some satisfaction and helps to get me into a frame of mind conducive to meditation.

    This may explain a comment, I think made by S. Suzuki when asked why he prayed to a statue of Buddha, knowing it is only a piece of stone. He said “I can do it because I know it is not the Buddha.”

    Also perhaps worth repeating an old Zen tale about two monks lost in a snow storm in the mountains. Exhausted and nearly frozen, they come upon a shrine, a wooden statue of Buddha. One monks asks desperately “do you think Buddha can save us.” “Certainly,” replied the other as he set fire to the statue and warmed his hands over it.

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