We live in the glorious times of the Buddha.
No, I have not lost my mind. Neither do I have a time machine that can take me to the 6th century BC. I write today because everywhere I look I see representations of the Buddha—tokens and tokenisms. Literally everywhere!
A little while ago I was sitting with a neighbour in her posh apartment and lo and behold, there was the Buddha right behind me! Printed on a silk cushion cover. I complimented her on her aesthetic choice, at which she exclaimed—"The Buddha never goes out of fashion, you see. Look at his eyes, so seductive—you can drown in them!" What a bemusing choice of adjectives for a spiritual great known for his serenity and renunciation of worldly pleasures. I'm sure if he'd been around to witness this exchange, he'd have been beyond appalled. The next moment, she tossed another Buddhism-themed cushion at my lap, saying, "Be comfortable! I have many more in various designs." I nodded politely, curbing the temptation to tell her: "Yes, I know it is fashionable to have Buddha cushion covers, but don't you want him and his teachings in your life as well?"
The Buddha has been one of the most influential spiritual leaders to ever walk this earth. But now our culture seems to have appropriated him in an entirely material sense.
There is no doubt that the Buddha has been one of the most influential philosophical and spiritual leaders to ever walk this earth. But right now, our culture seems to have appropriated him in an entirely material sense. Blame it on the style industry, mystical monasteries or the austere good looks of disciplined monks, but somewhere along the way Gautama Buddha has become a fashion statement, an on-trend motif.
I have lost count of the Buddha figurines I have spotted on assorted terrace gardens, placed appealingly amidst white stone pebbles and small waterfalls. Or, the serene statuettes carved in costly white marble, put in the middle of artificial ponds with floating plastic water lilies. What a serene sight for guests to behold! Light some scented candles around and it is the perfect ornamentation for a party. Who gives two hoots about what he stood for anyway? After the party, maybe.
A friend of mine has displayed a series of paintings of his tranquil face done in various abstract forms, running all across the corridor to her bedroom. Every picture lit under a different lamp shade. Another has got her kitchen window done with a glass painting of Buddhist symbology. And then there is someone who uses blinds printed with thousands of tiny Buddhas.
Ask them about their devotion and they speak of the heavenly aesthetic of the Buddha and Buddhist motifs.
I am yet to see an exhibition, a handicraft mela or a mall's home furniture showroom that doesn't feature multiple Buddhist icons.
I am yet to see an exhibition, a handicraft mela or a mall's home furniture showroom that doesn't feature multiple Buddhist icons. How ironical that this is the same Gautama Buddha, the man who once walked in flesh and blood, who surrendered worldly pleasures to lead a life of utter simplicity.
Long years ago, his disciples travelled across the world to spread his teachings and mark his presence in every possible household. The message has indeed reached and how! Today the Buddha is ubiquitous—you'll see him on handmade-paper bags, expensive T-shirts, bed covers, keychains, earrings, tattoos, mobile cases... the list is endless.
Recently, when I visited Gangtok's crowded M.G. main market, I stood mesmerised along with hundreds of other tourists, lost in the beauty of Buddhist tokens stunningly displayed by the street vendors. Everybody was eager to take back little miniatures as gifts for friends and family. While a Delhi gentleman standing next to me asked for colourful prayer flag for his car's back window, another from Bangalore demanded 50 such pieces for his newly opened Café. A lady thought the collection of flags would make for a good toran on the entrance door while another grabbed a piece for her office work station. Each prayer flag had a long prayer written in Pali, but no one asked what it meant. The aesthetic mattered, not the message.
Some token collectors contend that Buddhist images and artefacts imbue serenity to a space, but how many of them practice his teachings?
Some token collectors contend that Buddhist images and artefacts imbue serenity to a space, but how many of them practice his teachings? They are often people who are governed by anger or enslaved to their repository of wealth, friends, jobs and pleasures.
I've been gifted many, many Buddha keepsakes over the years, but the most precious of all the artefacts I have are books on the life of the great thinker, carefully placed in my library. Sometimes when I feel frayed, I return to its flagged pages, anecdotes, life lessons and quotes.
If for just one day the Buddha found his due place in our lives—beyond tokenism, aesthetics and as a fashion statement—there would be so much more peace, tranquillity and forgiveness all around. Remember what he endorsed, "There is no path to happiness. Happiness is the path"!
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