An excerpt from Bodhisattva 4.0: A Primer for Engaged Buddhists.
“This stunning wrist mala bracelet of softly colored, pastel beads is suitable for mantra practice and for wearing as jewelry.” Online store
One premise of the book, from which this is an excerpt, is that we live in an exchange economy of designed objects, relationships, and institutions. In this, I have been influenced particularly by two books, The System of Objects, by Jean Baudrillard, and On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, by Susan Stewart.
From this perspective, I have very mixed feelings about companies selling Buddhist stuff, such as meditation cushions, benches, shawls, statues, incense, jewellery, home and garden decor, giftware, rosaries, stickers, postcards, braided bracelets, and the like. I know there is a legitimate place for ritual objects, but when they are commodified, I get cognitive dissonance. On the other hand, I appreciate the efforts of Buddhist organizations to raise funds by selling things (even when it’s at inflated prices), and I have purchased a significant number of objects from them over the years (not to mention cherished ritual artifacts I have received as gifts). So is the problem Buddhist stuff itself, or the intention of the folks who are selling it?
In China, a search on Alibaba tagged “Buddha” yields 37,849 items available from wholesalers. The vast majority appear to be plastic resin or cheap electroplated metal, and designed for the mass decor market. However, I admit, I perk right up whenever I see a solar-powered Kalachakra prayer wheel on someone’s car dashboard!
As our experience becomes increasingly mediated and abstracted, souvenirs (not the same as decor) stand in for authentic experience in our private, nostalgic reverie of contact and presence. These objects evoke connection with the past but they also evoke longing for that which is distant, making them inherently incomplete.
Outwardly, our objects serve as talismans, projections of our identity. We all know how rich collectors fetishize famous works of art, rare cars, or antiquities. Most of us are unable to own originals, and so we must settle for simulacrums (knock-offs). Nevertheless, we fetishize these in the same way, and thus our objects become more about us than about their original use and materiality. Buddhist things would qualify here, as specimens of the exotic and as trophies celebrating our immediate experience of it. This self-referential identity-building is a form of meta-consumption.
You might say that Buddhist stuff is an ironic counterpoint to consumer culture, in the same way as kitsch or camp, virtue signalling our recognition and transcendence of the contradictions inherent in our late-stage capitalist exchange economy. However, I’m not buying it.
Buddhist stuff in museums takes it to an entirely different level. Stewart describes the collection as a paradise of consumption, where the object’s intrinsic meaning is sublimated to a display value within the symbolic system of the collector. It’s all about organization and classification, presenting that narrative as the normative representation of reality. Indeed, there is even a peer-reviewed Journal of Material Culture. This is why we feel the tension of seeing Buddhist relics and artifacts in a museum, consumed as art.
I experienced the effect on a grand scale at Borobudur. The dissociation of the world’s largest Buddhist monument from its sacred function is viscerally inescapable as one experiences the decapitated statues (their heads looted during the colonial era), the throngs of Japanese tour buses, and the gauntlet of T-shirt and trinket vendors ringing the site. My solitary Lama Chöpa puja in a remote spot halfway up the Amitabha side of the mandala felt like a rebellious act of reclamation. (The T-shirt souvenir I bought on the site shrank and shredded long ago, but the memories remain.)
In 2015, after 15 years on the road, the Maitreya Loving Kindness Tour organized by Lama Zopa closed down and settled in for permanent display at two sites in India. The tour consisted of more than 3000 Sarira and ritual objects from Shakyamuni and 44 other Buddhist luminaries. I attended on several different occasions when it cycled through Toronto. Like shards of the True Cross, or the Shroud of Turin, these relics were created, collected, and then “consumed” by visitors in an atmosphere of profound reverence and promise. I am reminded of the Buddhist text: Awakening Faith in the Mahayana.
BUDDHA STUFF RESOURCES