Toying with holy objects only kills their holiness


By Ven Matthumagala Chandananda Thero

Buddhist Chaplain, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada

Some Buddhists express dismay about Naomi Coleman, a tourist from the UK, being deported a few days back because of an image of Buddha tattooed on her upper arm. While we regret all inconveniences Naomi had to endure on her visit in Sri Lanka, in this regard, some explanation is still necessary to discern what can be the Awakened One’s standpoint regarding his statues, images and tattoos.

Ms. Coleman who is said to be a Buddhist had mentioned that she had a good intention in displaying a tattooed image of Buddha on her arm.  She had done it in deference. However, according to Buddha, we will not have placid sailing in our voyage of life, though our intentions are good.  Even good things might turn out to bear bitter results if we do not have a sense of doing them in the right way, at the right time and at the right place.  

Of course, it is good to respect our religious leaders but we should be discreet in such efforts. Otherwise, we would be doing more harm than good to holy objects and religious concepts.

From the very beginning, the Buddha did not encourage his followers to create his likeness in statues. The Buddha was the only religious leader to declare himself as appatimo, which means that he cannot be embodied in an image (AN).  However, even today, Buddha can be beheld according to his vision: "YoDhammamPassathi, so mam passathi"- He who sees Dhamma, sees me: said Buddha. In keeping with this, and out of respect, statues had not been created until four or five hundred years after the passing away of Buddha.

During that period, instead of the Buddha image or statue, a symbol such as a lotus, Bodhi tree, Wheel of Dhamma, an empty seat or a sacred foot print of Buddha were used to depict him. In those days, Buddhists endeavoured to see Buddha through wisdom eyes.

As time passed by, rather than engaging in much-rewarding meditation practices, some monks were bent on building large temples that housed beautiful images to depict Buddha and various events of his life to impress the devotees. The Mahayana sect pioneered this trend. Nowadays, statues and paintings have become just another common commodity to be purchased on the open market.

The Buddhist scriptures reveal that even the mere sight of Buddha has a great healing effect, but some of the images created by unskilled craftsmen are really sad to see. We see many ill-proportionate statues, some with poor facial features, in temples all over the country which only add insult to a great religious leader.

According to Buddhism, the body, in its physical form, is nothing but a motile toilet. Many people decorate this ‘toilet’ with tattoos of hawks, jackals, dragons and cobras to flaunt their manliness. Adding our religious leaders also to this ego list will only cause erosion of the crucial respect attributed to holy images and figures.

The Buddha said that there are two powers - power of meditation and power of reflection. Before we do something, we should carefully reflect on its consequences. Sister Naomi is quoted to have said her tattoo is indelible. Well, before long, our chubby bodies will shrink due to aging and skin will start sagging. How ridiculous the tattooed image will then appear on such wrinkled, sagging skin?

We become Buddhist to the extent of our wisdom. That is the measure and the yardstick.

In one morning of 2007, a man started playing his violin, standing in a railway station of Washington DC. Although about 2,000 people passed him by, nobody cared for this person. Some people threw an occasional coin into his hat, probably thinking him to be a beggar. When he stopped after 45 minutes, nobody applauded for his music.

Strangely, none could identify the violinist to be Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world! He played one of the most elaborate pieces of music ever composed, with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars.  Two days before this incident, Joshua had sold out tickets for a rendition at a theatre in another city, where the seats averaged $100 each to sit and listen to him playing the same music! However, at the railway station, he could collect only $32! This scenario was part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities.    

Why nobody could recognize such a gifted maestro and enjoy the music as they should? Because he was in a wrong place. Some critics say that Naomi was really promoting Buddhism by displaying a tattoo of Buddha on her upper arm. Now, could those researchers promote Joshua Bell by displaying him in the metro station? If he continued to play in such odd places, he would have soon become a mendicant in the eyes of ordinary people. His hard-earned respect would be gone before long. That is how our mind works!

Even a well-?created image of Buddha can begin to heal our hearts only if it is used wisely. If we use it merely for furthering our whims and fancies, what happened to Joshua will happen to priceless Buddha image too. Eventually, nobody will care! In a psychological point of view, what is too common and cheap is condemned by our subconscious mind as junk. It might not be noticeable in the short run but will bring its negative effects in the long run.  If we toy with holy objects, they are apt to lose their solemnity over misuse.

When I reflect on the way the Buddha promulgated hundreds of rules and regulations to maintain the dignity of various aspects of spiritual life, I cannot imagine him to have tolerance to let his followers wear his image tattooed on their bodies.

Our ancestors safeguarded Dhamma,undergoing untold hardships, even forsaking their lives at times. Onus is with us to preserve it for posterity and discipline plays a vital role in this worthy task.  

However, if authorities considered allowing Ms. Coleman to enjoy the visit withtattoo properly covered, whole trouble could have been avoided.


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