Buddhist Tolerance or Apathy?
Bhuchung K. Tsering
September 23, 2012
Currently we are in the midst of seeing violent reactions in quite a few regions of the world to a video posted on YouTube that was derogatory of Islam’s founder, the Prophet Muhammad. Unfortunately, the impact of the reaction has not only been felt materially, but also in terms of loss of lives.
The people who have involved in these protest activities are said to be fundamentalists, but the number seems to be sizable and they do not seem to have any hesitation in coming out in such a radical manner to display their reaction. Even those who label themselves as moderate Muslims have been vocal in terming the film as anti-Islam, even as they criticize the violence by some of their fellow Muslims.
The Buddhist world, too, has its share of anti-Buddhist actions, the latest known being a series of shoes produced by Icon Shoes on which Buddhist images were reproduced. When Bhutanese and Tibetan Buddhists came to know of it, there were uncoordinated voicing of opinions online and petitions to Icon Shoes. Although Icon shoes chose not to respond to the individuals who wrote to them (the obvious reason seems to be that those of us who wrote to them do not fit their customer demographic and so they did not care) they nonetheless seem to have taken off some of the shoes from their online store. The reason why I said some of the shoes is because one style of the said series, “Thangka of the Buddha” namely Ballet Flat w/Removable Insole is still being put up for sale on Icon shoes website, as can be seen here, as of September 23, 2012. Could Icon Shoes be merely taking down some of the anti-Buddhist shoes from its online store while continuing to market them in other ways? Could it be doing this with the knowledge that it will not suffer any consequences under the hands of the Buddhist community?
While on the topic, this series of shoes seems to be produced by Icon’s own in-house graphic artists unlike a similar development with Ked shoes in 2010. Then, when some Buddhists came to know of Buddhist images on Ked shoes they started to petition the company. An article was also published in Phayul, the Tibetan news website, by Bhuchung D. Sonam titled, “Unholy Shoes.” In it, the writer said, “Recently Keds — a unit of Kansas-based Collective Brands, Inc. and a mass-marketer of canvas-top — sneakers came out with a new line of sneakers called ‘Tibetan Buddhist Shoes’. These bear images of the Dalai Lama, the Buddha, holy mantras and other sacred images that Buddhist all over the world revere. Buddhists generally keep these images and scripts in temples, monasteries and on altars in their homes.”
He further pointed out, “Keds Tibetan Buddhist shoes themselves may not be the agent to destroy Tibetan Buddhism and its culture, but it is a dangerous precedent. Ignoring such instances without a protest or raising critical voices may lead to a pattern where profit-at-all-cost companies may further engage in activities that trample upon people’s cultural values and religious beliefs.”
To its credit, Keds shoes not only took down those shoes from sale, but its president, Kristin Kohler Burrows, even wrote a letter of apology that was published on Phayul. In it she explained how the shoes were products of a third-party firm, Zazzle.com, and that they “are currently renegotiating our contract with Zazzle.com to incorporate additional measures to preclude any similar type of content from being placed on Keds or PRO-Keds branded shoes.”
Even earlier, in March 2001, the Talibans in Afghanistan did not think twice in desecrating historic Buddhist statues in a grotesque manner. Reporting about the development, the USA Today carried a story titled, “Why the Taliban are destroying Buddhas,” in which it said, “In Afghanistan recently, supreme Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar issued an edict against un-Islamic graven images, which means all idolatrous images of humans and animals. As a result, the Taliban are destroying all ancient sculptures. Explosives, tanks, and anti-aircraft weapons blew apart two colossal images of the Buddha in Bamiyan Province, 230 kilometers (150 miles) from the capital of Kabul.”
Buddhists did raise their voices then and there was international condemnation then. But there was nothing like a universal Buddhist action against the people and the country in which the desecration took place.
In the light of these developments, there are people who ascribe the low-profile nature of Buddhist indignation as indication of tolerance, which is one of the messages of the religion. In fact, tolerance or patience is one of the six Paramitas that Buddhists have to practice in their spiritual development. Under this explanation, Buddhists are said to have a large enough heart to take such onslaughts against their religious doctrine.
But could it also be the case that there is apathy in the Buddhist community that is stopping them from voicing their feelings effectively? Certainly, nobody is making the case that Buddhists should start a violent agitation whenever there are actions that attack Buddhist sentiments or principles. But there are several organizations throughout the world dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Buddhist principles. Could these not play a more proactive role in representing the cause of Buddhists, if only to show to the next generation of Buddhists the importance of their religious heritage. I guess Buddhists need to meditate on this, and the pun is intended, thank you!