Monday, April 26, 2004

The nature of reality or, Are those real?

I have argued before that the distinction between disapproval and prohibition is too often lost in our activist age.

I'd like to take her to the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss if you know what I mean



 Buddhists have taken offense to the garment depicted at left.* In a free society, Victoria's Secret has the right to manufacture such a garment and market forces give commercial organizations sufficient incentive to avoid offense. Indeed, Victoria's Secret stopped selling the bathing suit under pressure from Buddhist groups. That said, I would be extremely alarmed if a religious group - of any faith - were as successful in blocking the publication or sale of a book it found offensive e.g. The Satanic Verses, Shivaji: A Hindu King in Islamic India or Ganesha: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings. Do I hold books and bikinis to different standards? Guilty as charged. (My eyes prefer books that are substantial and bikinis that are not.)
Ryan Overbey aka sanskritboy credits the offense Buddhists took to Buddhist misogyny, which only holds water if the Buddhists who took offense at this garment would not also take offense at, for example, condoms or mens' underwear decorated with the Buddha's image.

Buddha images are created all the time. On tapestries, handkerchiefs, and so forth. I've seen westerners use them as cool decorations, as sarongs, as floormats [which violates the etiquette for the handling of Buddha images] for the inside of tents . My interest in the Victoria's Secret situation is that the response to what is perfectly normal Western treatment of Buddha images is suddenly amplified- and I think the key is that it is specifically a product for a female body, and the female body in its sexual aspect is regarded as disgusting, taboo, dangerous....[W]hat Buddhist principles distinguish a bikini from a statue or a tapestry?
Though a women's swimsuit may well be just a material object with all the impermanence thereof, it is nonetheless intended to incite lust by underlining the sexuality of the female body (not that I'm complaining, mind you). Which begs the response, "The intent to inspire lust is not inherent to the Tankini, which is nothing more than a 'selfless aggregate of forms' with no intrinsic purpose. Responsibility for lust, or offense for that matter, ultimately lies with the individual experiencing it."
So the merit associated with the production of a Buddha image flows not automatically from the creation of the image, but from a conjunction of action and intention? Interesting.
The relationship between merit, intent and consequence is one of the oldest, most profound and most central issues in ethics. Neither a sophistic - though characteristically Buddhist - denial of essentialism nor an individual's ultimately absolute responsibility for his own emotions renders irrelevant the provocative intent behind the revealing design of the Asian Floral Tankini. That intent runs directly counter to Gautama Buddha's admonitions against allowing one passions to be aroused. Though depicting the Buddha on Marisa Miller's - Marisa Miller? Are you sure that's not Gisele Bundchen? Please examine this close-up of the Buddha image, if you don't mind.
Uh, no, I don't mind.                               
Heavenly MountainThe attributes with which Ms. Miller is blessed are more generous than the comparatively modest - though undeniable - gifts of Ms. Bundchen. That this depiction of the Buddha is so, ah, chubby is a strong indication that these are indeed Ms. Miller's talents are at work.
*ahem*As I was saying, though depicting the Buddha on Marisa Miller's indisputably tantalizing form (I'm concentrating on the image of the Buddha, I swear!) makes for an interesting test of equanimity, the intent to titillate contradicts the Buddhist abnegation of lust, thereby rendering the depiction of the Buddha on a swimsuit highly inappropriate.

Ryan is particularly amused at the reaction of one Phien Dinh Nguyen of Vancouver, Canada.
I saw what had happened to the Talibans in Afghanistan. They ignored advice from many people and organizations around the world and took on the task of destroying the two most ancient statutes of Buddha. Where are they now? Buddhist teachings encourage moderate views. That does not mean you can insult millions of Buddhists with such a degrading act.
Wow. The Taliban weren't destroyed because they harbored Al Qaeda. They were destroyed because they did a number on the Buddhist statues at Bamiyan! And a similar fate awaits those who desecrate icons!
I'm no scholar of Buddhism (nor do I consider myself fully a Buddhist any longer) but that characterization of events is entirely consistent with the theory of karma.
My question is whether people are [uncritically conflating their] individual cultural prejudices with "Buddhism" writ large.
That's an important question which I myself have wrestled with in the past. For example, it's been noted by many beside me how Western followers of Buddhism, who tend to political progressivism, are either unaware of the differences between Buddhist doctrine and their political stances or tacitly allow the latter to supersede the former.

Ryan shares with radical feminists a fixation with the shadows of an encroaching patriarchy that is just as parochial to university-educated Westerners as the misogyny he's trying to raise awareness of in the Buddhist world. Somehow I don't see the irrational unfounded cultural prejudice against onions, garlic, leek, chives and shallots grafted onto Buddhism provoking the same ire in Ryan. Besides, don't women in developing countries have more immediate problems than not being allowed direct physical contact with monks?
[W]e can study Buddhist philosophical systems and deep thinkers out the wazoo, but it really doesn't mean much when dealing with the real world.
That's because ideals of any religion are notoriously difficult to live up to perfectly in the "real world"; Buddhism, with its emphasis on emotional states, perhaps more so than other religions. Humans are creatures of hunger, thirst and horniness; we are mortal beings who come into this world literally attached to other mortal beings. Can any parent honestly say that he is free from attachment to his children, that his compassion for each and every living thing is no less than his love for his own flesh and blood? Does any parent who could say those things really deserve to be called a parent? That the moon is beyond our grasp should not keep us from pointing to it so long as we never confuse the finger for the moon.

*If you think that this post is a merely an excuse to link that photo, you'd only be partially right.

Images via the wily filipino and the Buddhist News Network, respectively

Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien