June 20, 2017

Hegel And The Buddha in Popular Culture and Art, Part 2 (Dion Peoples)

The following is the second part of a two-part series.  The first installment can be found here.

The Dhamma, when told to someone, conditions the mind of the artist, who then becomes conditioned and forms ideas according to his biases or other preferences.  Hegel writes in the Phenomenology of Mind: “…spirit produces such a shape for itself… when the shape has gained the form of self-conscious activity, the artificer has become a spiritual workman.”(412)

The Dhamma that the artist practices, shapes the artist’s mind and behaviors, and the expressions are later depicted through material used and how it is configured for presentation, but Hegel argues: “The notion of spirt has to be insisted on…”(416), because it is unclear to many guests viewing the work or configuration. Hegel reminds you: “…the animated work is not on the same level as himself…”(417) Whatever is contrived or configured will never be up to par with even the best intentions of the artist. We as guests might think a work is perfect, but the artist themselves know the exact locations of the imperfections – of course any skilled eye can locate the flaws. The learned and skilled mind can locate the decay-level in Dhamma- dissemination.

People would respect the Dhamma presented more, if the artist took more effort to remain loyal to the intention of the Dhamma – or of they could properly justify the perversions.  In Hegel’s view, “people may, moreover, judge the work, bring it offerings and gifts, or endue it with their consciousness in whatever way they like – if they with their knowledge set themselves over it, he knows how much more his act is than what they understand and say; if they put themselves beneath it, and recognize in it their own dominating essential reality, he knows himself as the master of this.”(417)  People can like what they want to like, and hate what they want to hate.  Opinionated people with loud voices may get heard first. Right or wrong, it becomes the thought of the people.

People would love art in books or temple-walls; but, people think art on skin is horrible. People can google (search the internet) for “Buddha Tattoo”, as an example, and judge and see for themselves the art, paying the artist to replicate the art (art thrice removed from originality – the normal imagined Buddha, the artist composing the drawing, that later is replicated as close as possible by the tattoo-artist), and the wearer/bearer of the tattoo claims the Buddha has such and such meaning for them, which may be far removed from what the Buddha is for traditional-Buddhists who choose not to tattoo themselves with and varying rendition of the Buddha’s appearances. None of these are entirely accurate depictions of the historical-Buddha. Some appear as sectarian renditions. Judge for yourself here.

Some countries want to prohibit certain people from getting tattoos of the Buddha with the implication that foreigners only get Buddha-tattoos for the sake of fashion, and not out of respect for the religious tradition. The person spoken to in the article suggests that some tattoos are offensive, and some may even be placed in offensive locations. Some people get the Buddha tattooed on their feet, again a basic internet search for Buddha Tattoo Foot.  Sri Lanka , Myanmar, and Thailand want to prohibit tourists from being either in the country with a Buddha-tattoo, or forbid them getting tattoos within their country.

Who then is making the determination that the ink on skin is offensive?  Who is interpreting the art and the insensitivities? Who is generating the public opinion and arousing the populace to be against ‘art’? Is it the media, public affairs divisions, comment-section in newspapers and websites?  Who knows, and not everyone may care?

Does anyone care to ask the wearer of the art about the intentional placement.  Is anyone listening to the language conveyed to the judging-authority?  Or does the judging-authority have the capacity to comprehend the foreign-language? Hegel suggests: “This higher element is that of Language – a way of existing which is directly self-conscious existence. …the language used is… the speech of an alien and external self-consciousness. The self-consciousness which remains alien and foreign to its religious communion.”(417-18)

Higher than the Dhamma (although it is universal law) is language.  Language is the vehicle for the Dhamma. We would not know what the universal law is, if we could not articulate the details. There are numerous ways to express oneself. Ideas are expressed through the language.  Both the subconscious and consciousness use this language. If an American-European, or an African-American, or Asian-European wanted a tattoo of the Buddha, they are likely to get one regardless of authoritarian bans in some foreign land.

It is art, it has meaning, and it is a symbol for something. What is being judged? The person wearing the piece, or the details in the art, or the location of the art? What is the real violation? There are Asians with swastikas tattooed on them.  Are they prohibited from entering Israel or places where the Nazi-Party is banned? Do Asians have to prove the emblem isn’t a symbolic reference to Nazis, after all, many school-children have no issue with propagating Nazi-ideology. Again, a basic internet search for Nazi Thailand, reveals these images.  An author thought enough about the ethics of the issue and blogged about it.

According to Hegel, “the cult of the religion of art is an ethically constituted nation, knowing its State and the acts of the State to be the will and the achievement of its own self. This universal spirit, confronting the self-conscious nation. …but it is only their universal ultimate Being and the dominating imperious power, wherein they disappear… they are the nation of their god. It secures for them merely their stable subsistence… it does not secure for them their actual self…. They revere their god as the empty profound.”(422)

Hegel implies that there is a respect for art and there are legalities around art, due to the sacred- value of the art and the artist transmitting the designs. Foreigners though are ignorant to these ideas and only aim to procure a design as if a drug is missing from their life’s experience. Some people who get tattoos don’t even remember why they got some piece done, so the meaning is lost for some pieces. Likewise, we can look at any picture and think that was a waste of paint.

A Buddhist country could place demands on visiting-foreigners (xenophobia), and has no issue, as Sulak Sivaraksa notes, with writing books about these fascist-dictators and Nazi-imagery. University students use this imagery in their parades and protests and are clearly aware that resurrecting this art will cause controversy. It is calculated and disguised as ignorance.

Advocates of this art, which induces painful memories of suffering to millions across the globe, mask their intent by trying to mollify frustrated outsiders with the claim that the swastikas have Buddhist and Hindu meanings, and that they are ideas that existed in the country for centuries before the Nazis picked up on them.  In short, excuses are made, and people continue about their daily routines. The swastikas are art, and they invoked to stir political debate. Is it art for the people, or art for emboldening the student-ego? How far removed is Nazi symbolism from the Buddhadhamma?

While there are apparent connections between politics and Buddhist people beyond being involved or engaged socially with aspects of civil life, there is also conflict with the way Buddhists see themselves in terms of identity. There are a few popular magazines that try to bring variations of Buddhism to the American public, publishing their material online and in print.  There are published articles and rebuttals on “whiteness” in the Sangha, and refutations of these authors have been severe.

When people have taken Buddhism out of its context, they have culturally appropriated Buddhism, or the message of the Buddha, and twisted his ideas for the sake of their own whims and defend or justify their perversion of the message. Some attack the Buddhist premise of “refuge taking”. The assessment of art is always ideological.

Art is not only ideological, but comedic.  Buddhist-inspired music can be found occasionally in popular American culture.  Two references come to mind. NWA, in their song Express Yourself, sing: “I get straight and meditate like a Buddhist.” The Beastie Boys have their song on the Bodhisatva Vow. There are parody rappers like Arj Barker’s Sickest Buddhist that parallel all of the real and insulting things that white America would do when in a Buddhist setting.  The video can be found here. Barker is seen on the far left, smoking and blowing smoke in the air, in this screen-shot from his disrespectful video (intentionally, because it is a parody).

Barker’s parody of Western Buddhists is interpretatively insulting.  Some people think that stretching exercises are Buddhist, but yoga was never something done in the Buddhist monastery, even though it was practiced in other temples perhaps. Modern health suggests we need more activity in our stationary lives, since our desk jobs are hazardous to our well-being. In some temples, though, enough activity is done for the body by going for alms food early in the morning and sweeping the temple compound in the afternoons, between periods of meditation and textual-studies.

Yoga as a system of stretching makes the body more flexible, and as a result has many health benefits. However, yoga is not entirely Buddhist, and should not really be associated with Buddhism. Some people will argue that there are yoga poses found in statues or paintings on many temple walls and grounds, but is that Buddhist or just general health and wellness advice?

Alternatively, some people may interpret a statue of the Buddha sitting under the coiled Naga in one way, while another thinks nothing more of the image than the base level presentation, rather than any re-presentation. The particular value that we can gain from such images as Buddhist culture is influenced by the traditions that preceded ours, and it is from those traditions that our own Buddhist traditions emerged. Today, we are left with a hybrid and syncretic idealism.  Scholars are still sorting out proper ideas and methods.  There are some organizations that actively seek to educate ignorant people on the proper usage of Buddha images. New consortia such as the Knowing Buddha Organization and the 5000s Organization place their posters around many tourist places, in multiple languages.

Knowing Buddha promotes the appropriate use of the Buddha as represented in material form. The group is against the use of the Buddha in places that serve alcohol and are against images of the Buddha used in music videos. Again, South and Southeast Asian nations ban international artists from their country if tattoos or other perceived wrong uses of the Buddha is determined to be inappropriate.  Akon was banned from performing in Sri Lanka because of this image found in a video.

There is also an effort to clear up art created by pornography firms. Many adult entertainment or pornography producers try to feature a Buddha statue in their sets when filming movies featuring an Asian woman pornstar, as if just putting an image there qualifies as an authentic Asian scene. Sometimes the production outfit neglects to utilize an Asian woman, and uses a Hispanic woman instead .  Or the scene is a fake massage parlor, or some other contrived setting to generate a sense of calm and relaxation.  Many people could consider the adult entertainment industry to be highly ignorant and racist, when it comes to featuring the diverse global ethnicities with various religions or social guidance systems.

What is one lesson to be learned from all this? One personal lesson was taught to me over a decade ago, for instance, when performing sexual activities with my wife, who will never engage in reproductive-attempts with me in a room where there is a Buddha-image. She refuses when a Buddha-image is present. She told me: “Not here…”, and of course I asked why? She taught me this cultural aspect of Thai Buddhism or enforces this perspective that is not gained from reading the Tipitaka.

Although the Buddha-statue is stone, he is determined to be alive, since many Buddha-statues are charged with sacred power, as adherents believe. She, a very good and strong Buddhist woman, is fully conscious and respectful of Buddha images, and would never have sex in a room where there is a Buddha image. Likewise, no one would have sex in front of a monk or the Buddha.

People take their togetherness to the confines of their own bedroom or other private location. It is likely that these performance actors are not Buddhists, are just being paid for their performance, and do not mind if they are shameless or disrespectful.  It is part of the role they are playing.  Buddha-statues are used as props, to generate a mood, to espouse some ideology. Derrida suggests that “feelings of the mind, expressing things naturally, constitute a sort of universal language which can then efface itself.”(11) The works created are art, aspects of an artist, and are intentional. Producers and viewers of such forms of media may never learn the right way to present a Buddha-statue, and may never know what the proper altar-display looks like , thereby creating bad-art.

The Knowing Buddha organization is doing good work, but more work needs to be done elsewhere to educate people on the proper uses of Buddha statues and other Buddhist works of art. Condemning missteps is one thing, but educating and presenting proper ways, and behaving properly is a true representation of Buddhist ideals, and often a proper contextualization may be necessary, or an apology, or a retraction by the artist becomes necessary after they have been re-educated.

Buddha-images should be taught to interior designers and architecture schools.  They should respect proper cultural ethics and morality, when replicating a scene. What was more shocking recently was the recent crime conducted where a Buddha-statue was used to stab an assailant. The flame-tipped head of the Buddha was used as a weaponized spike.

All artists have their conditioned imperfections and biases. We have to be more conscious of our presentation of our Great Teacher – the Buddha Gotama. His words are contained in the Tipitaka. Buddhists need to read and examine the Tipitaka in order to know the contents for themselves. Our artists, knowing Dhamma, and producing works for Buddhists that inspire the masses to embrace and perform better, in Buddhist ways, would be more meaningful, as Mao already highlighted.

Buddhism emerged from other traditions, but did not immediately change their system of art.  When Buddhist arts began to flourish into a wonderful new culture, it was because of its adaptations from acquiring foreign elements to seamlessly move forward. Buddhism did not grow because of itself, only through adapting to local traditions and eventually replacing the native belief system.

We have to also learn about the ugliness of our civil-society and think for ourselves, and see through any attempts at censorship.  Censorship damages interpretation.  Someone else’s interpretation inhibits our own perceptions. Even though we are Buddhists today, we can use the Buddhist tradition to purify our own Buddhist culture, because some elements have gone astray, through decay.

The masses ought to know for themselves what is right or wrong, and do not need to be dictated to, and are thus forced to accept an interpretation.  Censorship is anti-democratic, and people should be mature enough to handle what goes into their own sense-doors, and do not need protected from an ideological agency. People are intelligent enough to make their own choices, if properly inculcated in some code of ethics, often the very one everyone goes through during their childhood period of mandatory schooling.

Dr. Dion Peoples is a lecturer in the Faculty of Buddhism at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University, Thailand.

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