Here's what I learned about respecting Buddha and Buddhism from my travels in Thailand - and what we've been doing wrong in America!
I don’t claim to be an expert on Buddhism and I am not a Buddhist myself. These thoughts are my personal understanding about what it means to respect Buddha and I hope this article can encourage you to deepen your own personal understanding.
“Respect is Common Sense”
I have to admit that I was in for a bit of a shock when I arrived at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. This was my first trip to Asia, and I was so excited to be traveling somewhere so far (both geographically and culturally!) from my New York home. I had an idea of what to expect based on other blogs and Pinterest pictures I’d seen, but something completely unexpected happened as we were waiting to exit the airport.
While waiting to get our passports checked for entry into Thailand, there were multiple TVs playing what looked like an infomercial over and over again. It was about Buddha, and the message this video was drilling home was, “respect is common sense.” It was spoken, it was written, it was translated all over these TVs – “respect is common sense.” The video went on to show all sorts of examples of how Buddha was used wrongfully in social culture, such as in household decorations or as tattoos.
Wrongful Use of Buddha’s Image
I’d honestly never felt more ignorant in my entire life. My mind became flooded with images of Buddha candle holders and pillowcases from maybe one too many trips to Homegoods. How is it possible that our American society (and other Western societies too) could be so ignorant to this seemingly very important aspect of Thai culture? Do we really just not care that much?
While I did feel ignorant and even ashamed, I felt grateful as well. I was so thankful for those airport TVs because they prepared me to visit Thailand as a respectful and responsible tourist. Like, prepared me right before we walked into the country. It opened my eyes to the very sacred nature of Buddhism, which is practiced by 95% of Thais(!), and the ways in which I could learn about it and appreciate it without being offensive.
Visiting Temples in Thailand
When in Thailand, you can (and should) certainly visit Buddhist temples. Did you know there are over 40,000 of them in Thailand alone?! It would be almost impossible not to stop into at least one. They can provide great insight into the religion, and they are absolutely stunning pieces of architecture too!
Here are just a few things to keep in mind when visiting Buddhist temples so that you can be as respectful as possible:
1. Wear appropriate clothing
Most, if not all, temples will have some sort of a dress code, though some may be stricter than others. A good rule of thumb when planning on visiting temples is to make sure your shoulders and knees are covered. Wear pants or a full-length skirt/dress, and carry a light scarf to wrap around your shoulders and chest if necessary.
2. Be mindful of your photography
Understand that photography may not be allowed at certain temples. In my experience, I’ve found that most temples allow photography with the exception of a few “restricted areas.” If you are unsure about where or when it is appropriate to take photos, just ask somebody! And when taking photos, just be aware of your surroundings; make sure to not photograph any worshippers. Which brings me to my next point…
3. Be mindful of worshippers
While temples are open to tourists, they’re more than just a tourist attraction - they’re actual places of worship! Respecting the specific areas dedicated to worship is crucial – after all, “respect is common sense!” Limit your noise level and use of photography, and be mindful of those worshipping. Remember that as a tourist, you are a guest in another culture, and it's only right to act as such.
Respecting Buddha Back Home
It’s one thing to be culturally sensitive when traveling, but it’s another thing to take what you learned abroad back home with you. Once you return home from your trip, don’t let that airport-televised message escape you. Here’s a quick list of things to keep in mind in regard to respectful usage of Buddha’s image.
1. Do not treat Buddha as merchandise
I was initially confused by this concept because I noticed a number of shops in Thailand selling Buddha figurines. It seemed to contradict absolutely everything. But it turns out that it actually doesn’t! Because these figurines are intended for practicing Buddhists who will purchase them to use as part of routine worship in temples or shrines.
I know that it may be tempting to use Buddha to zen-ify (that is indeed a made-up word) your home, but it would be inappropriate to purchase a figurine to use simply as a decorative object.
2. Do not use Buddha’s name for anything other than himself
Naming anything after Buddha, whether it be your dog or the name of your new vegan restaurant, is considered disrespectful. And yes, this also applies to the Pinterest-famous “Buddha Bowls."
3. Do not use Buddha as a tattoo
While essentially all of the reasons already mentioned apply to tattoos as well, there are a couple particular nuances associated with Buddha tattoos. These nuances actually tell us a lot about the practice of Buddhism, and I find them really fascinating. Here are a few of those beliefs and why they make Buddha tattoos disrespectful:
The body is dirty
Buddha was considered clean inside and out, and Buddhists constantly work to achieve cleanliness of the mind and body. But this cleanliness is kind of an unachievable goal, considering no bodies will ever be as clean as Buddha’s. So placing an image of Buddha on what is universally considered dirty, is considered a lack of respect.
The Buddha image should be placed in a high place
Buddha’s image should be placed above you, which is simply not possible when his image is on your body.
Your body may engage in acts considered improper
These acts include engaging in sexual activities or fighting.
Did anything on this list come as a surprise to you? I think what came as the biggest shock to me was that Buddha figurines are supposed to be used in worship and never as household decorations. What I’d considered a decoration for basically my whole life is actually a very sacred piece of a popular religion.
Let me know your personal thoughts in the comments below!