By Ivana Wijedasa, class of ‘22
Art is a significant component of many religions: from the geometric patterns along the walls of mosques and the golden crafted statues of Hindu gods to the stained glass windows of churches. However, the art belonging to Buddhism has become a source of decoration for non-believers, especially in Western countries. For example, you have likely seen a statue of Lord Buddha on a friend’s desk or a poster hanging with a meditative image of Buddha saying, “Let that sh** go.”
Having a Buddhist mother and a Catholic father, I’ve questioned why aspects of Buddhism have become a part of popular culture and home decor for non-believers while symbols of Christianity and other religions have not. My observations have led me to wonder: What is the popular appeal in displaying the arts of Buddhism? Is Buddhist art as home decor a form of appropriation? Today we view art as something to be enjoyed by the general public, but perhaps, in the case of religious iconography and art, only practitioners of the religion and those who understand its intricacies should be allowed to display these forms of art.
The visual appearance and the fundamental values that Buddhist art represents appeal to people. The mandala, a symbolic image of the universe in Tibetan Buddhism, is displayed on tapestries hanging on dorm walls of non-Buddhist students. It consists of intricate circular patterns, geometric patterns, and symbols, including a lotus flower, wheel, or sun to represent balance or a perfect universe. Mandalas are a meditation tool to transform ordinary minds into enlightened ones and to assist with healing. They are not just an exotic form of art to be displayed carelessly. If a non-Buddhist uses a mandala as decoration, there should be both respect and understanding of its meaning.
The most common religious iconographic image found displayed in the homes of non-believers is the statue of Lord Buddha. For many, the appeal in this artistic icon stems from a vague understanding of Buddhism as a peaceful religion that emphasizes meditation and enlightenment. For others, the statue of Lord Buddha only holds aesthetic appeal as a form of trendy decoration. The typical statue features Lord Buddha sitting with his legs crossed and his hands in various positions ranging from down on his lap or together as if praying. In Buddhism, each stance of Lord Buddha has meaning; most importantly, the statue represents the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the Lord Buddha. For example, the sitting pose of Lord Buddha represents teaching, meditation, or an attempt to reach enlightenment. On the other hand, the standing stance of Lord Buddha represents a rise from meditation to teach the Four Noble Truths or to repel conflict.
Artists created the first icons of Lord Buddha centuries after the death of Siddhartha, and they did not represent his physical attributes accurately. Instead, each image represents the spirit of the teachings of Buddha. These teachings include beliefs in reincarnation, karma, a refrain from harming all living creatures, and the practice of meditation to achieve an enlightened state of mind. Therefore, there is so much more to the artistic elements of Buddhism that get lost when used simply as decor.
My mom is Buddhist and has expressed her unease with the sacred objects of her religion being used as home decor by people who have no knowledge of Buddhist teachings. Art is deeply ingrained in religion and is a tangible form to represent what is often intangible such as the universe, gods, or teachings. In navigating the consumption of art, the meaning of religious icons and symbols should be thoroughly understood and align with one’s values before being displayed. In addition, we should be conscientious of how Western culture appropriates different elements of Buddhism such as meditation. It is crucial to understand what Buddhism is and what its symbols represent so that there is an appreciation for the faith when it is displayed.
Perkins, McKenzie. “Buddha Statues: Meaning of Postures and Poses.” Learn Religions. January 13, 2020. https://www.learnreligions.com/buddha-statues-meaning-of-postures-and-poses-4781351
Piontko, Lauren. “Buddhism is my religion, not your decorations.” The Temple News. September 5, 2017. https://temple-news.com/buddhism-religion-not-decorations/
“Sacred mandala.” BBC. November 23, 2009. https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/customs/mandala.shtml
“What is a Mandala? History, Symbolism, and Uses.” Invaluable. December 18, 2019. https://www.invaluable.com/blog/what-is-a-mandala/