January 31, 2012

Buddha Toilet Brush Holder

My friend Hang posted these photos on Facebook earlier today.

She wrote, “This is so wrong! A toilet bowl cleaner with images of Buddha, at Bed Bath & Beyond. This item is called Buddakhan!”

I was nervous about posting these photos for fear of attracting comments that trivialize my friend’s reaction. Our indignation is often met with dismissals from Buddhists who argue that we shouldn’t be offended. The logic is that the symbol of the Buddha is simply an artistic motif, nothing more. Since there was (presumably) no intent to offend on behalf of the manufacturer, then there can be no offense. But to accept this argument in full is to suggest that we live in a world of rights without responsibility. People can say or do whatever they like, and the reactions of others do not matter.

I am reminded of a recent news story from Brooklyn, where a Korean jewelry store owner pulled swastika earrings from the shelves in the face of protest from a Jewish councilman. Of course, the owner could have kept the earrings on display—and I would have defended her right to do so—but she instead chose the path of responsibility. Although the earrings were not shaped the same as the Nazi swastika, the owner recognized the symbol’s power to incite offense, and she acted accordingly.

Using the Buddha to line a receptacle for holding and draining a toilet brush is a more clear-cut matter. The Buddha is widely recognized as a religious figure. A toilet brush is meant to clean away feces, grime, urine, and slime. It doesn’t take a genius to identify where offense might arise. Buddhists certainly should not feel obliged to feel offense, but one should have understanding and compassion for those who do.

And for heavens’ sake, Bed Bath & Beyond should stop selling this nonsense.

Update: Bed Bath & Beyond’s response to a reader’s email:

Thank you for your email. The Buddhakan Toilet Brush Holder has all ready been dropped from our inventory, and is no longer available in our stores.

14 comments:

  1. Every time this comes up (remember the shoes around the statue's neck?) somebody says "Get over it"

    I wonder how they would feel if someone:

    -used their grandparent's picture to wipe mud off their shoes or
    -put a cigarette out inside their kid's bronzed baby shoe or
    -burnt their country's flag in front of them or
    -pissed on the tree they planted to commemorate something special or
    -used the logo of their alma mater or image of their hockey hero in some kind of rude cartoon or
    -put offensive graffiti all over the front of their favorite coffee shop or

    many other examples,depending upon what objects or situations these individuals hold in some esteem and/or have meaning for them, the reaction would be one of offense. It's all just meaningless stuff from one viewpoint, sure. Putting that kind of spin on it though renders life completely nihilistic and meaningless. And there are a few who seem to think that's what Buddhism is all about.

    On another more personal or human level it's insensitive at the very least. When it's deliberate, designed and done for profit, it becomes far more offensive.

    I don't know what can be done to bring some empathy into those reactions. Or some thought into the process before offering these kinds of products.

    As for the item itself, it's not available on their website. They are probably aware that it would garner some negative response if it were accessible globally.

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  2. As a practical matter, companies are bone-headed to make something like this...but...

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  3. It wouldn't bother me if they also sold similar items with Jesus, Mohammad, Abraham or Moses, Ghandi, Brahmma, or even MLK. But the fact that they do not really raises an interesting question as to how does this perception arise that it is ok to use the Buddha but not these other figures? Why do these product designers instinctively see offense in using these other figures, but not with the Buddha?

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    1. I'm a devoted Buddhist, not in a religious sense, but in a spiritual sense, and I hold the Buddha in my heart, take refuge in Him and what he taught. On a practical and superficial level, I agree with you. My first reaction was, WTF. But I remember his teachings, and realized, everything will continue to be the way they are, but what makes them different is how we react to them and the way in which they are perceived. Sure, I was a little upset, but this isn't a life/death situation, it's not harming anyone, and certainly isn't a permanent instance. One thing to remember is, what others do is their karma, what you do, and how you respond to them is your own. You can only be responsible for you own actions. What these companies do for profit is certainly perturbing and distructive at times, but unless there is a viable, nonviolent solution, it does one no good to focus on them. Reach and change within yourself and your own community. Always strive to improve yourself to eliminate ignorance, which is the cause of suffering. As for Richard Harrold's comment, comparing the various Englightened religious figures is ignorant. I can tell you that that comment came from the ego, not the heart.
      Love and blessings,
      Julie

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  4. It strikes me that Buddha has become little more than a marketing strategy in the eyes of folks like the designers of these items. Odds are that they probably didn't even consider the idea that someone might be offended, or believed that any offense would be minimal in comparison to the profits to be had. Two reasons why this is occurring, in my view, is the way in which Buddhism is often not considered a religion, and also the ways in which elements of practice, such as meditation, have been secularized. It's all pretty troubling.

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  5. I just wrote the BB store an email describing my shock at their total disregard for the feelings of millions of Buddhists and meditation practitioners who hold Buddha in high esteem. It is certainly not a good business ethics or customer service practice.

    I am not going to patronize them until they remove the product. They are supposed to answer within 2 days. It is too late here to call. As an activist I have seen early protests from different locations works well. You can too
    https://www.bedbathandbeyond.com/contactUs.asp?

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  6. A monk once asked Ummon, "What is the Buddha?" Ummon answered thus: "A dried shit-stick!"

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  7. Just bow to the Buddha. That's the right spirit. Than clean your toilet. And wipe your own ass (Sawaki Roshi).

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  8. I am glad that people said something and that the item has been removed. I agree that many companies seem to wrongly think that images of Buddha are a cute marketing gimmick, but the trivializing of one of the Three Jewels is not trivial. The Vinaya is full of stories of the Buddha upbraiding monks and nuns because they did things that would cause people to have less esteem for the Three Jewels. The Buddha did not and really could not upbraid laypeople but there was a practice of "turning over one's bowl" wherein monks and nuns would not accept alms from householders who did things to disrupt or bring discredit upon the monastic Sangha.

    As for Zen iconoclasm, that may have its place but that place was within a context of full time monastic practice by people who 99% of the time followed a very disciplined and pious lifestyle. That is why statement's like Ummon's (Or Lin-chi's "kill the Buddha") were shocking. They were meant to shock the sensibilities of otherwise pious and complacent full time monastic practitioners. But this is not how they operated most of the time. A teacher who (presumably) is using a drastic form of skillful means once in a while in the context of rigorous cultivation is very different from a general attitude of nonchalance and even disrespect. I think non-practitioners don't see this - thus you end up with BBB using images of the Buddha in the way they did.

    Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,
    Ryuei

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  9. This comes a bit late, but I wrote a post last fall describing the work of an academic here in the UK who specializes on advertising and religion. I have a couple images there, but according to her, the use of Christian imagery is practically ubiquitous in contemporary advertising, especially the biblical imagery of Adam's 'temptation' (apples, snakes, women). For the number of practitioners it has in the West, Buddhism gets disproportionate attention, but other religions and religious figures definitely find their way into advertising as well.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/americanbuddhist/2011/11/tantric-sex-and-kissing-nuns-video.html

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  10. I scoff at those who apparently worship the Buddha and not the principles he conveyed.

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    1. "Right back atcha!"

      Well, that would be a futile gesture since I am not an adherent to any religion, sect, cult or any form or type of religion.

      An open-minded agnostic who has undertaken a decades-long inspection and studies of a plethora of religions.

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    2. Oh Scott, I meant nothing more sophisticated than that I scoff at you, which follows from the generic usage of that colloquialism. I thought you would be smart enough to see that (especially given that the broader elliptical reading is self-evidently infelicitous in light of your first comment), but it wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong.

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