(Mis)using Buddhist Imagery in Advertising

Mavi jeans - in Tibetan
Mavi jeans – in Tibetan

A couple days ago I was out shopping for new jeans. As I was going through the selection at our local Nordstrom Rack, I came across this pair, made by Mavi. Yes, that’s Tibetan script decorating the back of a pair of jeans.  When I was in college, lots of t-shirts used Chinese characters for decoration (usually in really bad fonts).  Now I suppose its Tibetan’s turn in the spotlight: Tibetan tattoos are all over the place, I’ve seen Tibetan on t-shirts, and now it’s being used on the butt of a pair of jeans. All seemingly to little point: there’s certainly nothing ‘Tibetan’ about these jeans, and I doubt that most people would have any clue the script is Tibetan at all.  Certainly the designer, or whoever decided to turn the ཟ into an ‘m,’ had no idea what they were doing.  At least they used some decent calligraphy.

While it might not make the jeans any more ‘Tibetan,’ use of Tibetan script to decorate someone’s ass certainly has the power to offend. About ten years ago I attended a series of empowerments given by Trulshik Rinpoché in Kathmandu. I would carry my seating cushion back and forth from my apartment everyday in a canvas back from The New Tibet Book Store, which happened to have some Tibetan writing on it. In order to save time, I would just leave the cushion in the bag when I got to the empowerments, sitting on the whole thing. After a couple days, a monk who sat beside asked me to take the cushion out of the bag before I sat. The Tibetan script on the bag, he explained, was sacred (even though it did not say anything religious), and it was inappropriate to treat it disrespectfully by sitting on it. His remonstrance was quite kind, and I happily complied. I don’t have to think too hard to know what he would think if he saw these jeans.  I wonder if the Mavi marketing department thinks the aesthetic value of the Tibetan script is worth it?

Buddha Bowl - Enlightening Snacks
Buddha Bowl: Enlightening Snacks?

Nor are Mavi jeans the only such example of the potential mis-use of Tibetan or Buddhist imagery in advertising. While driving through Virginia this summer, Eliza and I found this bag of popcorn in a Wegman’s grocery store. According to their website, it “exemplifies the true meaning of simple snacking.” I think that’s supposed to sound Buddhist-y. Over at the Columbus Zoo, Buddha statues and prayer flags are used to decorate the dinosaur boat ride. I’m not sure what the connection here is; I guess the Buddhist imagery is supposed to give the ride an exotic flair.

Some of you may recall the Keds scandal from a few years back. Apparently, someone (not actually Keds, but sold under the Keds brand) produced a bunch of canvas Keds sneakers with images of the Buddha, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and the Tibetan flag. Presumably, said person did not know that in many parts of Asia, the feet are considered unclean. oops. The sacred imagery on shoes caused great consternation among many of my Tibetan friends. People were shocked. Angry letters were written to the folks at Keds. There was talk on Facebook of boycotting all Keds products. Two days after the story broke, Kristin Kohler Burrow, then the president of Keds, issued an apology, removing the offensive shoes from the websites and ‘sincerely apologizing for any discomfort.’ Keds clearly meant no disrespect. Nor do Mavi Jeans, LesserEvil (makes of Buddha Bowl popcorn), the Columbus Zoo or any of the other companies who have used Buddhist imagery to promote themselves. They simply had no idea that what they were doing could be considered offensive. As Robert Mayer pointed out during the Keds imbroglio, you can go to a western wear store online and see lots of pairs of cowboy boots with crosses on them (try here, here and here). Presumably there are lots of Christian cowboys out there that don’t find these offensive.

Dalai Lama Sneakers - image via Phayul
Dalai Lama Sneakers – image via Phayul

So here are my questions: What responsibility do companies have to make their products non-offensive? If no offense is meant, does that mean that none should be taken? Do we—academics, but also informed people in general—have a responsibility to alert companies when we feel their products might cause offense?

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this.  If you have opinions, please make use of the comments section below!

Defining Vegetarianism in Tibet

When I first started researching vegetarianism in Tibet, some colleagues warned me that vegetarianism in Tibet would be very different than vegetarianism in the U.S. After doing this for a few years now, it seems like high time to come back and confront this issue by laying out and defining how I’ve come to understand Tibetan vegetarianism. This is not a new project (the specific definition below was part of my presentation at IATS this past summer), and this post is not at all meant to be the final word on the matter. On the contrary, I’m putting this up on the blog in the hopes that others will critique, and thereby enhance, the definition I’m proposing. So, please, correct my mistakes in the comments below!

With that in mind, I would tentatively define vegetarianism in Tibet as the combination of two criteria:

1) The individual or group in question understands eating meat to be wrong in some way (as I’ll discuss below, this does not have to be an ethical, or even religious decision).

2) Based on that understanding, the individual or group modifies their diet by either reducing or eliminating meat.

The first part of this definition functions to eliminate what we might call ‘unintentional’ vegetarianism. If someone is too poor to afford meat, for instance, they might not eat it even though they would like to. By my definition this would not qualify as vegetarianism. A more complicated possibility would be someone who refuses meat on cultural grounds, but without any actual conviction that meat eating is wrong. Perhaps such a person belongs to a caste that is traditionally vegetarian. A member of this community might refuse meat out of allegiance to caste norms, but might not actually be convinced that eating meat is wrong in and of itself. Such an individual would not be considered a vegetarian by my definition, though this may be something of a moot point, as I have never encountered or heard of someone like this in Tibet.

On the other hand, the first part of this definition is intended to be broad enough to encompass motivations beyond Buddhist ethics. While Buddhist inspired concerns have certainly dominated discussions of vegetarianism in Tibet, other motivations are present, particularly in the modern period. Examples of this include environmental concerns or concerns over ritual purity. Further, even within Buddhism, the concern is not always with the suffering of the animal: for some Tibetan monks, the primary motivation for vegetarianism seems to be concern with breaking either their monastic vows (when these are understood to forbid meat) or their tantric vows (by, for instance, violating the wishes of a revered tantric master). In all of these cases, the individual or group understands meat to be problematic in some way, and I have tried to word my proposed definition in a way that allows for all of these varied motivations, but which still requires a specific belief that meat is wrong in some way.

The second aspect of this definition requires the individual or group in question to actually do something about their convictions. Simply believing that eating meat is problematic does not, I would argue, qualify someone as a vegetarian. They also need to take that belief and do something to alter their diet. This is important because while vegetarianism was and is rare in Tibet, many people will readily accept that eating meat is less than ideal. For most of these people, however, that conviction never gets put into practice, so I would find it hard to include them in the category of ‘vegetarians.’

The actual degree to which vegetarian ideals are implemented in daily life can vary dramatically, however, and I have tried to word the second criterion to reflect that. Some Tibetans completely reject meat, making it easy to think of them as vegetarians. For others, however, the rejection is not so complete, making the issue much less clear. If someone who rejects meat only on certain auspicious days, or only during Saga Dawa, should we consider that person to be a vegetarian? What about an individual who refuses to eat slaughtered meat, but who is happy to eat the meat of animals that have died naturally? From a definitional standpoint, this is not idle speculation: there have been quite a few Tibetans who claim to adhere to such a diet.[1] In proposing the above definition, I have tried to include all such practices. Thus, we can still think of someone as at least a partial vegetarian even if they only give up meat for a single day, or a single meal, as long as that decision was based on a conviction that meat eating is problematic (as in the first criteria above). It is here, then, than we can see one of the key distinctions between vegetarianism in Tibet and vegetarianism in the U.S. In the U.S., vegetarianism is usually thought of as a long term diet, not simply the contents of an individual meal. In Tibet, I argue, the situation is more fluid and such a definition would be too restrictive; we need to allow room for practices that are of short duration, but which are still motivated by concern over meat’s problematic nature.

Overall, the definition I am proposing is quite broad, but not so broad, I hope, as to render it meaningless. It preserves the idea that vegetarianism cannot be accidental; it must be based on a conviction that meat eating is wrong in some way. It also, I hope, preserves the idea that vegetarianism has to be an active practice. It is not enough to merely believe that meat is negative, that belief also has to manifest in practice. This, then, is the definition I propose. As I mentioned above, I put this out on the blog in the hopes that others will critique it and offer suggestions for how it could be improved. Perhaps my definition leaves out a type of practice that you think should be included, or perhaps it is over broad, including some diets that should not really be considered vegetarianism. If so, please let me know in the comments below!

[1] There have been some suggestions that claiming to adhere to such a diet is merely a euphemism for unrestricted meat consumption, and certainly that is the case in some instances. (See: Childs, “Methods, Meanings and Representations” p.2; also my discussion here) This is not the place to discuss this in detail, but suffice it to say that I believe enough Tibetan have actually adhered to this distinction—refusing all slaughtered meat but eating naturally dead meat—to justify including it here.

The Future of the Academic Blog

I just read that after four years and one thousand posts, The China Beat is shutting down. For those unfamiliar, The China Beat is (was?) an excellent blog covering modern China. Posts were written by people both inside and outside of academia, but were almost always excellent and informative. For those of us on the fringes of the blogosphere, it was something to aspire to.

As I understand it from their final goodbye post, part of the reason The China Beat is shutting down involves changing currents in the technological dissemination of information. The blog is passé, twitter and Facebook are in. I hope this is not true. Part of the idea behind blogs such as The China Beat was to bring intelligent, reasoned and supported discussion of contemporary issues beyond the walls of academia. What happens when we try to bring that discussion to twitter and Facebook? Twitter may be great for sharing news quickly, but how much intelligent commentary can you really provide in 140 characters?

I have enjoyed The China Beat, and I wish them well. For whatever it is worth, I also hope that the blog sticks around for a while longer as a viable format for disseminating ideas and provoking discussions.

How Not to Tattoo a Tibetan Mantra

I recently saw a woman in a coffee shop with om mani padme hum tattooed on her ankle (for more on this mantra, see my previous post here). There was nothing wrong with the tattoo, per se, but the placement is questionable. In many places in Asia the ground is considered dirty and ritually unclean. (This is especially true in India and Southeast Asia, but also applies in Tibet and other Buddhist areas.) Respected objects, therefore, are rarely placed on the ground, or even on low tables. Shrines and sacred images are often the highest objects in a room. The same applies to body parts, where anything below the waist is generally considered unclean or polluting. Particularly feet. Which makes feet not the best place to tattoo sacred symbols like the maṇi.

Feet are not the only inappropriate places to tattoo a respected religious symbol such as the maṇi mantra. The maṇi is about compassion, not sex (despite what you may have heard about the meaning of ’jewel in the lotus').

Some years ago in Nepal, I remember listening to one young woman ask a lama for help writing out the Kālacakra mantra, which she wanted to get tattooed on her foot. The lama explained that while it was fine to tattoo the mantra, she should get it done on another part of the body, preferably above the waist. Similarly, while Thailand has a long tradition of Buddhist tattooing (often performed by monks), the legs and feet are usually reserved for non-religious tattoos.

Of course, if you live in the US or Western Europe, you may not care too much about what Indian or Tibetan Buddhists consider inappropriate. But if you’re tattooing a Buddhist symbol, it seems like you should at least take note of how it would be traditionally used. So before you go and get that beautiful Tibetan mantra tattooed, it might be worth doing a little research into which body parts are, or are not, appropriate.