Monday, May 16, 2016

Is it in poor taste to use a Spiritual Figure in a Decorative Way?

 

"There is only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going 
all the way and not starting."   Buddha

It is hard to imagine the blissful ignorance of a sheltered life. With modern technology, it's almost impossible to escape the harsh realities of this world, but in ancient times, there once was a privileged young Indian prince who made it all the way to manhood before he discovered that life was not easy; nor was it fair. 

Prince Siddhartha Gautama was born into a wealthy family in Nepal sometime in the 6th century. His early life, spent in a grand palace at the foot of the Himalayan mountains, was one of comfort and privilege. 

The restrictions of this easy, but reclusive life only served to fire young Prince Siddhartha's curiosity, so he began to make tentative forays into the world outside the palace walls. The poverty, death and disease Siddhartha encountered shocked and disturbed him. Overcome with guilt and remorse, he abandoned his comfortable life and began a quest to lead a more spiritual life. 

Buddha in a private garden in Toronto

Years of studying religious practice and meditation followed. When answers to his spiritual questions did not materialize, Siddhartha redoubled his efforts, fasting nearly to starvation and refusing even water. 

Gradually, Siddhartha came to realize that deprivation was not bringing him any closer to spiritual clarity. So one day, Siddhartha sat down to meditate under a Bodhi tree. As he sat quietly meditating, an evil spirit visited Siddhartha threatening to lay claim the enlightenment he had struggled to achieve. Siddhartha touched his hand to the Earth and asked it to bear witness that enlightenment was indeed his own. In that moment, he achieved nirvana and became a Buddha or 'one who is awake'.

During the remaining years of his life, Buddha travelled widely sharing his wisdom. He taught the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, which were to become the foundation of Buddhism. 

A Meditation Buddha in a private garden in Mississauga, ON

As a symbol of peace and quiet mediation, a Buddha has become a popular garden ornament in recent years. For many, gardening offers a welcome refuge from daily stresses. It's a place to dig in the dirt and reconnect with nature in a very tactile way. It isn't surprising that a garden seems like a very appropriate setting for a statue that feels so calm and serene.

'Buddha' means 'Awakened One' or the 'Enlightened One'. Buddha statuary come in a variety of poses each illustrating spiritual qualities possessed by the holy man.

 A Meditation Buddha sits with its legs crossed in a single or double Lotus pose. As a symbol of peace and tranquility, the eyes of these Buddhas are usually closed or half closed.  

Buddha in a garden in Niagara-on-the-Lake


Each Buddha has specific hand gestures or mudras. When the thumbs and the finger tips of a Buddha touch forming an oval, it symbolizes the turning of attention inward. The elongated ears speak to a Buddha's gift for hearing even the smallest of sounds.

Buddha in a private garden in Mississauga, ON

The sleep of a Dreaming Buddha is filled with hopes for peace and a wish to live an enlightened life. 

A Reclining Buddha expresses relaxation and a detachment from worldly desires. This Buddha is sometimes called the Nirvana Buddha because it is a depiction of Buddha entering a state of nirvana.

A Medicine Buddha holds a medicine bowl and offers a branch of a healing plant as a blessing. In traditional Buddhism it is believed that Buddha shared a knowledge of medicine with his followers.

A Garden Buddha sits on a bed of lotus blossoms, which are a symbol of purity.

Private garden in Dartmouth, N.S.



"Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, but live in the present moment."
Buddha 


An open palm expresses compassion and acceptance. It also offers protection from fear.


But here's the thing. There is a somewhat decorative nature to the use of Buddha statuary in gardens and that has got me wondering: Is it in poor taste to take a figure, that for many people carries a religious significance, and use it in a largely decorative way?

Here's an example of where things can go amiss. I have read that placing a Buddha on the ground could be offensive to a Buddhist. A person of this faith would believe 'Enlightened One' should always be elevated even if it is only symbolically.

I find it hard to imagine that a person who places a Buddha in their garden would intend any disrespect. Surely this choice of statuary expresses a certain affinity with some core Buddhist tenants. 

So here's my questions: Is there a place for religious sensitivity even in the garden. Or is life too short to worry about the possibility of causing offence?

I'd love to know what you think about putting a Buddha in a garden.

P.S. I will post the winner of the last book draw up next.

21 comments:

  1. This is a very interesting discussion - I come from a Christian background so I can only speak from what I know and believe.

    Many religions believe that all life started in a garden that was perfect and lacked nothing and was only ruined because of the choices of man. I think because of this a lot of us have some sort of subtle cultural undercurrent of thought that a garden, or at least nature, would be where you go back to find God, to be reminded of His magnificent mathematics and creation, and to ponder the many questions and joys of life. Where else could you find the thing that follows the pattern of God's original design?

    For me, even though it's not something that I consciously think of when I'm gardening, the very act of digging in my garden beds is an act of worship. It's partaking in the process of returning what I often mistake for mine back to a tiny spot of paradise (and I live in inner city Detroit, so returning is a very correct term). It's an act that reflects the value of stewardship that I hold important.

    That being said, I think the question is less about religion and more about cultural religious appropriation and where the line is. This kind of thing goes on everywhere - it's not isolated from western culture. I've lived in a few places where the largest religion was Buddhism and I can't tell you how many symbols of Christianity I've seen used in fashion, in architecture, in random things you buy off the side of the road.

    I think it's important to think about what the people who participate in the religion (or culture) would say and hold to that.

    In general, Christians don't get bothered by the cross being used as decorations or tattoos by people who don't have any idea or care about what it means. That little Jesus fish got turned into a million other little symbols and people are not screaming about it. Conversely, there are groups that are very unhappy with how their symbolism is used. Native Americans, for example, are deeply upset by their traditional clothing being co-opted by big box retailers.

    In short, when you are going to use a symbol or figure or imagery in some way it is most important to take a pause and do some research about how the culture you are using the imagery from will feel about it. If the majority of that group would feel deeply disrespected then don't do it. If they don't mind and you are doing it in a respectful way then I feel it's fine.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks E for taking the time to write such a long and well considered comment. I am glad you brought up the fundamental religious belief that all life began in a garden. I agree that there is a subtle cultural undercurrent that links gardens/nature with a search for deeper truths and God.

      As you point out, there are many examples of religious and cultural appropriation. The feelings of Native Americans about the ways there symbolism has been used is an excellent example and one I hadn't considered.

      Surely no harm can result from a little religious sensitivity. I agree with you that we should always strive to be respectful and considerate of the beliefs of others.

      Delete
  2. As a Zen Buddhist teacher and gardener, I see nothing wrong with anyone using a Buddha statue in the garden. My own garden features one - on the ground - and our temple garden has several Buddha statues also on the ground. In our Zen practice we don't discriminate between Buddhist and non-Buddhist. All have the same true nature, all can receive the message that a Buddha statue offers. I'm delighted whenever I come upon a Buddha in a garden, anyone's garden. Lovely photos, thanks for posting them!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am glad to have your perspective as a Zen Buddhist teacher and gardener included in this discussion Kate. My research indicated that placing a Buddha directly on the ground could be seen as being disrespectful. It is helpful to know that is not always the case.
      I really like the inclusive belief that we all have the same true nature and can receive the message that a Buddha statue offers.

      Delete
    2. I am Christian, but a lot of Buddhist principles of living are very closely aligned with my Christian ones so I would feel very comfortable (and indeed have been wanting to) place a statue of Buddha in my garden for years. What has held me back has been concern that it might be deemed offensive. I've been letting my head rule my heart in this. Having read Kate's comments I think I might let my heart have its way and enjoy the peace and serenity that lovely Buddha statues evoke in my small suburban garden sanctuary :-)

      Delete
    3. I can identify with your feelings Lynne. I have always been drawn to Buddha statues for some unknown reason, but as a non-religious person, my attraction has always made me feel a bit uneasy. Kate's comments were very reassuring. I find Buddha statues leave me feeling calm and serene.

      Delete
  3. I don't believe that if something is placed in a private garden that it could be offensive. Our gardens are our own way of expressing ourselves and if that includes a Buddha, it shouldn't offend anyone. Any spiritual element in a garden transcends it into a more peaceful place. And isn't that what we want to achieve as gardeners - a place of relaxation and spirituality.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think you make a number of important points Heather. A spiritual element in a garden does transcend it into a more peaceful place. Our gardens are a refuge and a place of quiet reflection.

      Delete
  4. I actually believe that a garden is the perfect place for religious statues. A garden is a place for reflection and communing with nature. Many times, that IS a religious experience for people.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you Debbie. I think many gardeners would agree whole heartedly with you.

      Delete
  5. What a thought-provoking post this is, Jennifer!
    If someone wants to have Buddha in their garden, I am okay with that, but at the same time, you won't see one in my garden! :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Your comment has left a question in my mind, but I won't want to press, because spirituality is such a personal thing.

      Delete
  6. Your well-written post came in such an appropriate time for me Jennifer, as I have been trying to find some way of decorating my new garden and struggled a bit. I really would love a sculpture – or a few. There are lots of angels, gnomes, Disney dwarfs and fairies online but that’s not really me – that’s REALLY not me. As a non-religious person I would not choose an obvious religious symbol either, and to me, a Buddha represents Buddhism and would be just as inappropriate to me as a Christian cross or an angel. But religious symbols might mean very different things to other people and I accept that – and what we put in our gardens should be a private matter and entirely up to each and everyone :-)
    In the end I went for a few upturned roots together with some ceramic colourful toadstools in my woodland bed, and I have decorated with jewel like solar lights in the rest of the garden!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Your choices for your new garden sound terrific Helene. I will have to pop over and see them. I do agree that a home garden is a private space and surely we should feel free to be ourselves at home.

      Delete
  7. What an interesting subject for a post! Spirit and Nature (and a garden is a part of nature) are inseparable. You showed some tasteful ways to put a religious figure in the garden. Thank you Jennifer!

    ReplyDelete
  8. What an interesting question, Jennifer, and I appreciate all the information about the significance of the different poses of the statuary. I do have a small Buddha head which sits directly on the ground--I didn't realize that might be offensive. I also have a tiny sitting Buddha in my miniature Japanese garden, which seemed so appropriate to me. I am a Christian, but I admire the principles of Buddhism. To me, the statue represents peace and tranquility, and in no way do I mean to be disrespectful. I also have several angels in other places in the garden. I hope that anyone would realize I am tolerant of all religions, and that my garden is a place for peace and spirituality, not the divisiveness of this world.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "...my garden is a place for peace and spirituality, not the divisiveness of this world." So well said Rose! I do think that most people incorporate a Buddha in their garden for exactly the reasons you suggest- they represent pease and tranquility.

      Delete
  9. I've have been giving your post a lot of thought-not that I have come up with any good answers. I have just read an interesting book about gardens as sacred spaces and they seem to have been used in most if not all religions. This makes me think our gardens are places to connect with all people regardless of whether they follow a formalized religion or not.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The book on sacred gardens sounds like a really interesting read. As the first commenter pointed out as well there is a subtle cultural undercurrent that links gardens/nature with a search for deeper truths and God. I like the idea that a garden can speak to people of many faiths and even to those with no formal religion.

      Delete
  10. I have a statue of Saint Francis in my garden here in South Dakota--any thoughts?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I believe that St. Francis is the patron saint of animals. I'd love to hear why you chose this figure for your garden.

      Delete

I love to hear from you. Thanks for leaving a comment.