The Ten Thousand Ripples project (see my July blog entry “Creeped Out by Public Art”) had its inauguration last Wednesday and Molly, a woman who’s been regularly attending our temple services and study classes, brought me the brochure. Molly was concerned about how I was reacting to the project since in our monthly Sutra Study class I brought it up and got everyone riled up about the offensiveness of the cut-off heads of a Buddha image. Molly then gently interjected that we shouldn’t let ourselves slide into a state of outrage like the people rioting in Egypt and Libya over that anti-Muslim film. When she brought me the brochure she told me the inauguration was all about promoting peace in Chicago-area neighborhoods and especially about engaging schoolchildren in fostering peaceful relations through art.
Today I looked over the brochure and had a meeting at Uptown United with the artist and the Changing Worlds representatives. During the meeting I realized I was feeling uneasy about reading and hearing the phrase “Buddha head” tossed around and so I blurted out that as an Asian American, I find the term derogatory. Growing up I often heard my parents say “buddhaheads” when referring to their fellow second-generation Japanese Americans and I know during the Second World War it was a term applied to the 442nd RCT soldiers from Hawaii as opposed to the mainlanders, the “katonks.” But to hear non-Asians use the term doesn’t sit right with me – what may be endearing within a group, sounds demeaning coming from outside, maybe similar to how women don’t mind their husbands calling them “honey” but they don’t want their male bosses and co-workers addressing them that way.
I told the group it’s better to refer to the Buddha’s facial expression of tranquility and not speak of the decapitated head as an icon of peace. I’m glad that the revised publicity texts will emphasize the image as the artist’s interpretation and take out the wording about “universal.” Everyone is free to interpret an artwork in their own way, but it’s a mistake to think that the great majority of people will see the image in only one particular way. If most European- and African American people along with Christian Asian Americans, such as the artist, see the image of the head as a symbol of peace, that’s fine, but don’t promote that opinion as “universal” when there are those of us who see the broken-off head as an evocation of plunder and disrespect.
The installation of the cut-off Buddha images all around our temple’s neighborhood will be a challenge to me and the congregation to embody the Buddhist teaching of non-attachment – that we can’t let ourselves get upset when we see the sculptures being laughed at, sat on, kicked, defaced etc. etc. It’s just an image and despite what it means to us, we know others will interact with it as they feel. It’s the Buddha’s words and actions that will continue to teach us – that is what we value, not any graphic depiction of a particular person.