I recently visited Bangkok, and on my way into the city from the airport I was delighted to see big billboards advising tourists to show respect for images of the Buddha.
The teachings of Buddhism have helped me in more ways than I can possibly explain in this letter, and so my immediate response was also to want to “defend” and “protect” a tradition that has given me so much.
But I have since thought more about more about that initial reaction. Do the teachings or indeed the symbols of Buddhism really demand our respect? Unlike followers of proselytising religions, who see themselves as being in competition with other religions, Buddhism merely wishes to offer solutions to the predicaments of our human existence. Buddhism demands no loyalty; it does not fear being questioned. The Gautama Buddha advised us to “believe nothing until you have experienced it and found it to be true”. Furthermore, Buddhism is not exclusive. The Dalai Lama says “do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are”.
As for the symbols and images associated with Buddhism, the most common being the image of a Buddha or a Bodhisattva in seated meditation, these are of course not gods or idols. They are mere materials objects, designed to remind us of the teachings and to offer a sense of peace to anyone who views them. Interestingly, even people who know nothing about Buddhism instinctively feel an attraction to these symbols.
If someone treats Buddhist symbols with disrespect, that is shameful, but it is not something that should give rise to fear or a feeling of being insulted. Buddhists know that the human mind can become “sick”, and cause people to act in destructive ways. Unfortunately, laws or regulations cannot remedy this negative karma – this can only be done through compassion and understanding. The teachings and the traditions of Buddhism sit, in my view, far above any attempt to mock or offend. You may destroy a symbol of Buddhism, but that does not, in any way, make the four noble truths less true. All it does is to demonstrate that the person doing such a thing is uneducated and that he probably suffers immensely.
However, rather than just buying them as souvenirs, visitors should be encouraged to learn a little bit about the symbols and understand why they are so appealing to us humans. That way, the artefacts will be much more than just souvenirs from a wonderful time in Thailand; they will help people calm their jittery minds, remind them of the eightfold path, and perhaps help spread happiness and contentment. Surely, this is not something that should be stopped or discouraged.