At the Chi Lin Nunnery in Hong Kong, I bought a jade Buddha necklace. On my first full day in Taiwan, I put it on. I was wearing blue pants I’d gotten from Nigeria and a green V-neck from Target and I thought: “I’ve just gotten this new necklace and I think it would look nice with this outfit, I’ll wear it.”
This month is Ghost Month (as I’ve written about previously, albeit incorrectly; EDIT: you should get lost in this Wikipedia about Ghost Festival and see how diverse the tradition really is). What that means is the Gates of Hell are open and ghosts can come wander amongst the living, causing trouble. Thus, the living leave food offerings and burn paper money so as to appease these ghosts and keep them from ruining their lives and businesses. Everyone does it. Food stalls, banks, even the firefighters were burning barrels of paper money the other day. It’s really fascinating to watch. And as I walked down the street, and watched people bowing to shrines, I smelled the burning paper and I began to feel awkward.
The necklace began to feel heavy. I rubbed at my chest. The jade felt hot. It felt like I had no right wearing it. I realized I had to take off my Buddha necklace.
So I did. I went into the bathroom at a lunch cafe and took off the necklace. It didn’t feel right. I was wearing it as a symbol, but here the Buddha is not just a symbol. I thought: “would I wear a cross in America if I didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ?” Probably not. But it felt more complicated than that. Even though I don’t believe in reincarnation and nirvana, I do believe in the many messages in Buddhism that can be carried out in a secular nature. In my collection of quotes, I have written, “we are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.” This is attributed to Guatama Siddhartha, aka the founder of Buddhism. It reminds me that anger, sadness, rage, really any negative emotion is a creation of my mind and thus I can eliminate it. I also have the Dalai Lama’s quote on the acceptance of transience: “Most of our troubles are due to our desire for & attachment to things that we misapprehend as enduring entities.” I took a Buddhism class freshman Fall, and so I learned about Buddhism and its many beliefs and many sects, and I found myself wanting to learn more about it even when the class was over.
So the necklace was more to me than just a trinket. It had significance. I guess, what would my Christian friends say if I wore a cross, still did not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, but believed in the importance of his humanist teachings? I don’t know. So I decided to not wear the necklace again while I was in Taiwan. Best to save it for a space-time when a majority of those I’ll interact with do not see the Buddha as divinity.
But this doesn’t sit well with me. Because if I wouldn’t wear it in Taiwan, what gives me the right to wear it in America?
And now I’m thinking of all the discourse surrounding cultural appropriation. I have a Facebook friend who, after the Supreme Court ruling on the Washington Redskins logo, was outraged over what he believed was a ridiculous P.C. move. He seemed to think it was dumb that anyone would get offended over the redskins.
I’m not Native American, but I am black. And I don’t get outright offended, but I feel very uncomfortable when I see cartoon blackface characters. So I can understand how it would feel seeing something like a Chief Wahoo. And I can understand why you wouldn’t want those images propagating and normalizing throughout American culture. But it seems many Americans don’t get that.
And certainly this Jewish-American Facebook friend I have didn’t understand. I say Jewish-American because that’s what he is. And it’s only now that I’m in Taiwan that I see how horrible cultural appropriation can be because here there’s one thing you’d never see in the West: the swastika.
I don’t want to say swastikas are everywhere. But when you come from a place where swastika is synonymous with anti-Semitism and hate, seeing several on your walk down the street, or whole rows of them inside Buddhist temples makes it seem like suddenly they’re everywhere.
In Buddhism and other Asian faiths, the swastika is a symbol of eternity, among other things. I originally thought it was just from Asia, but the swastika was a symbol WORLD WIDE before modern times; relics have been found in Asia, Africa, Europe and North America with swastikas or swastika-like symbols. But in the Western 20th century, it was a symbol of good luck. And Hitler decided to use this symbol, which held sacred meaning for many people around the world, as a literal banner of hate.
And now the image is ruined. I don’t think we should use it in America. There are too many individuals whose lives were lost under it. Who’s families were torn apart. People look at that image and they see hate. There’s a movement to bring it back, as in reclaim it, like the LGBT community reclaiming the word “queer.” But I don’t know if such a thing can be reclaimed.
In Taiwan, they never had Nazis or Jewish people, so the image remains as it always has been, a symbol of eternity, of divinity, of vegetarian cuisine only (it’s a Buddhist symbol and I think many Buddhists are vegetarian because of their belief in reincarnation, so if you see a swastika on a shop front it means vegetarian cuisine only).
And so I’m sitting in a noodle shop, and I’m thinking: “this man would probably BLOW UP if a sports team in America put a swastika on their jerseys as a symbol of good luck because of all the hatred the swastika carries with it today.” But that’s now. What about in a century? What about when all the Holocaust survivors have passed. And their children, and their grandchildren are no longer around to remind us? And all that’s left is a history book. Will we forget the horrors of the Holocaust just like we’ve forgotten the horrors of the genocide of the Native Americans and say: “why should they be upset we’re using this image?”
This is just a thought. What do you think?