The Buddha is everywhere. I don’t mean in some kind of spiritual ‘I can feel him all around me’ sense, I mean you can’t visit someone’s house, go to a trendy bar or even shop at Argos without coming across a painting or figurine of a man, often sat perfectly in meditation with a serene smile across his contemplative face, one of my neighbours even has several images of the Buddha tattooed over his body. This would not be worthy of comment if my neighbour, the occupants of these houses, the visitors to these establishments and the purchasers of these statues were Buddhist – yet in almost every case (neighbour included) they are not.
It is worth asking why The Buddha has become such an object of affection and desire in an increasingly secular Britain, when other religious figures (historical and mythical) have largely been sidelined, except by those that follow a corresponding doctrine or culture. To provide part of an answer to this I have turned to some of the establishments that sell Buddha merchandise – largely garden centres and home stores. Here are some quotes:
‘Add a feeling of peace and serenity to your home with this beautiful silver Buddha ornament’.
‘A popular and universal symbol of inner peace and harmony’.
‘I don’t know much about Buddha statues, but….’
And that well known supplier of religious iconography – Argos; ‘Add some serenity and enlightenment to your room with this beautiful Buddha head’.
This is only the result of a very quick Google search and immediately there are certain words that stand out, with peace and serenity coming up several times – I would also add to these, tolerance and patience. This seems to point to the fact that people are not just buying Buddha’s because they are ornamental and exotic but also because they represent a set of virtuous ideals. I suspect that this phenomenon is a direct result of Britain becoming less and less religious. As people move away from religion in general, it seems likely that there could still be a need for images that hint at some sort of higher ideal to which people would like to aspire. In the west The Buddha is less associated with authority and dogma as, for example the Crucifix is – and so his image seems to be fulfilling this psychological need. An obvious consequence of this modern usage is that knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings are not necessary and any ideals attributed to these ornaments need not have any relation to the Buddha at all. While I, personally, do not have any issues with this, there are some Buddhists who take (what can sometimes be fairly extreme) objection (http://www.sundaytimes.lk/100711/Plus/plus_04.html). I do however, believe that it would be very unfortunate if the Buddha were to become totally disconnected from his teachings and consequential religion/s.
Of course it is not just the Buddha that is losing his Buddhism, Buddhism is also losing its Buddha. With the application of mindfulness in mental health treatments, mindfulness courses being offered to the public and the advances in psychological and neurological research giving fascinating insights to the nature of the ‘self’ The Buddha is being increasingly pushed to the side. Again, I have no issue with any of the above applications, and am in fact largely supportive of them. If mindfulness can help reduce the effects of depression or chronic pain then why shouldn’t it be used? And I would also add that in the case of medical/ psychological treatment it would be inappropriate to bring religion into the equation and so The Buddha should be absent. That being said, as with the use of Buddha images, it would be a significant loss, historically, culturally and philosophically, if the Buddha were to become entirely detached from his teachings within the secular world.
What I think this demonstrates is that The Buddha and his teachings are becoming increasingly secular and that in this process they are becoming detached from each other. Religious Buddhism will continue to exist and grow – and long may it be so, but for those in the secular world who have Buddha’s in their homes (or on their bodies) and those who attend mindfulness classes, there should be a place where they can, if they wish, explore and practice the Buddha’s teachings, without feeling that they are becoming part of a religious community with the ancient dogmas that this might involve. It seems to me that Secular Buddhism is the ideal vehicle in which this can be made possible. The Buddha (or at least the image of) is already secular, as are many of his teachings. It might just be possible then, that Secular Buddhism constitutes a serious opportunity to keep them from drifting forever apart.