Monday, July 23, 2007

Sacrilege? Desecration? The Buddha Smiles

I’m not easily incensed by the abuse of religious symbols, honestly, but this picture on the front page of yesterday’s New York Times and the article it illustrates did give me pause. The “Tao” restaurant, in Las Vegas? With a 20’ golden Buddha? Where well-heeled diners feast themselves silly at enormous cost, their excess no doubt allayed by the surrounding pictures of monks and holy men? And votive candles? I wonder, too, what my Taoist friend would think about this appropriation of the Tao? Carly?

Anyway, here’s a part of what the article decribes:

“There is the 20-foot golden Buddha, and enough velvet and silk swathing 60,000 square feet to evoke an Old West bordello. Ever-thumping music pumps in the dining room and two levels above, sending the stylish and scantily clad to the dance floor.

"This is Tao Las Vegas, the highest grossing independent restaurant in the United States, according to Restaurants & Institutions magazine, which for 24 years has been ranking the top 100. In 2006, its first full year open, Tao did $55.2 million in business, or $16 million more than its closest competitor… Its average dinner check was $70, and 50 percent of its revenues came from alcohol…

"Much like a factory, Tao wants to squeeze revenue from every square foot of its plant as close to 24 hours a day, seven days a week as possible.

"Come nightfall… the fire columns burn in the desert air, the DJs take their place in the booth [at the companion Tao Beach Club] and Tao Beach becomes a rooftop nightclub. The club’s Opium Room… is rented out for corporate or private events from 5 p.m. until 10 p.m., when it transforms back into another level of the nightclub.

"Even then the hard-sell does not stop for Tao Las Vegas. They hope their patrons stop by the gift shop and take home a bronze Buddha head ($39) or a mango-scented pillar candle ($20)."

And this “bordello” is presided over by the Buddha, swathed in gold? Would they have dared to do the same with Jesus? And his disciples? With, um, Mohammed? I think not. What is it about the Buddha that makes his image so, well, hip and trendy? Is he perceived as somehow all-permissive, in a society that desperately seeks to justify its greed, or at least to disguise it in denial? Is it something to do with the comfortable belly with which he has come to be represented? The benign smile?

I can’t help but wonder what the Buddha himself might have had to say about this sorry story. Not one to judge, he would I suppose have simply grieved for the endless, unknowing, unconscious harm we bring upon ourselves, and looked with his usual beneficent smile upon our world of conspicuous consumption, from the depths of his bottomless compassion. I meant to bring the subject up last night in our sangha, while Thanissaro Bhikkku was on hand, with all his wisdom... But Ellie was not feeling well and stayed home, and I left the group early...

By the way, full disclosure: I can’t exculpate myself too easily from my own complicity. Saturday night, Ellie and I went out with friends to a similarly overpriced restaurant here in Orange County, California, in an environment no less gaudy. Indeed, the first word that came to mind as we approached the distinctly rococo bar was one we all agreed on: “bordello”! We overindulged, I regret to have to confess.

Still, no Buddhas. So far as I could tell.


Mikael said...

If you should meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.

Perhaps on one level this is sacrilege. Perhaps on another it is a reminder that the real Buddha resides within - untouched. Another reminder that the image making power of the mind reveals all sorts of attachments and delusions. Even the concept of greed is a delusion. As is the concept of Buddha.

Just a thought my friend.

May you awaken and be free.


khengsiong said...

Buddhism is often seen as New Age Movement in the States. That's the problem...

carly said...

Is the food any good?

I think he looks content and jolly, and well-fed.

When buddhism was first introduced to China, it was done so within the infrastructure of taoism. Thus persists the confusion between Confucius and Buddha.

I am told that Buddha wanted no effigies made of himself upon his death. The first thing the people did was just that. And still today, a buddhist monk directed me to say a prayer of thanks to an old, "sacred", carved wooden statue, inshrined in a box and set behind a host of opulent and expensive religious relics and objects in a monastary prayer room at morning prayers. In deference to Buddha (and myself), I did not.

you can see this opulence at:
Notice the display of wealth of the religion.

I think there is enough blame to go around.

also, I am uncomfortable with the doctrine I hear recited above, over and over by adherents. This is no less than a great weakness of this movement.

also, there is a superior attitude in thinking new age movements are a problem to buddhism. Doctrines suit some people, no matter what the label.

And Peter, don't knock bordellos. That's just too bourgeois! Ha.

Enjoy the nature in Canada.

carly said...

Sorry. That site of pictures is at:

They call him James Ure said...

Well perhaps somehow the Buddha's energy will rub off on the patrons a bit upon viewing the statues. Or pique some curiosity to look into the Dharma. That's my best hope. :)