Patience isn't a reward that is granted by praying for it, it's a skill that is cultivated by practicing it.
In this Q&A, we will learn about how Buddhists view and approach the teachings on kindness, tolerance, acceptance, and patience with others.
Q1: Unalome tattoos are gaining in popularity among non-Buddhist women, and though it is a beautiful symbol with a very powerful meaning I was wondering if people within the Buddhist community find offence with non-Buddhists getting these sacred symbols tattooed on their bodies?
Q2: I guess I'm wondering where the balance is between personal significance and cultural appropriation for you and if seeing these images on non-Buddhists is offensive?
Thank you for your email and your interesting questions. Let's dive right in...
While I cannot answer for the Buddhist community at-large, from the perspective of a dedicated pre-monastic practitioner, the simple answer: not at all. :) Technically, a practicing Buddhist shouldn't find offence to this. The more complicated answer is that there are many kinds of "Buddhists," and many might be offended. But that isn't what the Buddha taught and it certainly isn't Buddhism.
To double-down on your example, much more common than Unalome tattoos are the proliferation of Buddhist beaded bracelets and necklaces. These "adornments" have been worn by surfers for decades, but are now seen just about everywhere. To many Buddhists, those bracelets and necklaces are known as "mala" and they are prayer beads and sacred, not even to be touched or handled by non-Buddhists.
...Buddhism isn't found in symbols or religious markings, texts, or objects. What the Buddha taught was a self-realised philosophical system that broke down the human experience into its core components and laid out a path toward the cultivation of a peaceful mind... which, when deeply developed, leads to what is referred to as Buddhist 'enlightenment.' The Buddha was clear that the focus of practice must be inwardly focused with as little attention paid to the distractions created by others as possible. This is why his teaching on finding seclusion and renouncing worldly concerns are found throughout the suttas and are, in all practical ways, a pre-condition for attaining Buddhist enlightenment. All the other stuff, such as statues, ornaments, rituals, flags, etc are simply additions that came after the Buddha's death as his teachings slowly travelled and integrated into the pre-existing philosophical systems and beliefs that were found in the cultures that Buddhism eventually made its way into. Buddhism is very adaptable, which is part of what has enabled it to persist and to exist even today, more than 2500 years after the death of the Buddha.
Nevertheless, practical-Buddhism, as instructed by the Buddha, is much more concerned with what we do as practitioners in response to others, than with what other people do. When our buttons are pushed and we sense the seed of offence being watered by the actions of others, we are given the precious opportunity to apply the teachings in that moment to make a better choice. To put the teachings into practical application is critical to progression toward enlightenment. Those who train in skilful mental attitudes, views, and states will certainly enjoy a more pleasant time as a Buddhist than those who don't. :) And the more we can do that, the more we develop and cultivate the conditions that create a more peaceful inner-experience (i.e., the closer we get toward spiritual success).
In the case where a practicing Buddhist would feel offence at such use of sacred symbologies, Patience would be the training on-offer. Not 'tolerance,' which is putting up with the unskilful actions of others; nor, 'acceptance,' which merely accepts what is, good or bad; but, 'patience.' Patience leaves room for us to experience the catalysts of our unpleasant feelings, but without identifying with the the generally associated feelings of resistance that come along with our attachments to how we want things to be otherwise be. Patience leaves more room for what-is, without conditions or preferences. Everything that is positive flows from patience, and, patience is the foundation of resilience, which is the cornerstone of an accomplished Buddhist's deep sense of personal peace and happiness.
Q: I guess I'm wondering where the balance is between personal significance and cultural appropriation for you and if seeing these images on white bodies is offensive?
There are many vectors from which I can answer this question. One could be an investigation into the nature of their intention or their motivation behind the use of these images. But since that is an impossible task, it may be easier to try to assess if they generally did so from a place of skilfulness or wholesomeness (e.g., love, appreciation, etc), and if so, then how could anyone possibly be offended by that? :)
For those who identify as Buddhists yet would still be offended by these tattoos, then I would coach that it's helpful for those Buddhists to remember that we specifically receive instruction and training in compassion, patience, understanding, tolerance, kindness, et cetera, and each opportunity to practice these essential qualities is precious and shouldn't be wasted. Additionally, we must be realistic and appreciate that most non-Buddhists aren't going to understand the minutia of Buddhist symbologies, a daunting task even for Buddhist academics, especially when one considers the diversity of the symbologies and how much they differ from one Buddhist tradition to the next.
If they can remember these things and be mindful to take advantage of each precious opportunity cultivate patience when feelings of offence presents itself within them, then in that moment, they can be one step closer to achieving deeper Buddhist attainments. But, that's not always the "easy" choice, and it's all too easy to drop back into to old and destructive habit patterns that are generally not compatible with the Buddhist world view. :) In each moment, it's up to them whether they wish to use that moment to grow, or to cultivate the seeds of negative emotions. After all, one does not "attain" patience; one develops it by skilfully practicing it with each moment over and over again. So, if they can choose wisely, then in that moment, they can cultivate patience, which leads to understanding and a natural inclination toward loving-kindness. And, when those are experienced, it is impossible to feel offence or anger or resentment: these are contrasting feelings.
So generally speaking, if a Buddhist is offended by the actions or opinions of others, than they are generally either misunderstanding the teaching and the practice of Buddhism, or just not "good enough at it" yet...
[note: I am aware that "not good enough at it yet" is glossing over a tremendous amount and I apologise for being pithy, but to dive deeper in to that part of this answer would turn this already-long-read into something much, much longer :)]
At the end of the day, other people's actions are not important to Buddhists. We can't control the actions of others, but we can learn how to control how we respond to them. :) For Buddhists, it's our own actions, thoughts, intentions, and motivations that must matter. These are the only things that we can actually work with or have any genuine influence over.
Speaking of which, from a practitioner's perspective, here's the best part: there is no better source of practical application of Buddhism, in a manner of speaking, than other people. This is because 'other people' can be an endless source of annoyance and aggravation. :) And our job as Buddhists is to develop real-time awareness of our thoughts, intentions, and motivations (i.e., the mindfulness we cultivate through meditation) so the we can have the space from our strong emotions and negative thoughts to make a choice on how we act or respond to the situations and people in our lives that challenge our sense of peace, safety, or happiness. And our practical goal, as Buddhists, is to act in ways that are conducive to peaceful co-existence and harmony with those around us. Hokey. Isn't it? Perhaps. But very fulfilling.
Lily, thank you again for your questions. My answer is a bit circuitous and there are many ways I could have otherwise answered it, but, I just saw the time and I have to run -- so no time to revise and refine (or review) but I hope I sufficiently addressed your questions :D please email me again if you wish for me to dive even deeper into some of these topics--there is a lot that can be unpacked here.
It may be helpful to keep this in mind: happiness isn't a personality trait, it's a skill that can be developed. What you practice becomes how you act; and, how you act, becomes who you are. If you wish to be patient and happy, you must practice patience and happiness. :)
I hope this was in some way helpful to you.
May this message find you happy, healthy, and safe.
Buddhist Ācariya and Anagārika
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Michael Turner is a pre-monastic ariya-puggala and a full-time Buddhist anagārika; and he is also a deeply accomplished streamentry mentor and applied-dharma teacher. He emphasises and teaches the practical application of the Buddha's teachings in our everyday lives to overcome our human problems that stand in the way of making measurable progress toward Buddhist enlightenment and he is particularly adept at explaining them in ways that can be easily understood and practiced by Western Buddhists. He has been meditating and cultivating the views and techniques that generate indestructible resilience, inner-strength, and direct experience for almost 30 years and has helped countless numbers of students and peers enhance and course-correct their practice to make veritable progress along the path toward Nibbāna.
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