Let’s look again at the story of Antony Ratcliffe who was booted from Sri Lanka for having a tattoo of the Buddha’s head on his arm.
First, let’s set aside the idea that no two things are ever the same, that you can’t step into the same river twice (or even once), and that the Buddha you see is not the Buddha. All fantastic stuff, but not my concern today. For, even though Ratcliffe’s tattoo of the Buddha is in no way the Buddha, or arguably even an image representing the Buddha, there are people, including Ratcliffe, who believe that the particular arrangement of colors and lines on his arm represents something familiar and more or less sacred.
What interests me most about this little foible in the South East is not whether Ratcliffe’s getting a tattoo of the Buddha’s head is somehow culturally insensitive, or whether or not Sri Lanka is overflowing with hyper-sensitive power-centralizing Buddhists. What I’m interested in is how utterly balked either “side” was in relation to the “Other.” It’s the slip, the misconnection, the fact(?) that (at least judging from the short article) both cultures had no idea where the other was coming from.
The choice of language in the short piece emphasizes this slippage. Ratcliffe talks of being “shocked,” “upset,” and having his time “wasted.” When accused of being disrespectful of the Buddha he had to tell his “side of the story.” Comparatively, the police and guards responded by looking at his arm and “shaking their heads.” The chief officer attempted to silence Ratcliffe by repeatedly telling him to “shut up.”
And yet, how could it be that two cultures so “connected” by the technologies of modernity could still have no idea how the other could be so inappropriate?
Fortunately for our readers, there has yet to be a place suitable on this site for me to pontificate about the internet and what I believe to be its false sense of connectivity. So, in keeping with that boon, I’ll keep it brief here. I am of the opinion that the internet has presented us with a false sense of “knowing.” People have bought into the idea that they are truly more “connected” than ever before, because they can buy a pillow from Thailand with the click of a button, or read the tweets of some thirteen-year-old in Burkina Faso. But, what do they really know of the Other? What Understanding has lead to Knowledge and to Wisdom?
For many people is seems seeing the images of the Other leads to an assumption that the Other is looking back at them. There is an assumed recognition in the images. He sees me and I see him. I come across this sentiment time and time again when presented with much of what ends up on this site. Yoga practitioners tacking on indigenous identities to their Teacher Trainings because it feels right and they can. White girls wearing bindis for similar reasons. Truth be told, I’m not so interested in whether or not any of this is “OK.” I’m not a police officer/overseer. Bindis aren’t “my” cultural signifiers, and people in the West have more or less internalized Derrida’s “free play of signs and signifiers” without even knowing it, and it’s a culture as “valid” as any other. Not to mention, I’m a being “of the West.” My very nature is to be idolatrous, and I’m happy to play my part.
What I’m not happy with is watching how “shocked” Western people are when the culture being appropriated has an issue with their costume party. News Flash! That person in the pic on your Facebook page is not looking at you. He does not see you, your “Om” tattoo, or your woven Q’ero scarf. It would be of benefit to ask yourself a similar question: Do you see him?