Thailand tourists, Disney asked to show Buddha some respect

Thailand tourists, Disney asked to show Buddha some respect

A new Bangkok-based group took to Khao San Road to voice their disapproval of "Buddha" the dog and local souvenirs they feel are offensive to Buddhism
Thailand is full of market vendors selling masks, statues and paintings depicting Buddha, geared towards international tourists.

A series of child-friendly Walt Disney movies features a big dog named "Buddha," who avoids meat and stress, enjoys yoga and meditation, and eats out of a dish on the floor labeled with his name.

Some Buddhists in Thailand are not amused.

A new Bangkok-based group called Knowing Buddha Organization is calling for an international boycott against the Disney films and their Buddha dog.

The group also demands an end to all commercialization of Buddha, including retail statues, wall hangings, T-shirts, sex toys, furniture, tattoos and other decorations within Thailand and worldwide.

During their Khao San Road protest, the Knowing Buddha Organization carried a photograph of Disney's dog character, emblazoned with the word "BUDDHA" alongside Disney's logo.Late last month the group targeted tourists in Bangkok with a solemn "Stop Disrespecting Buddha" march down Khao San Road, Asia's most popular neighborhood for inexpensive hotels, restaurants, bars, shops, travel agencies and souvenirs.

Backpackers were gently confronted by 200 Thai protesters who said they would not tolerate Buddha's image being used in any way -- including by tourists -- except with "respect."

The group protested earlier that day at Bangkok's bustling J. J. Market, which also commercializes Buddha's image.

Acharavadee Wongsakon, 47, says she created the Knowing Buddha protest movement after seeing Walt Disney's Buddha dog, "when my daughters rented the film from iTunes" in January.

"If you [Disney] put this with Jesus's name, or Mohammad's, I don't think you'd have a place to stand in the world," Acharavadee says. "Because those people, their religions, they're strong."

"Disney's adorable talking puppies" are "everyone's favorite canine siblings," says Disney's website.

The dogs form a group known as "Buddies" and are named Budderball, RoseBud, B-Dawg, MudBud and Buddha.

"We would like to ask the Buddhists around the world to boycott the 'Buddies' movies," Acharavadee says.

She wants Disney "to stop using the name Buddha for a dog. No need to cancel the series, just remove that character, or change the name. The public should feel shocked."

"We will ask Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs to do what they can."

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'Welcome to Buddha land' 

A Buddha statue is juxtaposed among commercial items in a Bangkok temple, which does not displease the Knowing Buddha Organization because such displays are done "with respect."Disney's "Corporate Citizenship" manifesto promises to "act and create in an ethical manner, and consider the consequences of our decisions on people and the planet."

But when asked about its Buddha dog and the anti-Disney protest, the company tersely responded on June 29 by email saying: "Hi. Thank you for contacting us. You have reached Disney Corporate Citizenship. Unfortunately, we are unable to assist you with your inquiry. Regards, Eric, Corporate Citizenship, The Walt Disney Company."

Repeated e-mails to Disney's other media addresses resulted in no response.

During their Khao San Road protest, the Knowing Buddha Organization unfurled a huge photograph of Disney's dog character, emblazoned with the word "BUDDHA" alongside Disney's logo, and captioned: "Stop!! How could we let this happen?!"

Slowly marching, they gave tourists a "Welcome to Buddha land" brochure which told them how to behave.

"Ban those who treat Buddha's image badly," the brochure demanded.

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Mixed response from Bangkok tourists

"They're hitting the right people, they're coming to Khao San Road where all the tourists are, and who are going to buy the merchandize," said Kate Rutherford, 25, a tourist from London who chatted with the protesters.

For decades, San Francisco's Chinatown Buddha Bar has been offering drinks in a dingy room decorated with a huge Buddha on the wall."You kind of associate Buddha with Thailand, and if you want to take something back and have it in your bedroom that associates or resembles your holiday, then you're going to buy a Buddha statue," said Rutherford.

"To have a parade about it may be an over-reaction," said Robert van Meer, a 28-year-old tourist from Amsterdam, while watching the march.

"If I see something nice, and there happens to be a Buddha on it, this wouldn't stop me from buying it, if I would want it."

Disney's Buddha dog also did not trouble van Meer.

"It's a symbol, but of course a symbol is different in what it means to everybody else. So they should not claim it if Disney wants to use it in some way. The dog can be loyal and very good."

During the protest, Knowing Buddha Organization also unveiled a "List of Disrespectful Businesses!!" naming bars, hotels, shops, spas, restaurants and other venues in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere -- plus their websites.

In Thailand, they targeted Buddhi Belly, a frozen yogurt franchise with several cafés in Bangkok.

The protesters also targeted Buddhi Belly, a frozen yogurt franchise with several cafés in Bangkok.Some people, however, do not support the protesters' demand that Thailand's lucrative Buddha souvenir businesses be destroyed.

"Why should non-Buddhists follow your rules?" asked online commenter Mat during an online debate posted on Knowing Buddha's website.

"If non-Buddhists want to use Buddha images for decoration etc., why is that a problem? The only one who could be personally insulted is the Buddha himself.

"I thought the Buddha disapproved of people worshipping images/icons of him? So *any* Buddha statue etc. is therefore inappropriate, even ones in temples (especially the opulent golden statues). Even on this website!" Mat wrote.

Ironically, the group promotes Buddha-related commercialized items as a way of raising money to protest those images.

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'Our major problem cases are in the United States'

In its "List of disrespectful businesses!!" Knowing Buddha Organization called attention, for example, to an otherwise obscure, 20-centimeter-long, "Buddha's Delight" silicone dildo sold online from Oakland, California. 

Despite the group's complaints, Buddhism regards Buddha's physical image as merely an illusion, and he did not teach people to protest such issues.

The Knowing Buddha Organization, however, put its 300 members into teams -- "Buddha Watch, "Comment Storming," "S.W.A.T.," "Tourist," "Event Support," "Creative," and "Knowing Operation" -- to stop violators.

The protesters demand an end to all commercialization of Buddha, including retail statues and other decorations within Thailand and worldwide, unless the items are made for religious purposes. "Many businesses choose to ignore us," says Acharavadee, who also teaches Vipassana, a Theravada Buddhist meditation focus.

"Our major problem cases are in the United States -- in Los Angeles and New York especially -- with the film industry giving the wrong impression of how to treat the Buddha image.

"In L.A., it is considered hip if you have a Buddha statue in your place as a decorative item. In New York, there is a tattoo group which tattoos Buddha on peoples' legs. They have a statue of a person, where a dog's head replaces the Buddha head," she says.

"We would ask the bar in Chinatown, in San Francisco, to stop using his name and image," Acharavadee says, referring to the Buddha Bar which for decades has offered drinks in a dingy room decorated with a huge Buddha on the wall.

She emailed Disney in April, and sent a letter to the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok in May, complaining about "disrespectful acts" in America, but received no response.

If any company "fails" to "stop disrespecting the Buddha image, then we will be forced to seek a boycott on these companies," she warns.

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Buddhism in Thailand

Traditionally, Thais welcome foreigners to learn about Buddhism and meditate at spiritual retreats, become devotees, or be ordained as monks in Thai temples.

But most Thais abhor anyone perceived as disrespectful toward Buddhism.

A Buddhist comic book published in Thailand portrays Siddhartha after he abandoned his wife and child, and began a life of self-exile, meditation and revelation.People who intentionally attack Buddha statues or other icons risk arrest, expulsion, or being bloodied by a mob.

Less serious, accidental breaches of Buddhist etiquette may be resolved by profuse, abject apologies.

This Southeast Asian country is about 95 percent Buddhist, and self-appointed defenders of the faith occasionally rally supporters.

For example, Thailand's Buddhists have campaigned against alcohol or attempts to legalize abortion.

Long-standing warnings for tourists include: Do not climb on statues of Buddha; don't satirize or mock Buddha, even in a playful or artistic way; and to be perfectly polite, place any Buddha image higher than a person's head when displaying it on a wall or shelf -- and never in a bathroom.

Many tourists, meanwhile, agree that Buddha was profound. "God" does not exist in Buddhist philosophy.

Instead, Buddhism enables people to control their mind, perceive illusions, and experience freedom.

The most recent "incarnation" of Buddha was born in 563 BC as a Hindu prince named Siddhartha Gautama in Lumpini, India, which today is in southern Nepal.

But Siddhartha was turned off by Hinduism and curious about reality outside his parent's palace.

He abandoned his wife and child, and led a life of self-exile, meditation and revelation which inspired countless others.


Examples from Knowing Buddha's "List of Disrespectful Businesses!!"

Buddha bars in several countries: "Dining at Buddha-Bar means removing yourself from the frenzy"

Buddha candles from New York: "Red Buddha Head Candle will soothe your stress"

Buddha Dog Animal Massage in Los Angeles: "Small animal massage therapy"

Popcorn Buddha in Pennsylvania: "A moment of bliss in every kernel"

Buddha underwear sold online: "Happiness Buddha Classic Thong"

Home decor in Palo Alto, California: "Buddha statues garden Bathroom Design"

Fitness club in Santa Barbara, California: "Evolve your body temple"

Fitness club in Sante Fe, New Mexico: "Give your Buddha Belly a Six Pack."

More on CNNGo: Bangkok's blogging British monk 

Richard S. Ehrlich is from San Francisco, California. He has reported news for international media from Asia since 1978, based in Hong Kong, New Delhi and now Bangkok.

Read more about Richard S. Ehrlich