by Bhuchung D. Sonam
More than 2554 years ago the Buddha said, "Above all do not cease your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts and know no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it."
Buddha, of course, did not care much whether one wore canvas shoes, Nike Air or nothing at all, as long as one walks into a state of well being. He may as well be talking to us today when we walk less own more shoes. Some of the colours of our footwear are outrageously bright. Some designs on them outrageously offensive.
Recently Keds — a unit of Kansas-based Collective Brands, Inc. and a mass-marketer of canvas-top — sneakers came out with a new line of sneakers called 'Tibetan Buddhist Shoes'. These bear images of the Dalai Lama, the Buddha, holy mantras and other sacred images that Buddhist all over the world revere. Buddhists generally keep these images and scripts in temples, monasteries and on altars in their homes.
Keds' commercial trumpets:
"Gorgeous shoes! They're Keds, so they're sturdy and comfy, yet they're beautiful because of the images on them. How unique is this! A Tibetan Buddhist image in brilliant pinks, yellows, oranges and blues. Colorful and Beautiful!"
The last three words should read — Shameful and Disrespectful!
It is beyond one's imagination as why and how the designers of a multinational company came up with such a concept. If a designer had come up with an idea to put the Holy Bible or images of Jesus Christ or for that matter Prophet Muhammad and the Koran on Keds, the company would have vehemently opposed it.
We live in a 24x7 interconnected world where information is available at finger's click. Thus people at Keds cannot feign ignorance about these sacred images and their importance in Buddhist culture and their roles in the practice of the dharma. Hence Keds Buddhist shoes are affront to Tibetans and a total disregard to their cultural values. These shoes also insult the religious sentiments of over 350 million Buddhists in the world today. Out of these, according to Professor Robert Thurman, about five to six million live in the US.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) instigated by Mao Zedong, founding chairman of the People's Republic of China, over 6000 monasteries in Tibet were destroyed by his Red Guards. The images of Buddha made from bronze, silver and gold were melted down and taken to China, sacred religious scriptures were used as soles for shoes or as fodder to feed animals. Holy mantras inscribed on stones or slates were used to build toilets or pave roads.
The Cultural Revolution in part was a result of Mao's hatred towards religion. During his final meeting in Beijing with the Dalai Lama in 1954, Mao edged closer to the Tibetan leader and whispered, "... but of course religion is poison. It has two great defects: it undermines the race, and secondly it retards the progress of the country."
Keds Tibetan Buddhist shoes raise ghosts from the Cultural Revolution. Claiming itself as an ethical and eco-friendly company, in March 2009 Keds launched Keds Green, a line of shoes reportedly made from organic cotton and recycled rubber with non-toxic inks and dyes. The company also claims that it collaborates "with top designers to bring original designs from some of the most cutting-edge minds in fashion, art, music and pop culture." It may, perhaps, need ethical guidance and awareness about other cultures and how to respect them.
In his book Unequal Freedom: The Global Markets As An Ethical System
, John McMurtry argues that "there is no purchasing decision that does not itself imply some moral choice, and that there is no purchasing that is not ultimately moral in nature." Taking a cue from McMurtry, we should, for the moment, not purchase any of Keds' Buddhist shoes.
In their book A Cultural History of Tibet
, David Snellgrove and Hugh Richardson write that "...the civilization of the Tibetan people is disappearing before our very eyes, and apart from a few gentle protests here and there the rest of the world lets it go without comment and without regret."
Keds Tibetan Buddhist shoes themselves may not be the agent to destroy Tibetan Buddhism and its culture, but it is a dangerous precedent. Ignoring such instances without a protest or raising critical voices may lead to a pattern where profit-at-all-cost companies may further engage in activities that trample upon people's cultural values and religious beliefs.
Collective Brands' vision statement is to be "...the leader in bringing compelling lifestyle, performance and fashion brands for footwear and related accessories to consumers worldwide." If the company is to fulfill such a vision, it may not want to offend the followers of the world's fourth largest spiritual tradition. Moreover, as the Buddha said, if it wants all Buddhists and their friends to walk their best thoughts in Keds' canvas shoes, the President of Collective Brands, Inc. might want to say, "We are sorry" i.e. if it has not already done so.
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