January 13, 2012

Buddha Buzz: Religious Freedom, Swastikas, and the Giving High

We're starting off this week's Buddha Buzz with a pretty clear example of religious intolerance in Hudson, Wisconsin. Don Chering, a Buddhist, put up an American flag and a string of Tibetan prayer flags on the day that his son left for U.S. Army basic training. The flags stretch across the front of his house and over his garage door.


Soon, his landlady contacted him with an order from the Homeowners Association in charge of the housing complex where Chering lives to remove the flags (it's unclear as of yet if they are requesting that the American flag be removed as well). 

The association's rules say that nothing can be attached to the exterior of the townhouses—but as Chering points out, many of his neighbors have Christmas lights up, and none of them have been contacted by the Homeowners Association.

Chering is refusing to remove the flags, saying,

We’re a community, and they want to homogenize everybody. We live side-by-side as Christians and Buddhists. Outside are Christmas lights, prayer flags and an American flag. That’s how we should be living in this country. That’s what our founding fathers intended for us. We shouldn’t be pushing each other around. We shouldn’t be forcing our beliefs on other people. And we sure as heck shouldn’t be stopping other people from practicing their beliefs respectfully, in a way that doesn’t hurt anybody.

Though Chering's plight hasn't made it past the pages of the Hudson Star-Observer, somebody else's has made it all the way to major news organizations: Young Kim, owner of a jewelry store in Brooklyn, has taken Indian-made swastika earrings off her shelves after a customer posted a picture of them online and the controversy went viral. 

In particular, City Councilman Steve Levin and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer have denounced the earrings as hateful and anti-Semitic, despite the fact that the earrings were meant to portray the Buddhist, Jainist, and Hindu symbol, not Nazism (which reversed the Asian symbol and tilted it at an angle.)

Naturally, it’s a tricky issue, and brings up a lot of questions about cultural context and sensitivity. Swastikas were around for thousands of years before the Nazis appropriated the symbol, and are still pictured all over Asia. At the same time, the Brooklyn neighborhood where the jewelry store is located, Greenpoint, has a large Jewish population and has had a recent upsurge in anti-Semitic hate crimes—it’s not surprising that there’s been such a strong reaction to the earrings. (Although the politicians' comments aren't helping much: Stringer called the earrings "an insult to any civilized person.") 

Considering the levels of misunderstanding on all sides, we can all give the situation, and everyone involved, our understanding and compassion. 

A recent article on the Huffington Post, “The Science of Giving: Why Giving Feels So Good,” by Diana Rico, might lend us some motivation for doing so. The piece gives a comprehensive overview (as far as I can tell at least…I’m no scientist) of where that “giving-high” comes from, biologically speaking. 

From the article:

We’ve all felt the high that comes from giving, the "natural gladness" Baraz talks about. Recent science suggests there is a biological basis for it. In 2006, neuroscientist Jorge Moll and a team of National Institutes of Health researchers gave subjects some money and a list of causes to which they might contribute. They found that the mere thought of giving money to charity activates the primitive part of the brain associated with the pleasures of eating and having sex. Functional MRIs indicated that donating money stimulates the mesolimbic pathway, the reward center in the brain, which is responsible for dopamine-mediated euphoria. 

Rico continues, “It is somehow heartening to discover we're hard wired for behavior that all the great spiritual traditions have urged for centuries.” Well said! The article is long, but well worth the read—Rico includes so many examples of heartwarming generosity that you get that “giving high” just by reading the article.

Photo 1: From the Hudson Star Observer. 

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dhRma4all's picture

I think this could use some work. Here's why:

1.Charitable giving equated with a quick romp in the sack? Welllll, if you want to believe that, that's your choice and your interpretation of skillfulness. I would suggest, however, that the difference is in the details, and quite a difference there is. It's like saying that looking at a comic book activates the same areas of the brain that reading Shakespeare (or the Metta Sutta) does.
2. Got a problem with someone's interpretation of a swastika? Or would you rather discuss the truly subtle artistic distinctions in swastika faceting or directionality, or how to properly wear swastika jewelry? Or that the Native Americans (and others) had it long before Der/Die/Das Fuhrer? Yes, yes, yes, I know sensitivity has no place in modern society, but tell it to someone who survived the Holocaust or who doesn't want to see it happen any more often than it has. The Holocaust's intensity and recent occurrence would seem to warrant some consideration and compassion here. About 6 million people paid for the sensitivity that interprets it as a symbol of evil, and arguably that trumps those who think it's just so provocatively fashionable (OK, OK, Chairman Mao killed at least ten times as many, and everyone thinks it's just too cool to wear his image on a T-shirt, but you can't explain human taste).
3. From what little I know, homeowner's associations usually have practically nothing to do with religion or religious intolerance and are primarily about maintaining some kind of pre-agreed community aesthetic continuity. If someone puts up a few dozen brightly colored crucifixes or a 60' tall blow-up replica of a Boticelli Madonna in their front yard, the objections just might have less to with art or religion than with housing values.

Thank you. And sorry if I offended.

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Hi Dharma for all, thanks for your comment. No offense taken!

1. Like you said, it's all in the details, right? I don't think saying that charitable giving and having sex activate the same part of the brain is the equivalent of saying that charitable giving is an action equivalent to having sex. But even there, there is a point to be argued, and like you mentioned, it has to do with skillfulness. Depending on context, charitable giving is not always skillful; having sex is not always unskillful (which seems to be what your comment implies).
2. Absolutely, sensitivity has a place in modern society! But sensitivity goes both ways. Should the owner of the jewelry store considered that her earrings might have been interpreted as Nazi symbols? Yes. But the ones who came down hard on her also should have considered that she was not coming from a place of Nazism, but from a different cultural context.
3. I think there's a fine line between religious intolerance and pre-agreed community aesthetic. In my opinion, the flags that were put up were not as flashy as the examples you wrote about, and don't seem like they are an aesthetic offense, especially considering that many of the homes had Christmas lights strung up. But that's just my opinion! Who knows what the Homeowners Association was thinking.

Dominic Gomez's picture

I imagine for Saxons during Charlemagne's reign the cross was similarly feared.

thenadeaujonathan's picture

If we were to make the Christian cross illegal on all the lands were it has been perceived has a symbol of violence in the past the cross forbidden zone would cover at least two third of the globe. In History how many people has been massacred by soldiers bearing the Christian cross ? How many Muslims during the crusades, how many native Americans during the conquistador period alone ? How many Celtic pagans burned at the stake ? I think it has more to do with the political and financial power of the victims. By respect for the victims of the pedophile priests should wearing the clergy robes made illegal ? By respect for the victims of the Muslim extremists should we made the color green illegal since it is the color of Islam and the color of choice of most terrorists ?

Dominic Gomez's picture

The real issue is zeitgeist. Buddhism teaches the non-duality of human beings and their environments, whether natural, social, or religio-philosophical. Each individual is a product of his or her times as well as its creator. If we learn to bring forth and maintain our highest life-condition (in our case as Buddhists that of enlightenment), then swastikas, crosses, crescents, the letters KKK, et al. should have no bearing on how we treat one another as fellow human beings.

thenadeaujonathan's picture

Totally agree. When we say "all sentient beings" it includes ALL sentient beings.

thenadeaujonathan's picture

Please stop spreading the false idea that the Nazi swastika was revolving in the opposite direction as the Buddhist one. I've hear that all my life knowing that this is not true, but now to read it in a well respected Buddhist magazine is very sad. First of all you just have to look at any Tibetan Buddhist high lama's throne to see it often depicted in both directions, and most of the time in the same direction as the Nazi one. In all the western religions mentioned in the article (Buddhist, Jainist, and Hindu) it usually turns in the same direction as the Nazi one, except for Buddhism that uses both directions. In the Bon religion (the indigenous religion of Tibet) the swastika always revolve counterclockwise, that is the opposite of the Nazi version. Here is a very nice article on the subject of the swastika symbol in the Bon religion http://www.sherabchammaling.com/teachings.html . A lot of people truly believe that Hitler has purposefully inverted the symbol so that it gets a negative power or to indicate his allegiance to the dark side. This view is of course ridiculous and belongs more to science fiction than history. Sadly, like all of us in this samsaric world, Hitler was instead convinced that he was belonging to the side of the good guys.

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Hi, many thanks for pointing out my mistake and for the link—I enjoyed reading about the YungDrung Bon symbol. I did a bit of quick Internet research, certainly nothing exhaustive. Although, as you said, the religious swastika is often depicted in both directions, it does seem that in Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Bon, the symbol usually lies flat, whereas the Nazi symbol is at an angle. One way to differentiate the two, I suppose, although I'm not sure if this is always the case. In terms of earrings that naturally rotate while in the ear, it wouldn't help us tell what the wearer meant to be supporting, anyway.
In any case, your comment and my mistake points out once again the importance of educating yourself in as many cultural contexts as possible! I'd like to think that a lot of the pain and anger that the swastika earring story highlights could have been avoided through such an education.

thenadeaujonathan's picture

Totally agree. Education is always the key. I think that a well educated people is a better protection from racism and violence than a well repressed one. And I'm not convinced that making symbols illegal in 1933 would have prevented the growth of antisemitism in Germany anyway. To make the difference between a Nazi swastika and a Buddhist one, instead of looking for the direction or angle I would rather look at the context. Nazi ones tend to be printed on red flags carried by angry persons marching in parades and Buddhist ones tend to be printed or carved on religious artifacts and temples ;)

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Haha, of course! But I think the question of the swastika earring story is: what do we do when the context is ambiguous?
Actually, to me, the context in this case wasn't ambiguous—I think it's pretty clear that the jewelry store owner wasn't trying to propagate Nazism. But just looking at the earrings on their own makes for an ambiguous context.

dhivajri's picture

Thanks for posting this correction, I was surprised to see the mistake repeated here. After 10 years of working in Chinatown, SF, I got quite used to them, but it is quite jarring to come across if one is not aware of the cultural context.