March 16, 2012

Buddha Buzz: Rude Buddhas and Undertaker Bodhisattvas

First off, some follow-up on past Buddha Buzz items: Remember the three Tibetan hunger strikers in New York? They were paid a visit by "Tibet's best friend" (the words of Tsewang Rigzin, president of the NYC Tibetan Youth Congress, not mine), actor Richard Gere last week. And this Tuesday, U.N. Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights, Ivan Simonovic, invited Rigzin to his offices, where the two discussed the hunger strikers' requests, the Huffington Post reports. Looks like they are making some progress!

And second, many happy returns to the San Francisco Zen Center, which turned 50 this week. You can read more about the center and see some cool old pictures on the Huffington Post here. (I've got to say, the Huffington Post has really been on top of Buddhist news lately...)

Short memos: over! Now to a Buddhist news item that was brought to my attention last weekend by a very staunch Saturday Night Live supporter and avid mother.

Ahem. Anyway, have you seen Rude Buddha? It was a skit on SNL a couple weeks ago that featured Andy Sandberg as the rude Buddha. Watch it below. 

The general consensus on the skit, as far as I've been able to tell, has been that it's just not that funny. I don't think it's that funny, either. But does it mean something that SNL has taken up Buddhism as the butt of their jokes? It seemed to me that this skit wasn't a satire of pop culture Buddhism or New Age-y Buddhist sympathizers; the effort was on satirizing the Buddha himself, something that I don't think I've seen emerge in the mainstream until now. What do you guys think? And did you think it was offensive? Wall Street Journal blogger Barbara Chai certainly did.

Offensive or no, there's nothing more unpleasant than watching bad comedy. For that, my sincere apologies. Perhaps the following story will help propel me back into your good graces. From the New York Times, a short piece about a Japanese Buddhist undertaker and his heartwarming actions after last year's earthquake and tsunami.

Atsushi Chiba, the undertaker, cared for almost 1,000 dead bodies in a Japanese community hard-hit by the disaster, helping survivors cope with the trauma of losing their loved ones. From the article:

As the black water receded, rescuers entered the city’s devastated streets and started pulling the dead from the rubble, carrying them on trucks to a vacant middle school that had escaped damage. The rundown gymnasium quickly became a large morgue.

Mr. Chiba, in his early 70s, whose home was also spared, raced to the gym on the day after the tsunami to look for friends and family, but was struck by the state of the mounting number of bodies there. Most were still clad in muddy clothes and wrapped in plastic, their rigid limbs jutting out and faces bruised by debris and contorted in agony.

'I thought that if the bodies were left this way, the families who came to claim them wouldn’t be able to bear it,' Mr. Chiba said Thursday in an interview. 'Yes, they are dead. But in Japan, we treat the dead with respect, as if they are still alive. It’s a way to comfort the living.'

Mr. Chiba set to work. He became a fixture at the morgue, speaking to the bodies as he prepared them for viewing and then cremation. 'You must be so cold and lonely, but your family is going to come for you soon so you’d better think of what you’re going to say to them when they arrive,' he recalled saying.

He also taught city workers at the morgue how to soothe limbs tense with rigor mortis, getting down on his knees and gently massaging them so the bodies looked less contorted. When the relatives of a middle-aged victim sobbed that her corpse looked gaunt, Mr. Chiba asked for some makeup and applied rouge and blush.

A book about Chiba has been written in Japanese, which is already a best-seller. I hope they translate it into English! As the book's author, Kota Ishii, says in the article, “this story is ultimately about how small acts of kindness can bring a little humanity, even in a tragedy that defies all imagination.”

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écrivain public's picture

This sketch is funny and I'm assuming that we can laugh at anything!

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

What's kind of discouraging about all this is that the skit has prompted some comments on the Internet along the lines of "if you were a good Buddhist you wouldn't be offended." That's just tiring!

@Mark, I agree with you about SNL losing its edge. Nothing on it seems that funny anymore.

@njefferis...there is something about being made fun of on SNL, isn't there? It's like if SNL has deigned to make fun of you, then you know you've really made it! That's why I was wondering whether this skit meant something more about Buddhism transitioning to the mainstream.

Dominic Gomez's picture

@Emma re: the mainstream. I think we're neck and neck with the Mormons ;-)

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Haha, we'll be neck and neck just as soon as there's a Buddhist candidate for President!

Dominic Gomez's picture

Hopefully before Opus Dei lines one up.

Philip Ryan's picture

I think it's also notable that the Buddha is not portrayed as Hotei in this sketch, i.e. very fat. Is that progress?

Dominic Gomez's picture

They could've cast Josh Duhamel. Contemporary accounts indicate Buddha was a hottie.

DougHolmes's picture

If you meet the Buddha on the road, mock him!

Dominic Gomez's picture

Why can't Buddha vacuum under the sofa? Because he has no attachments.

njefferis's picture

The skit might appeal to some but not to me. I don't find it funny. But I am not offended. SNL has made fun of all the most notable people throughout history.

“When a simpleton abused him, Lord Buddha listened to him in silence, but when the man had finished, the Buddha asked him, ‘Son, if a man declined to accept a present offered to him, to whom would it belong?’ The man answered ‘To him who offered it.’ ‘My son’, Buddha said, ‘I decline to accept your abuse. Keep it for yourself.’” ~The Buddha (as told by Will Durant)

markboltin's picture

I agree on the SNL skit. Just not funny! As a practicing Buddhist, I do find it offensive..especially in the light of the Buddha's teachings (and the example he set) on the Five Precepts, Right Intention, Right View, and especially Right Speech. The Buddha did have a sense of humor, but this is just poorly written and in bad taste.
In my opinion, SNL lost it's edge after Belushi and the original cast left. There have been exceptions (Eddie Murphy, Chris Farley, Tina Fey) but I quit watching many years ago because I found the writing and skits to NOT FUNNY! I may sound like an old fogey, but it is MHO.
Blessings to Mr. Chiba! I look forward to reading the book.