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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Unholy Shoes

June 18, 2010

by Bhuchung D. Sonam
June 17, 2010

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 had designer 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.

Writer can be reached at
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
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