It’s not unusual for Western enthusiasts of the Buddha to express their passion for the South Asian sage with hippy T-shirts, flea market trinkets, and even ink on skin.
But if you’ve tattooed the founder of Buddhism on your body, you should think twice before visiting Sri Lanka, where the authorities take cultural appropriation pretty damn seriously.
That was the hard lesson learned by Naomi Michelle Coleman, a 37-year-old British tourist who was detained on arrival at Bandaranaike International Airport after she was seen sporting a large Buddha seated on a lotus flower on her right arm.
Sri Lanka, whose majority Sinhalese population is devoutly Buddhist, has a reputation for being especially touchy about cultural insensitivity and the misuse of the Buddha’s image.
Coleman, who was traveling to Sri Lanka from India, was arrested for “hurting others’ religious feelings,” a police spokesperson told reporters.
Following the arrest, she appeared before a magistrate who ordered her deportation. She is currently being held at an immigration deportation center and is expected to be removed from the country in the coming days, local officials said.
The British High Commission in Colombo said it is aware of the matter and providing consular assistance.
But Coleman isn’t the first Briton whose ink hasn’t sit well with Sri Lankans.
Last year, Antony Ratcliffe, another Briton with a similar tattoo, was detained at the airport for the same reason, and accused of answering questions about the controversial tattoo “very disrespectfully”, according to the BBC.
Radcliffe denied being disrespectful, and said he was shocked and saddened by the detention.
“As soon as he saw it the chief officer went crazy,” he said following the incident. “You could see it on his face, he looked really angry and said I would have to go back to London.
It mattered little that Radcliffe is a practicing Buddhist, as are many Westerners — including tattooed ones.
"I like the artwork in tattoos obviously and, due to my belief in Buddhist philosophy which I have followed for many years, I thought a quality tattoo of the Buddha was rather apt,” Ratcliffe told the BBC. “When I saw they had accused me of speaking disrespectfully about Buddhism, I had to put my side of the story.
Several travel advisories for Sri Lanka warn tourists against the “mistreatment of Buddhist images” and posing for photos next to Buddha statues.
But some people just don’t get it.
Two years, ago, three French tourists were given suspended prison sentences after taking their love of the Buddha a little too far and posing for photos while pretending to kiss a statue at a temple.
In 2010, R&B artist Akon earned a ban from Sri Lanka after his contribution to David Guetta's “Sexy Chick” video, which featured half-naked women dancing in front of a Buddha statue at an Ibiza pool party.
On that occasion, hundreds of angry demonstrators stormed the headquarters of a television network in Colombo, protesting an upcoming gig by the performer, and authorities denied his entry visa.
Akon eventually apologized.
“I am a spiritual man,” he said, “so I can understand why they are offended.”
Cultural appropriation of this sort is likely to continue to anger Buddhists in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the world.
But anyone who gets upset about this sort of thing should ask themselves, What would Buddha do?
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi
Photo via Flickr