IN ALMOST every room of Susan Cohen's Santa Monica house, there are Buddha statues: sitting, standing, reclining. Some are gray, others purple or pink. A 4-foot-tall copper-colored cast-resin Buddha head is propped up in the backyard pond, and a tiny ceramic figure gazes from the dashboard of her car.
Cohen isn't a Buddhist, and in 10 years of displaying symbols of the ancient religion, no one has asked if she is. She's just drawn to what the statues represent: serenity, wisdom, peace. "Who wouldn't want that in their home?" she asks.
Very few, it seems. Buddhas are big. They're everywhere these days, more likely bought at the local mall or garden center than during an overseas vacation. The principal religious figure for an estimated 6% of the world's population now doubles as visual shorthand for soothing interior design to so many others -- an instant tranquilizer set on the console or hung above the mantel. Scott Thomas of Thomas-Somero Design in Hollywood says that whenever he hears the word "Zen" from clients, he automatically draws a Buddha into the design sketch -- much to their approval.
Demand has even spread to the art market. In March, Christie's sold a 26-inch-tall wooden Buddha sculpture dating to the 12th century for about $14.4 million, setting a world auction record for traditional Japanese art.
Since 2004, Sotheby's has held three "The Arts of the Buddha" auctions that have included paintings, drawings and sculptures. In September, a 13th century Buddha from China sold for $541,000, more than double its pre-auction estimate.
Then there are the $7 Buddha-shaped bars of soap at Stone Candles in Culver City, the $117 Serenity table lamp with a Buddha head base under a black shade at www.bellacor.com, the $10 Buddha wind chime at Cost Plus World Market.
"While you'd typically see these items in our collectibles department, we're expanding the image to other divisions including our new bedding and pillows," says Marilyn Incerty, division merchandise manager for World Market. She adds that the chain has carried Buddha sculptures since 1958, but only in the last couple of years has demand spiked. "It's definitely a hot item."
The trend has even spawned the inevitable spoofs, including the sage dog in the classic contemplative pose -- paws poking out of its monk robe -- for $25 at the Pilgrims Way Community Bookstore & the Secret Garden, a Carmel shop that sells mostly serious items representing world religions. When a Japanese Buddhist monk saw the concrete canine, he laughed out loud, store owner Cynthia Fernandes says. "So I figure it can't be offensive."
Indeed, Buddha has become such a ubiquitous element in living rooms and on patios, the questions are inescapable: Has Buddhamania gone too far? What is the proper way to showcase such pieces? And at what point is the religious symbol reduced to a decorating tchotchke?
MICHAEL REITZ wasn't looking for spirituality when he found a Buddha statue for sale in a design showroom. His first reaction: "I'd like to come home to that face." Gentle looking, with partially closed eyes, princely long ears and upturned lips, the countenance was as relaxed as the body, held gracefully in a lotus position.
Made of stone and heavier than a refrigerator, the 5-foot-tall statue was hauled to Reitz's Nichols Canyon home. When he moved a few blocks away, he put the Buddha on a dolly and wheeled it down the street. It now sits on a pedestal embedded into the hillside, soft moss growing on it Reitz has since bought two more statues.
"Now I can see a Buddha from every window," says the film hair stylist, who sought relief from chaotic workdays. "They have friendly, nonthreatening faces that make me feel protected. If I ever moved, they'd go with me."
Thomas and design partner Brian Somero say a Buddha can represent an attempt to bring peace to a space. In a project steeped in irony, Thomas put a 2-inch Buddha near the soaking tub of one client -- a casting director "who screams and ruins people's careers all day."
L.A. interior designer William McWhorter says the image of Buddha speaks subtly about spirituality without being overtly religious. It also falls into so many Southern Californians' desire to connect with the environment. McWhorter has a Los Feliz client with a larger-than-life Buddha seated in a fountain. "It's serene," he says. "And you feel you're a part of nature."
In two new contemporary Venice town-house rentals, developer and designer Georgie Smith installed a 19th century marble Burmese Buddha with his right hand on his chest. The open living-dining space has another Burmese Buddha standing in the center, and garden patios have sculptures seated in the lotus position, which represents balance and tranquillity.
"I wouldn't even begin to describe ourselves as Buddhists," Smith says of herself and partner Melissa Goddard. "However, Buddhism as a philosophy has been essential to our growth, and hence on a personal level, the presence of Buddha is a constant reminder to grow."
Interest in Buddha images is part of a larger trend toward decor with more personal significance, says Izzy Chait, owner of Beverly Hills-based I.M. Chait Gallery/Auctioneers. He says prices for Buddha statues have jumped fivefold in three years.
The platinum-clad "Oval Buddha" sculpture by Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami was snapped up this month for $8 million in Switzerland at Art Basel, the leading contemporary art show. A similar 18 1/2 -foot-tall piece was displayed in L.A. at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Geffen Contemporary earlier this year.
"People were captivated and fascinated by its scale, material, imaginative elements and overwhelming level of detail," recalls MOCA director Jeremy Strick, adding that he didn't hear any negative responses to the sculpture, a self-portrait with a "beatific and ferocious" face and a meditative pose.
PEOPLE may love Buddhas, but is it proper to display them in the home, particularly if you're not a Buddhist?
Sure, says William Bodiford, a UCLA professor of Asian languages and cultures who's affiliated with the university's Center for Buddhist Studies. He says decorative images of Buddha first appeared 2,000 years ago and spread the teachings of the religion's founder, Siddhartha Gautama.
"Normally the image is intended to depict Buddhist ideals, such as wisdom, serenity, equanimity and joy," Bodiford says.
Most Americans don't know much about Buddhism, so statues, wall carvings and paintings don't "come with baggage," he says. "It's a blank slate that they can accept on their own terms."
Different denominations have rules as to how such articles should be handled. Some believe it's wrong to use Buddha images on clothing and other everyday items. Even an expensive lamp, no matter how finely crafted, can try a practitioner's patience.
Surya Das, a Cambridge, Mass.-based lama in the Tibetan tradition, has seen bars named after Buddha, even a restaurant that used a statue to hold umbrellas.
"No one in the West would use a Jesus statue as an umbrella rack," he says, adding that respect for Buddhism "occasionally strays" and too many statues may be "diluting Buddha."
"But if elegant, architectural adornments make people happy for a moment, that's a good thing," says Das, author of "The Big Questions: How to Find Your Own Answers to Life's Essential Mysteries" and other books on Buddhist thought.
The Rev. Noriaki Ito of Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in L.A. answers with polite diplomacy when asked about the abundance of Buddha statues in homes.
"On the one hand, we're happy that people are looking toward Buddhism to bring a peacefulness to their lives," he says. "But some of the images we see are not authentic. They may not be Buddhist at all and are often mass-produced items not of the quality we would like to see."
Ito, who was born in 1948 in Kumamoto, Japan, and moved with his family to Boyle Heights when he was 6, says the Buddhists he knows have one good-quality statue or scroll with Buddhist texts displayed in the finest room of their home.
"Those of us who can't have a separate room reserved for an altar would still designate a space in the home that is set aside from other furniture, and the altar would occupy that special place," he says.
At Japanese temples, it's common to have a statue outside in a garden, "but it would be placed with utmost care and consideration," he says. Positioning a Buddha on some sort of base is preferred to putting it on the ground, he says, and it should blend into the natural beauty of the surroundings and be kept clean.
The guiding principle, Ito says, is respect. How would you respond if your religion's sacred symbol was used as a coaster, Jell-O mold or bobblehead?
Some have gotten the message. Stone Candles recently updated one candle design after mild protests from customers who didn't think it was proper to burn a Buddha head. The new version is a wax shell with a glass insert -- a sort of candle within a candle, so that the gently smiling face glows but doesn't melt.
Ito says he's happy that people are embracing a symbol of Buddhism. "It's a nice introduction," he says. "And I hope they go further and discover what it is to live it."
(Los Angeles Times, June 12, 2008)