Generally, use of a mandala is not considered cultural appropriation. However, there are some instance in which it may not be considered okay to use them, as defined by the cultures of origin.
In particular, some scholars (Bao & Willis, 2022) have explored how Buddhists symbols can be used in advertisements as a gimmick to create brand identity and achieve sales rather than for genuine Buddhist purposes. Similarly, use of cultural tools to mock a culture is often interpreted as cultural appropriation.
However, if you’re using them in the ways that do not disrespect Buddhist culture and beliefs, then most Buddhists will be okay with you using them.
What is a Mandala?
Mandalas are mesmerizing spiritual symbols in Buddhism and Hinduism. They are usually circular figures with stunning colors. Typically, they’re used as a focus for meditation or as a visual mantra.
Many people across the world appreciate the beauty of mandalas. Some people love decorating their houses with tapestries, while others love mandalas so much that they’ve decided to get them tattooed.
Culture appreciation is seeking to learn more about a culture and appreciating its aspects. In other words, cultural appreciation is understanding the culture and connecting with its people.
On the other hand, cultural appropriation is taking someone’s aspect of a culture that isn’t your own and making it your aspect and interest.
For example, let’s say someone puts on a certain piece of clothing that represents a culture they aren’t a part of. Whether it’s just to look unique or just as a fashion statement, that’s cultural appropriation.
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The answer to this question is a little complicated, as it depends on your intention when using mandalas. However, generally, they are not seen as cultural appropriation.
For example, if you get a mandala t-shirt, tattoo, or tapestry, and you’re wearing it or hanging it just because it looks cool, then it might be considered cultural appropriation by some people.
Additionally, if mandala tapestries found in online stores or in local shops aren’t original mandalas or aren’t connected to the practice of Buddhism, they might be seen as cultural appropriation by some people.
Moreover, if you have a true Vajrayana mandala, hanging it or wearing it is sometimes considered inappropriate.
There are some situations when using mandalas may be considered cultural appropriation; for instance, using mandalas in ways that mock of disrepect Buddhist practices.
Additionally, it could be seen as culturally inappropriate to sell or recreate pieces of mandalas and sell it. That’s because it’s sometimes believed that you shouldn’t financially benefit from a culture you’re not a part of.
Other things can be considered Buddhism cultural appropriation, for instance:
- Buddha figures, drawings, or tattoos that depict Buddha negatively.
- Using Buddhist principles as jokes or catchphrases that disrespect the religion.
- Using sacred objects for decorations.
- Disrespecting sacred objects.
Buddhists generally don’t feel uncomfortable if people appreciate mandalas.
In other words, as long as you’re respectful and appreciative, it’s likely that you aren’t be doing anything wrong.
Generally speaking, most Buddhists won’t care if you hang a mandala-like tapestry in your living room. As long as you’re not misrepresenting or disrespecting their culture, there is no current major backlash against so-called Buddhist cultural appropriation.
Additionally, many abstract or geometrical designs get mistaken for mandalas just because they’re circular-shaped. So, there’s a chance that the mandala you’re using isn’t an actual mandala, and there’s nothing to worry about.
The first step to avoiding cultural appropriation is to research and learn about the culture.
So, if you truly appreciate this piece of culture, learning about what mandalas mean to Buddhism is the first step.
The second step is not to be afraid to ask. If you’re unsure about a certain activity regarding a certain culture, you can find many online communities that’ll be more than happy to help you understand their culture.
In fact, people of that culture will respect your approach and the fact that you don’t want to present their culture mistakenly.
Abstract and geometrical art pieces that look like mandalas (but don’t claim to be mandalas) aren’t usually considered cultural appropriation.
So, you can wear them, hang them, or do whatever you like with them as long as they aren’t claimed to be “true mandalas.”
Additionally, you can’t claim that they’re mandalas. That would be cultural appropriation as well.
In general, mandalas haven’t been the focus of attention when it comes to cultural appropriation. If you appreciate the culture and you understand what mandalas are used for, then it appears to be okay to use them.
However, using mandalas to make a fashion statement, for decoration, or to make a financial profit may be seen as cultural appropriation by some people. Similarly, if you want to look like you have a connection with the culture or claim to be a part of it, that is also cultural appropriation.
So, as long as you’re not claiming to have a connection with a culture that you’re not a part of and you’re appreciative and respectful, you can enjoy the beauties of mandalas all you want.
Bao, J., & Willis, W. M. (2022). The Cultural Appropriation of Buddha in American Advertisements. Journal of Global Buddhism, 23(1), 45-61.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.