If you’ve ever been to any museum or art gallery anywhere on the planet, odds are quite good that you’ve looked at something that has been stolen from its rightful owners. Colonialists the world over have looted, pillaged, and plundered with impunity, because they believe the world is theirs to exploit and profit from. For the current possessors of such booty, repatriation is quite often a dirty word. (And I find it ironic that these organizations often charge the general public a good bit of their hard-earned money to gaze upon these stolen goods.)
I firmly believe that things should be returned to their rightful owners. Unfortunately, that gets rather complicated in practice. I’ll give you one such dilemma that I stumbled upon quite by accident, and afterwards I’ll hit you with some questions about how these situations should be handled in general.
I must confess that even at my ripe old age, I still play Pokemon Go. One aspect of that game is the ability to exchange “gifts” with other players around the globe. These are in the form of digital postcards. They’re often photographs of points of interest, and if you’re lucky, someone has taken the time to write a description thereof. This is my absolute favorite part of the game. It’s like traveling without leaving your own home. Every day, I get “postcards” from Japan, Hong Kong, India, Brazil, and Spain.
Last week I was getting my Pokemon Go on, so to speak, when I received the following postcard from a Pokemon friend who is from Louisiana. My first thought was, “What the heck is a Buddha statue doing in Louisiana?” Many more thoughts would follow.
The person who created this postcard was kind enough to type out, verbatim, the inscription placard that is below the statue. It says, “This Buddha was built for the Shonfa Temple located northeast of Peking by the order of Emperor Hui-Tsung (1101-1125). Its builder was Chon-Ha-Chin, most noted of ancient Buddha makers. The temple was looted by a rebel general who took the statue as part of his loot and sent it to New York to be sold … The statue came to the notice of two friends of E.A. McIlhenny who purchased it and sent it to him as a gift in 1936.”
Seriously? This statue was knowingly taken from its intended place, passed through several hands, and now it’s proudly displayed in Louisiana, and the owners/accessories-after-the-fact don’t even bother to hide this information? It’s right out there for the whole world to see. “Look what we got!”
Naturally, I had to learn more. The postcard didn’t say exactly where in Louisiana this Buddha patiently sits. But since those who run the venue are blatant and proud of having this loot, they weren’t hard to track down. I simply dragged the image into Google images, and voila! The kidnapper’s lair was uncovered!
This statue has pride of place on Avery Island, which is located on the Louisiana coast southwest of Baton Rouge. If you look on a map, it would be quite understandable if you didn’t realize the place was an island. It’s a salt dome that is surrounded by bayous, marshes, and swampland, so technically, yeah, it’s an island. But much of its boundary is comprised of what looks like a drainage ditch that you could easily jump over, if you don’t have the good sense to be mindful of alligators and poisonous snakes.
Having never stepped foot in Louisiana, I had never heard of this island, so of course I did some homework. The place does have a fascinating history. Currently, about 124 people live there, but a lot of tourists come to visit the island, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
First, the island was a sugar plantation that was operated by about 100 slaves. Then, strangely enough, a nutria farm was established there. The culprit was Edward McIlhenny. While this family is known for its environmentalism, the nutria is one of the most ecologically harmful invasive species on the planet, and this guy released “a large number” of these nutrias into the wild, and their descendants plague the south to this day.
During the Civil War, Avery Island was home to a salt mine that supplied the confederacy with 22 million pounds of salt. Right after the war, in 1868, Edmund McIlhenny invented Tabasco Sauce, and you can still tour the factory, which continues to crank out the hot stuff for a spice-loving public.
Even more interesting for tourists, in my nature-loving opinion, is Jungle Gardens, a 170-acre venue on what used to be the McIlhenny estate. It looks like a beautiful place, well worth a visit, although I wouldn’t do it in the middle of summer. Way too hot.
The site is also used for events and weddings. Much of the garden was built to highlight the stolen Buddha. Buddhists sometimes come here to worship.
I don’t mean to imply that the McIlhennys did the actual stealing of this statue. But if they knew enough about it to be able to compose the placard that tells its history, then they were most definitely complicit. If someone steals the key to a house, and then gives you the key as a gift, that doesn’t mean you have the right to go in there and make yourself at home.
That placard gives us many clues about the statue’s provenance, so I decided to do a little sleuthing to figure out where it came from. First, the Shonfa Temple is mentioned, and it is said to be northeast of Peking. I Googled the temple and came up empty. However, there is a Chongfa Temple that was ransacked during the late 1800’s, but it is southwest of Beijing (Peking), not northeast. But the description might have gotten that backward. Further, the Emperor Huizong (anglicized as Hui -tsung) figures prominently in this temple’s history.
I could not find a thing about Chon-Ha-Chin, but given the other slight errors, and the fact that at the time the English spellings of Chinese names left much to be desired, it’s not surprising that I couldn’t find him.
The rebel general who did the looting was not named, but there was quite a bit of plundering going on during the Taiping Rebellion. I find it interesting, though, that said general would send the statue to New York to be sold, and yet no one knew his name. I’d think it would be much more likely that he sold it to some rich white guy who then brought it to New York. It is said that the statue languished in some warehouse for many years until two friends of the McIlhennys found it and thought it would make a great gift for them. It came to Avery Island in 1936.
And there the statue sits to this day. If it could talk, I wonder what it would have to say about the slavery and the nutrias and the Tabasco sauce and the tourists. Its surroundings are lush and beautiful, and it’s obvious that it is much loved. It’s the Jungle Garden’s most prized possession, but I still believe that they have no right to keep it.
But here’s where it gets sticky. History changes much. Even if Chongfa Temple is Shongfa Temple, most of that temple is no longer standing, and what remains is now a tea house. Should it go there?
In addition, while Buddhism is still popular in China, its history with the communists is fraught with violence, destruction, and suppression. Currently, Buddhism is tolerated, but it’s hardly official. And who knows when that tide will turn, and in which direction? Lest we forget, a fair amount of the ransacking of that nation was done by the Chinese themselves. Wherever this statue goes, it should be kept safe, and there’s no guarantee that that will be the case in today’s China. Just ask the people of Tibet.
But who gets to decide what is appropriate for this statue? It hasn’t exactly been safe in Louisiana either. Some fool tourist decided that it would be fun to break off its right earlobe. It’s a strange world we live in.
I don’t think Jungle Gardens or the Chinese Bureaucracy has the moral authority to make a decision about any of this. But then, who does, and based on what criteria? The ghosts of the past seem to be keeping their own counsel, and I keep going back and forth on the subject.
This seems to be a dilemma that matters to nobody but me. I’m sure Jungle Gardens doesn’t want to broach the subject for fear of losing this lovely statue. I suspect the current Chinese Government doesn’t particularly care, because they don’t want to focus on Buddhism. And while the Dalai Lama may be the most famous Buddhist, that religion doesn’t have an official leader.
Meanwhile, the Buddha sits in whatever the Buddhist equivalent of limbo might be. He sees everything, patiently waits, and judges not. But there’s plenty of judgment to go around.
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