Idol Chatter

Ever wonder where all those Buddha statues in your favorite Asian-fusian restaurant come from? Chances are, if you live in New York City, Los Angeles, or Las Vegas, a man named Richard Wolf (The Buddha Wrangler) retrieved them from a tiny village in remote Thailand or commissioned an entire village to create them.

In the “The Buddha Wrangler,” The New York Times reporter Michael Kaplan caught up with Mr. Wolf to ask him about his craft–on how he finds just the right Buddhas for each high end restaurant before opening night:

“In the course of decorating Tao east and west, the 47-year-old Wolf has purchased big Buddhas, small Buddhas, brass Buddhas, stone Buddhas and one of the most striking Buddhas of all: A reclining celestial being carved from a single hunk of wood, painted gold and sporting a red jewel that shines with laser-sharp intensity. ‘I pulled my back out opening night, helping the bouncers get that one in,'” Wolf says in the article. During the restaurant’s two-year gestation, Wolf traveled to Asia 10 times. He scoured side streets and back alleys, hired a facilitator to translate and operated with a combination of cunning and zeal.”

The Buddha at Tao east is 12 feet tall and weighs 9,000 pounds. But it isn’t his biggest or most glamorous catches either. At the glitzy restaurant Buddakan, Buddha is a bit shorter but he’s covered in gold leaf. At Megu, a sushi restaurant in TriBeCa, Buddha is an imposing 17 feet tall. Buddhas this big aren’t simply sitting around waiting to be purchased though–Wolf had to design and commission them–in a rather Frankenstein-like way it seems. Wolf explains:

“I sifted through thousands of photos and chose the body parts that pleased my eye. The face is sixth-century Chinese, the body is Thai, the hand is from a Buddha at Angkor Wat. With a little bit of torture from me, the carver got each one done in six months.”

Since “rarely is the deity that presides over these establishments regarded as anything but decorative,” Kaplan wonders: “How does a true believer feel about his holiness mixing it up with Singapore slings?”

Apparently–these Buddha decoratives pass the religious appropriateness test, but don’t pass muster as appealing design:

“It’s tacky but not sacrilege,” says Seigan Ed Glassing, a Buddhist monk who resides at the New York Zendo Shobo-Ji temple on East 67th Street. “Buddha spoke to so many people, in so many different languages, that he would be O.K. with this. If seeing Buddha in a restaurant or nightclub opens your spiritual eye, then it is a good thing.”

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