A proper place for images: the Buddha in Thailand

Hugo Shakeshaft, a PhD student in Classics and member of Talking Religion, writes about his latest trip to Thailand and what encounters with the image of the Buddha might tell us about perceptions of this most important of figures.

Yesterday I returned from a holiday in Thailand. While its beautiful scenery and world-famous cuisine are its more common attractions, for me perhaps the most intriguing thing about Thailand is its Buddhist culture. My fascination with this aspect of Thailand owes much to the Talking Religion research group; our lively, often-inconclusive but always thought-provoking conversations about the material culture of religion were ringing in my ears as I witnessed Thais going about their religious life—here was a chance to test the theories and observe a foreign religious culture in action, something that students of ancient Greek religion like myself can only dream of.

Any visitor to Thailand cannot fail to be struck by the vital role that Buddhism and its material culture play in Thai life. In fact, the first thing you see as you enter the country is a large video screen over passport control prohibiting the inappropriate use of the Buddha image: slogans like “Do not use Buddha as decoration, it is disrespectful”, and “It’s wrong to use images of Buddha in bars, decoration, tattoo”, accompany images to the same effect. Sponsored by the Knowing Buddha Organisation (KBO), such warnings are a common sight in Thailand (see below) and clear signs of a sensitive issue. KBO was founded by Acharavadee Wongsakon in 2012 after she came across Buddha Bar in Paris, where the sight of a Buddha in the middle of a dance floor inspired her “mission to protect Buddha’s images and symbols from disrespectful acts” (see knowingbuddha.org). In short, KBO is a reaction against the appropriation of the Buddha image for non-sacred purposes, a phenomenon undoubtedly linked to Thailand’s status as one of the most popular destinations for western tourists; it is no coincidence that KBO’s large demonstration in February 2016 was held on the Kaosan road in Bangkok, the country’s primary tourist hub. The appropriation of religious iconography as a result of intensive contact between foreign cultures is a familiar theme in human history, and what is currently happening in Thailand is another chapter in that story—a chapter of understandable resistance to secular appropriation and commercialisation of sacred imagery.

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As much as it highlights the challenges to religious protocol posed by a booming tourist industry, the mission to protect the Buddha image is a simple indication of its value and centrality in Thai culture. You can’t go very far in Thailand without encountering a Buddha, whether big or small. From amulets around people’s necks and in their cars, to small shrines outside houses, hotels and even truck services on the motorway, to monumental golden statues occupying temples and impressive positions in the landscape, the distinctive form of the Buddha is everywhere in Thailand. And when you see a Buddha, you rarely see just one: just as people often wear multiple amulets, so in temples it is common to see a central monumental Buddha flanked by many others in various shapes and sizes, as in these photos of Wat Phra Singh and Wat Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai. And while all the Buddhas in a single shrine contribute to the overall effect on the visitor, there does seem to be a kind of hierarchy not necessarily determined by size. In the shrine of Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, for instance, it was a small emerald Buddha that was the focus of people’s veneration as they bowed, prayed and made their offerings of incense, not the bigger Buddhas surrounding him.

This question of scale is something I found particularly interesting about the material culture of Thai Buddhism. Monumental and miniature amuletic Buddhas are both prolific in Thailand, but how do they compare? Are they essentially the same or does the difference in scale radically alter their religious value and role? There is no question that the difference in scale radically alters how people interact with and physically relate to them. Monumental Buddhas are fixed in place, make us small in their presence and impress their importance by their grandeur. By contrast, the small size of amulets allows people to wear and develop a physical intimacy with them.

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Yet a basic similarity lies in the fact that the image of the Buddha, whether monumental or miniature, is commonly held to mediate certain qualities that many Thais believe the Buddha incarnates and emanates. The sign photographed below from Wat Suan Dok in Chiang Mai conveys a popular sentiment regarding the power of a Buddha image. We might think that such a sentiment would refer to an amulet worn for its protective powers, and when I asked people why they wore amulets I heard a similar answer: that it is for protection and good luck, what is called ‘chok dee’—clearly an important concept for many Thai Buddhists. But in fact I found this sign beneath the enormous standing Buddha pictured on the right. So if both may be seen as ways to connect with the ‘wonderful energies of healing, luck, abundance and happiness’, monumental and miniature Buddhas may have more in common than their size suggests.

As someone who studies a religion whose practitioners are all long dead, I found that one of the great pleasures of learning about Thai Buddhism was that I could both watch what people did and talk to them too. These are luxuries that any student of ancient religion lacks; rather than building a picture of religious practice and views from empirical data, a classicist is often faced with the giant methodological hurdle of inferring what people did, thought, and believed from diverse fragments—the ruins of a temple, the fragment of a hymn, some votive terracottas, etc. From talking to Thais, it became clear that many of my inferences about the role or significance of various aspects of their religious life from its material culture were way off the mark. As far as my own work is concerned, therefore, I have come away with a keen sense of the need for caution and conscientiousness when studying the materiality of ancient religion in particular. The Buddha neatly encapsulated the importance of scepticism balanced by careful inquiry: “Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumoured by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

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Author: Hugo Shakeshaft

Photos © 2017 Empires of Faith

2 thoughts on “A proper place for images: the Buddha in Thailand

  1. Good Morning, I do not how this web talk found my email, but the ideas offered and that which I have read, somehow, they agree with my temporary thinking on religion or philosophy. Though my interest lies in that my two grand nieces and their mother are Buddhist from Thailand, the father is a Christian who has a mentor in the Evangelical Christian Community in Thailand. Thank you, first your writing is excellent and second contains elements of hypothesis one needs before entering the Thai Country. Hopefully I remain in the USA or go back home with my husband to The Netherlands. Sad to say, my mind is beyond elementary religions and has for many years sought out and experienced differing philosophies, religions and political insight. Mrs. Arthur L Keith (My husband is a Christian Minister with a Masters of Divinity from a TX University.) Annette Keith

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