The Spiritual World: Buddhism in Thai Art

Buddhist attitudes of peace, mindfulness and care for all living creatures have come to be the concern of many groups in the West. Buddhist believe that all things should be looked after: the earth, plants, birds, insects and animals (The Buddhist World). Buddhist art has grown organically within cultures in which the religion flourished, incorporating iconography and styles. Thus, the earliest Buddhist art partakes of symbols and styles from pre-existing Hindu (e.g., yogic postures) and East Roman art (figures set in architraves), with constant reference to the life story of the Buddha. Scholars have sought a cause for the introduction of human figures in Buddhist art around the 1st century BCE from the cultures of the era (What is Buddhist Art?).

These images relate to the theme of the gallery because they depict the Buddha. Images and sculptures of the Buddha were primary focuses in Thai art in the early 6th-18th centuries (McIntire). In one of Buddhism's iconic images, Gautama Buddha in Buddha Calling the Earth to Witness sits in meditation with his left palm upright on his lap, while his right hand touches the earth. Demonic forces have tried to unseat him, because their king, Mara, claims that place under the Bodhi tree. As they proclaim their leader's powers, Mara demands that Gautama produce a witness to confirm his spiritual awakening. The Buddha simply touches the earth with his right hand, and the Earth itself immediately responds: "I am your witness." Mara and his minions vanish. The morning star appears in the sky. This moment of supreme enlightenment is the central experience from which the whole of the Buddhist tradition unfolds (Why the Buddha Touched the Earth). The Buddha was frequently depicted with the crown and jewelry of a king, such as the Standing Crowned Buddha. These attributes could indicate the mystical identity of all Buddhas, past and present; they could stand for the attainment of nirvana; and, in addition, they could refer to a miracle involving the magical transformation of the Buddha in order to convert a heretic king (Standing Crowned Buddha).

For over 2500 years Thailand has been under the peaceful shelter of Buddhism. The Buddha's teachings (Dharma) color almost every aspect of life within the kingdom, uniting the people into a harmonious, peace-loving society. Images of the Buddha were originally created as an object of worship and as a means of spreading the Buddha's message. Accordingly, the images were designed not simply to represent the Buddha's physical characteristics but his teachings too. Overtime, and in different locations within the kingdom, the specific form of Buddha images has undergone subtle changes, creating visibly different characteristics that reflect the cultural values, craftsmanship and the influences of neighboring countries of the period (The Buddhist World).


"The Buddhist World: Spread of Buddhism to the West." BuddhaNet. BDEA, 2008. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

Ciliberto, Jonathan. "What Is Buddhist Art?" Buddhist Art News. The Coraline Theme, 2010. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

McIntire, Jennifer N. "Khan Academy." Khan Academy. Khan Academy. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

Stanley, John, and David Loy. "Why the Buddha Touched the Earth." ECOBUDDHISM ::. EcoBuddhism Project, n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

"Standing Crowned Buddha." Artwork of the Day. The Art Walters Museum, n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

In this gilded bronze statue from Thailand, the Buddha is shown meditating with legs crossed in the half-lotus position (Dhyana), a pose that has been used for centuries in meditation. The Thai Buddha statutes are noted for their sophistication. They stand out with their unusual beauty and suppleness, delicately formed facial expression, curved nose and eyebrows. The fine curly hair at the back of the head is plaited into a flame like tuft symbolizing the light of the highest knowledge.
This image of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, is in the U-Thong style of fourteenth-century Thailand. The style was apparently named after Prince U Thong, the first king of the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya. U Thong reigned as Ramathibodi I from 1351 to 1369, and actively propagated Theravada Buddhism as the state religion. This sculpture represents a move away from the Khmer-influenced Mahayana traditions of the Lopburi period towards a focus on the teachings of the earthly Buddha, Shakyamuni or Gautama. The Buddha wears an unadorned monk’s robe, folded across the left shoulder. His right hand extends to the ground in the earth-touching gesture (bhumisparsha mudra), signifying the Buddha calling on the earth to witness his attainment of enlightenment. His legs are crossed, with only the sole of the right foot visible. With a serene facial expression, the Buddha is shown with the pronounced cranial bump, capped with a flame-like jewel, characteristic of Thai Buddhist art. For Theravada Buddhists, this type of image serves as a focus for contemplation of the dharma, or Buddha’s teachings.
By the time Buddhism reached Thailand, its images were well defined and governed by prescribed canons. In an absorbing story of permutation and evolution, Thai sculptors of the Sukhothai period (1200-1400) created a transcendental and unique statement about the spirituality of Buddha within the canonical framework. The 32 major and 80 minor anatomical characteristics necessary to create a true Buddha image include the cranial protuberance symbolic of Buddha's supernatural wisdom; the elongated earlobes signifying his princely birth; the spiral curls symbolic of his great renunciation of cutting off his princely locks; a nose like a parrot's beak; and rounded chin like a lime or mango stone. The high flame finial which would have been attached to the crown of this figure, an innovation adopted from Sri Lanka, but now synonymous with the classic Thai style, is the Fire of Knowledge that burns away selfhood, ignorance and suffering. Sukhothai sculptors preferred bronze as their medium and achieved their greatest triumphs with it. Motivated by the belief that the more perfect the statue the stronger its power, they were driven to create such distillations of condensed spirituality as that captured here.
Buddhas of the past and future is a rare cloth banner painted in Thailand. The paintings were used in Buddhist monasteries, where they were unrolled and displayed on special occasions and for festivals in the Buddhist calendar, to teach and inspire the monks and devotees. Largely due to environmental factors, banners seldom survive from the 19th century or earlier. Of those known, few are as elaborate as this work. The painting features the most recent 28 of a potentially infinite number of Buddhas of the past. Each Buddha, flanked by a pair of attendants, wears simple monastic robes and is seated in meditation atop a lotus throne. In the centre of the lower register, surrounded by celestial musicians and dancers, is a golden stupa constructed by Indra, the green-skinned god. The stupa houses the relics of Shakyamuni, the historical and best known Buddha, including the long hair he cut when renouncing his princely existence. Against a vivid red disc, Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, appears encircled by a host of heavenly beings. Still attached to the material world, Maitreya is bejewelled and elaborately attired. Pointing to the arrival of Maitreya and his retinue is Phra Malai, a monk with supernatural powers, shown here in conversation with Indra. Dividing the two parts of the painting is a line of text giving the names of its donors, Mae Thai and Pho Kon, whose generosity attracted spiritual merit. The price of the painting is also recorded: eight tamlueng (a weight of silver currency used in Thailand in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries).
This finely crafted regal figure of the Buddha is depicted in a strong frontal stance wearing long, flowing monastic robes, scalloped at the hems and gathered in front with a jewelled girdle. While the smooth and naturalistic modelling of the torso gives the appearance of a bare upper body, the Buddha's robes are in fact draped over both shoulders where an elaborate necklace or collar disguises the neckline of the garment. In addition, the Buddha is depicted wearing elaborate jewellery: heavy earrings, armbands and a distinctive conical crown, the practice of depicting the Buddha as adorned with a crown having developed in Pala India where the crown represented the complete attainment of Buddhahood. Nevertheless, dressed in the regalia of a king, this majestic figure of the Buddha embodies the concept of the Devaraja (literally god-king), as an incarnation of the Divine on earth and as the means by which the Khmer kings legitimised their sovereignty. In an interesting variation, the hands of this Buddha are held in the gesture of 'vitarka mudra', the gesture of philosophical debate and discussion, reminiscent of Thai Buddha images of the preceding Mon-Dvaravati period. Thus although the distinctive facial features, powerful frontal and hieratic stance, and ornate formalism of this skilfully executed image of the Buddha has its stylistic origins with the Khmer culture, this appropriation and adaptation of Mon-Dvaravati elements attest to the dynamic evolution of Southeast Asian Buddhist sculpture.
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