Sacred Sites in Thailand

Sacred Sites

Discover sacred sites, buddhist temples, holy caves, exorcists, spiritual healers and religious art in Thailand.

Buddhist Philosophy

It has been pointed out above that Buddhism is a religion which does not center around a perception of a god, but in practise can tolerate the belief in any god or gods. Of all major religions of the world, Buddhism is probably the most philosophical one. And there has been in Buddhism a tendency to define Buddha's teachings rather as a philosophy than a religion, at least in the more narrow sense of the term. As was pointed out by A.B. Griswold in his essay "What is a Buddha Image", published 1962 by the Fine Arts Department of the Thai government, many relevant works representing a tendency to emphasize the philosophical side of Buddhism over the pietistic side were published in the 19th century. Among them are Henry Alabaster's Wheel of the Law (London, 1871), and the following works by T.W. Rhys Davics: Buddhism (London, 1878), Buddhism, its History and Literature (New York and London, 1896), Buddhist India (London, 1903), Dialogues of the Buddha (translations from the Pali Canon, with explanations, 3 volumes, London, 1899, 1910, 1921), and the article Buddhism in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition.

A.B. Griswold states in his essay that the works of Rhys Davics are particularly interesting, as his views are similar to those of many learned Buddhists in Thailand today. Both, Davics and Alabaster, consider that the Theravada is essentially a doctrine of rationalism, paralleling modern scientific and humanistic thought, an ethical and psychological system in which no deity has a significant part. Following Rhys Davics, A.B. Griswold claims that Buddhism has one aim and one only: to abolish suffering. It proposes to do so, not by the aid of divine intervention but by purely human means: that is, by examining the law of cause and effect, and acting accordingly.

Considered the causes of suffering are craving, malice and delusion; if they can be eradicated, Buddhism teaches, suffering will disappear. The remedy sounds simple, but no one supposes it is easy to apply. All Buddhists are expected to play their part in the struggle against craving and malice, by exercising self-restraint and kindness toward all living creatures; but only relatively few are able to participate directly in the struggle against delusion. That task is assigned more to the monkshood (not priesthood, as it is often called), which is expected to lead the struggle against ignorance, bigotry and mental torpor, and to promote good conduct by precept and example.

A.B. Griswold explains that the Buddha lived at a time and place in which nearly everyone believed in the transmigration of souls, taking it for granted that each individual would be re-born again in various conditions on earth, or in heaven or hell for periods of various length. The condition of each re-birth was a reward or punishment for actions committed in previous ones, in accordance with the will of the god in whom one put one's faith; and the gods sometimes tested this faith by requiring the devotee to commit the most outrageous actions.

In contrast to such beliefs, the Buddha taught that retribution does not depend on the will of any god, but on a natural law whose workings can be discovered by the use of human intelligence. There is nothing capricious about it; every man or woman can discriminate between good actions and evil ones, without fear that some god will unexpectedly change the rules; the gods, if such there be, are incapable of setting aside the laws of nature. Favoritism cannot operate; and no act of faith can erase the consequences of an evil deed.

In the interpretation given by A.B. Griswold the Buddha did not deny transmigration, but as he flatly denied the soul it is clear that he interpreted it very differently from most of his contemporaries. The law of impermanence, he taught, applies to all living beings: men, animals, and any other conceivable category. Life is inevitably accompanied by growth, and growth cannot occur without decay. What is commonly called the individual is in constant disintegration, a process which in man and the higher animals begins even before emerging from the womb.

No being, not even a god, is an enduring entity. Each is a compound of elements such as form, matter, perception, and so on; and in each the relationship of the component parts is constantly changing, never remaining the same for any two consecutive moments. It follows that individuality and personality are mere figures of speech and the soul an illusion. Yet that does not mean in the least that good and evil are indifferent; somehow or other, though it is not always easily perceptible, every action brings its retribution; and though there is no soul to be reincarnated, the energy of past action, good or evil continues forever.

This energy, under the impact of craving and delusion, is what is re-born. When simple people, who could not grasp this argument, asked the Buddha whether or not they should believe in transmigration, he advised them to be on the safe side: by acting as if it were true, and doing their best to lead a virtuous life, they would gain the rewards of a tranquil conscience and lose nothing even if they guessed wrong; but if they thoughtlessly rejected it and followed their own evil desires, they would lead a tormented life and finally, if it turned out after all that they were mistaken, they would be "like travellers without provisions".

A.D. Griswold admits that many Indian and European scholars today say that Rhys Davics, Henry Alabaster, and the others who believed the Theravada to be a doctrine of rationalism were all wrong. They say that the rationalist view is a 19th century invention, largely due to King Mongkut (Rama IV, 1851-1868), and that there is no justification whatever to be found for it in the Canon. They assert that the Buddha took transmigration quite literally, just like everyone else; that he was no less superstitious than the generality of educated persons of his time; that he believed firmly in the gods; that he thought himself able to perform miracles; and that he taught his disciples spells to drive away troublesome sprites.

It is true that these scholars can point to a great many passages in the Buddhist Canon that would seem to prove their argument; but A.B. Griswold defends the rationalistic line, saying that the rationalists can point to others, less numerous but somehow more convincing, in which Buddha is seen as a skeptic, gentle but thoroughgoing: he counsels his disciples not to put their faith in tradition or in any honored teacher, even himself, but to rely on their own powers of reason; he limits the meaning of re-birth to an impersonal abstraction; and he not only condemns magic and superstition but even rejects the whole supernatural basis of religion, placing its moral values firmly in human psychology instead.

In fact two contradictory currents of thought, one rational and the other pietistic, run side by side through the Canon, where anyone can see them for him- or herself. The Buddhism that prevailed before King Mongkut's time emphasized the pietistic and the marvelous, just as popular Buddhism still does today. But King Mongkut did not need to invent the current of rationalism: it was already there, though less noticed; he called attention to its importance and shifted the emphasis at the highest level.

In the opinion of A.B. Griswold the two currents of thought are not really as irreconcilable as they at first appear. The contradiction vanishes if passages of the one sort are taken to be factual, and the other as metaphorical. The Buddha knew that teaching is useless unless it is adapted to the capacity of the listener. In addressing sophisticated people he used the technical terms of Indian philosophy, but gave them a new meaning; whereas in talking to simple people he used familiar concepts as allegories and homely anecdotes to point a moral.

Sometimes the simple people remembered the anecdote more distinctly than the moral, or mistook the allegory for the recital of a real event. One does not have to follow their example; and usually there is a clear hint to stop people from doing so. For instance the three daughters of Mara try to tempt the Buddha from the path of virtue, and of course they fail miserably, but not before putting on a seduction scene worthy of Hollywood, the account of which reads as if it were intended to be a real event; but what are the ladies' names? Craving, Discontent and Lust. There could be no clearer warning to the reader who might be disposed to take the story literally.

In the interpretation of A.B. Griswold, most people in the Buddha's time believed - as a great many people in India and Southeast Asia still believe today - that a huge population of unseen but powerful creatures haunt the sky and earth, from the great Vedic and Brahmanical gods to the humbler village divinities, from the gods of planets, sun and rain, to the sprites of mountains and rocks, trees and ponds, fields, building-foundations, parasols, and almost any sort of object.

The Buddha did not try to erase these creatures from the general belief - that would have been impossible - but he drastically reduced their importance and at the same time put them to use as figures of speech. So it comes about that Buddhist literature depicts fierce dragons and earth-sprites as being converted to the Doctrine, and Indra, the formerly ferocious Vedic god of thunder and lightning, as little more than a nimble servitor of the Sage.

As A.B. Griswold explains, a person who has extinguished all craving, malice and delusion in himself is exempt from re-birth no matter how it may be defined. In the technical terminology, when such a person dies he "passes into parinibbana", which is the ultimate goal of all Buddhists. It may sound strange to a Westerner who has been nourished on the hope of eternal felicity in heaven; but in Buddhist logic the law of impermanence is inexorable, and a sojourn in any conceivable heaven can be no more than temporary. Since a god is no less subject to craving, malice and delusion than a man, he is just as liable to act in such a way that punishment will follow; and so, if a sojourn in heaven is admitted as a possibility, it will inevitably be followed by more lives of abject misery in other conditions throughout countless millions of aeons.

The only escape is parinibbana, which some people equate with total extinction, and others with a disembodied state of changeless bliss. The Buddha himself refused to define it; but he said that anyone who achieves it "will be no more seen by men or gods." In other words, such a person becomes totally and irrevocably inaccessible to all, and to their prayers.

It is generally agreed that when the Buddha knew his own death was approaching, he told his disciples they must take the initiative and carry on his work without him. The rationalists among them could think for themselves; but it would be harder for the others, less strong-minded but no less devoted, who had relied on him to do their thinking for them. A.B. Griswold states that it can easily be seen how desperate their plight was.

Among people who believed in transmigration, the death of someone whom they trusted and loved would ordinarily leave them some hope that they might meet him again in a future life. But in this case their beloved master, in achieving the goal they were all to strive for, deprived them of any such hope. Only a few of them had advanced so far that they could feel confident of achieving parinibbana themselves when it came their turn to die; the rest including all those to whom transmigration was the most literal reality found themselves facing a hideous eternity of re-births without any possible access to their beloved master.

Reminders, Revered Images

A.B. Griswold, in his essay "What is a Buddha Image", presented an interesting and convincing theory on how a philosophy marked by a considerable disrespect for deities became a religion in which images of the founder of the philosophical school, the Buddha, became subjects of animistic worship, in the sense that the images are considered animated and worshiped as powers in their own right.

A.B. Griswold starts with a rather hypothetical reconstructions of what might have happened at the time of the Buddha's death: "Memory is a frail thing; and unless some means of preserving it could be found, the recollection of the Sage's person, and hence of his priceless guidance, would gradually fade. As the Buddha lay dying, all this was tragically evident to his disciple Ananda, who had served him with affectionate care for more than half a lifetime, making up in devotion what he lacked in intellectual power. Could not the disciples, he asked sadly, be allowed to perform some regular act of homage to the memory of the Master in whom they had put their faith? Could they not have some sort of substitute, a reminder of his Person no less than of his Doctrine, to keep them from falling back into the superstitions from which he had rescued them?"

"As a concession to such needs the Buddha replied that the faithful might make pilgrimages to the scenes of the Great Events of his career. When they visited these places they would visualize the Events connected with them, remember his victories over evil and ignorance, and so be inspired to imitate him. If that was not sufficient, they could gather his bodily relics (sariradhatu), such as bones and teeth, after his cremation; they could build stupas, mounds of earth or masonry, to contain them; and the stupas, by reminding people of the Doctrine, would make their hearts glad and happy."

A.D. Griswold explains that according to the orthodox classification, there are four categories of reminder: sariradhatu or dhatucetiya, bodily relics; paribhogacetiya, reminders by association; dhammacetiya, doctrinal reminders; and uddesikacetiya, indicative reminders.

The meaning of the first, sariradhatu or dhatucetiya, is self-evident.

The second, paribhogacetiya, reminders by association, include anything associated with the Buddha himself by physical contact, such as his alms bowl and robes, the footprints he left on river-bank and mountain-top, the benches he sat on, the Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya which sheltered him at the moment of enlightenment, and in a more general way the sites of all the great events. Stupas containing his bodily relics are sometimes placed in this category, some-times in the first category.

The third, dhammacetiya, was originally the whole body of the Doctrine, remembered by word of mouth, but later was extended to include written extracts from the Canon, and stupas built to contain such extracts.

The fourth, uddesikacetiya, indicative reminders, are what might be called "reminders by convention". They are objects, neutral in themselves, which the general opinion might recognize as substitutes for paribhogacetiya, and indeed are usually man-made replicas of them. Trees grown from seeds or cuttings taken from the original Bodhi tree may be put in this category, in the sense that they have come into existence as a result of human intervention; but sometimes, in view of their genetic connection with the original, they are considered to be paribhogacetiya. Replicas of stupas containing bodily relics, when they themselves contain none, are indicative reminders; so are replicas of the footprints; and so are replicas of the scenes of the Great Events, or any essential part of them, in painting or bas-relief or any other suitable medium.

This last category of reminders assumed increasing importance with the spread of Buddhism to distant lands, as they enabled people who lived far away to make pilgrimages, by the power of mental projection, to the holy sites without actually leaving home.

According to A.B. Griswold, educated opinion in India long held the notion of image-making in contempt: images were needed only by the ignorant, who could not grapple with sublime abstractions. In the earliest Indian bas-reliefs depicting scenes from the Buddha's life, the Buddha himself is invisible. He is represented by an aniconic symbol only, such as a stone altar slab or bench, a tree, a serpent, a pair of footprints, or a stupa.

The symbols are depictions of the chief features at the scenes of the Great Events and other incidents: the Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya, and the stone slab under it; the nearby statue of the Serpent King (Naga) who had protected the Buddha from the storm while he meditated; the disk or wheel commemorating the preaching of the First Sermon, the event which "set the Wheel of the Doctrine in motion"; the footprints the Buddha had stamped in rock or clay as souvenirs for the faithful; and the stupas commemorating his parinibbana.

In the bas-reliefs are seen people worshipping these symbols as if they were worshipping the Buddha in person. Some of the worshippers, it may be suspected, had only recently been converted to the Doctrine, and had previously been in the habit of worshipping very similar objects in an entirely different context. In the older cults the solar disk and the serpent had long been worshipped, and so had stones and trees, either in their own right or as the abode of powerful sprites who conferred all sorts of favors when properly approached, but who took terrible vengeance when displeased.

Buddha images, it seems, were first invented about the beginning of the Christian Era, either in Gandhara or at Mathura. A.B. Griswold says that in a curious way they grew directly out of the old symbols, almost as a seedling grows out of a coconut: and just as it takes some time for the coconut shell to rot away, so vestiges of the symbols long clung to the images: the slab as pedestal, the footprints as feet, the serpent or the tree as shelter, the wheel as halo, and various other combinations. And since in the popular mind these symbols were still animated by the sprites inherent in them, people felt that certain images, though representing the Sage of Rationalism (as A.B. Griswold calls the Buddha), possessed the powers and personalities of sprites.

In due course Buddhism was brought from India to Southeast Asia, and the art of image-making as well. One of the most reliable chronicles that have remained, the Jinakalamali, makes it clear what an important role the images had in spreading the Doctrine. Some of them were reputed to possess great magical power, and the timely miracles they performed were a great help in converting the people.

A.B. Griswold recommends that such stories should not be dismissed as fanciful. The power of the images was real enough, he says, though it exerted itself differently at different levels. The staunchest rationalist would admit that Reminders of the Doctrine can start a mental process that will end by dispelling the fear of demons. In the traditional belief, moreover, every Buddha image inherits some fraction of the teja, "fiery energy", which the Buddha himself possessed in incalculable abundance, and which is conventionally represented by a fiery halo, a flame springing from the top of the head, the gilded surfaces of bronze or stone, and so on.

It is not difficult to guess why some images were thought to possess much more magical power than others. One that was believed to be very old would seem to have demonstrated its unusual potency by its unusual power of survival; and if it was thought to be directly copied from one of the original authentic images it would naturally hold more teja than those whose resemblance to the Buddha's person, transmitted through copying at many removes, was less perfect.

Old local beliefs played their part in a variety of ways. If statues of the Buddha sheltered by the Serpent King were particularly popular in Cambodia, and in Thailand during the Khmer period, it was surely because converts from the old serpent cults saw them as inheritors of the serpent's power. Images carved from certain stones, or the wood of certain trees, which had previously been worshipped as the abode of sprites, were still instinctively felt to be animated by those terrifying creatures. And if a particular image happened to be present when a very striking and unusual event occurred, people might easily think it responsible for the "miracle".

Such beliefs now and than produced incongruous results. Siamese chronicles make no attempt to veil the fact that ambitious rulers resorted to unscrupulous tricks and even the threat of open warfare to get hold of the most powerful images, or to cause political rivals to loose the images which were thought to protect them. Each city needed at least one powerful image for its protection, and if the enemy got hold of it he would very likely be able to take the city, too. Thus certain images became deeply involved in political affairs.

As A.B. Griswold pointed out, the chronicles dealing with events from the 13th to the 16th century record that allegedly some images themselves did not always behave very well. Some of the most famous ones were very unpredictable, and often downright cranky, acting in a way the Buddha himself would have condemned in the strongest terms. Like powerful sprites, they gave material rewards when flattered, but in moments of annoyance inflicted disease, set buildings on fire, and caused earthquakes.

The feeling that certain images behave in so un-Buddhist a way lasted right down to modern times. Two of them, the Emerald Buddha and the Phra Bang, were said to have detested each other; and towards the end of the 18th century, when they were brought to Thonburi together, it is believed that they caused all sorts of trouble, including a brief revolution, so they had to be separated. As late as 1867, when they were both in Bangkok (occupying separate buildings, but still not far enough away from each other), their alleged jealousy was said to have caused two disastrous crop-failures within three years.

One still hears of Buddha images that bring bad luck to their owners. The only remedy in that case is to present them to a monastery, where their mischievous tendencies will be kept in check.

A.B. Griswold relates that not many years ago he experienced an amusing example of misplaced piety. In the gallery of a monastery at Ayutthaya there was a long row of apparently identical images, one of which had been singled out for particular favors by an admirer. He had presented it with a silk scarf, and he spent a good deal of time in front of it in a reverential attitude, with palms pressed together as if in prayer. Why had he singled out this particular image, which differed in no way from the dozens of others in the same row?

A.B. Griswold relates that upon inquiry he found that a week earlier it had inspired the man to place a bet on a certain horse, which won the race handily and paid off well; so now he wanted to express his gratitude and at the same time seek further inspiration. A.B. Griswold judged that the supposed personality of the image reminds one more of a Neapolitan saint than of the Buddha; it is hard to believe that the Founder of the Doctrine himself would have given such encouragement to gambling.

Tradition explains such eccentricities by saying that they are not caused by the Buddha image as such, but by the sprite inhabiting it. The old belief that almost any noteworthy object is animated by its particular sprite has already been cited, and Buddha images are no exception. When they are made of certain sorts of wood or stone, those worshipping them may believe that the sprites were already in them before they were carved into Buddha images, and the process of carving did not wholly change their original nature.

States A.B. Griswold nonchalantly: "In any case the trouble-makers are rare. Most images behave with perfect decorum."

A.B. Griswold points out that not only old animistic believes are responsible for the widespread opinion that Buddha images are actually alive. The Brahmanical rite of "opening the eyes" of inert, inanimate objects that have to be brought to life by a particular ceremony also plays its part.

Siamese chronicles contain a large number of records which indicate the extend to which Buddha images have long been believed to be animated. One of the most famous and beautiful images in Thailand is the Jinaraja Victorious King at Phitsanulok, cast when that city was part of the Kingdom of Sukhothai. Not long afterwards Sukhothai, including Phitsanulok, was conquered by the rival Kingdom of Ayutthaya. The annals record a curious event: in 1438, when the Crown Prince of Ayutthaya proceeded to Phitsanulok, to become Viceroy of the conquered provinces, tears of blood were seen to flow from the eyes of the statue.

Until today, images are often presented with cloth robes to wear, and some are presented with gem-studded golden crowns and costly garments. The Emerald Buddha has three changes of costume: a princely attire for the hot season, a monastic robe for the rainy season, and a mantle of gold mesh for the cool season.

The old laws of Ayutthaya provided severe punishments for anyone mutilating a Buddha image. To cut off its head was to commit murder, to scrape the gold leaf from its surface was to skin it alive; and anyone who would commit so evil an act was a criminal of the worst sort.

During the long years of warfare that ravaged northern Siam in the late 18th century, many images were broken and others fell into ruin from neglect. As soon as peace was restored, the ruler of Chiang Mai set about restoring the damage; an inscription tells "he thought of the old images, lying broken in field and forest, neglected and exposed to sun and rain; and he took pity on them in his heart".

A mission with a similar purpose was performed by Prince Wang Na at the command of his brother, King Rama I (1782-1806). He proceeded to Ayutthaya, Sukhothai, Phitsanulok and other cities to rescue the images that had been neglected during the Burmese wars, and brought many hundreds of them, of life-size or larger, to Bangkok by raft. The colossal image called Sri Sarbejna ("the Omniscient One"), which had been the object of the deepest veneration at Ayutthaya, proved to be too badly damaged to repair; so it was reverently entombed in a large stupa built for the purpose at Wat Pho. The others were distributed among various monasteries in Bangkok and Thonburi; more than half of them were deposited at Wat Pho, where they may still be seen.

They were given a curious restoration treatment: they were covered with a thick coating of plaster and gilt lacquer, which completely obscured their beauty but did not prevent their teja from functioning. In recent years the plaster has been removed from many of them, revealing the beauty of the patinated bronze; but they were then almost immediately given a new coating of gilt lacquer, though not thick enough to disguise them as completely as before. Those at Wat Benchamabophit, also known as Marble Temple, can be seen to better advantage: at the suggestion of Prince Damrong, they were left ungilded so as to serve as examples of style to students and archaeologists.

At Phitsanulok there was a companion image of the Jinaraja, named Jinasiha, Victorious Lion. Both images were objects of particular veneration to King Rama I; before ascending the throne he used to go to Phitsanulok as often as he could spare the time from his campaigns against the Burmese and in the civil war, and there he would offer homage to the statues. The monastery where they were located had fallen into ruins, but when peace was restored a new Vihara was built for the Jinaraja, and in 1829 the Jinasiha was brought to Bangkok.

The raft which bore it, towed by hundreds of gilded and gaily decorated barges, stopped at the landing-stage of the Prince Wang Na's Palace; and after three days of rejoicing it was conveyed by land to the Excellent Abode Monastery (Pavaranivesa), a vast throng of people pulling the many ropes that were required for so heavy a burden.

In his essay "What is a Buddha Image", published by the Fine Arts Department of the Thai government, A.B. Griswold presented some more curious stories connected with the belief that images have a life of their own. In a monastery in Ang Thong Province there is a colossal reclining Buddha image of masonry, which, according to historical records, on one occasion during the reign of King Rama V (1867-1911) manifested the power of speech. One afternoon, in the presence of the abbot and a large group of monks and novices, deep muffled sounds were heard to issue from its bosom. "Are you not well, Sir?" the abbot asked politely. The image replied: "Thank you, I am quite well; and you?" "Sir, I am well." "But trouble is on its way," said the image; "within two months, there will be a bad outbreak of cholera." Upon being asked what counter measures could be taken, the image provided a recipe to be compounded from certain herbs; and when the cholera came, exactly as predicted, the medicine proved to be an effective cure.

A.B. Griswold outlines that the belief that miniatures worn around the neck confer invulnerability can be explained in more than one way. Some people would say that the teja inherent in the image transmits itself to the wearer and makes him immune from harm; others might argue that by reminding the wearer of the Doctrine, and particularly that part of it that counsels constant alertness, it enables him to keep out of harm's way.

Critics of such an opinion may point out that in the manner of this explanation, any irrationalism could be rationalized. The may be reminded that irrationalism, rationally explained, does not turn irrationalism into rationalism. Furthermore, those wearing images in the belief they are amulets protecting them from harm do not understand them simply as reminders to keep them alert. And by rationalizing amulets as reminders, the question remains unanswered whether or not the images worn as amulets protect the wearer on account of their own power.

In spite of such arguments, A.B. Griswold sees the rationalizing of images as reminders as sufficient to defend the opinion that Buddha images are somehow animated. He states in his essay cited above: "We can now begin to see why such miniatures were made in huge quantities to be buried away inside stupas and colossal images. They were a sort of electric charge, suffusing the stupa or the statue with teja: even if most of them proved to be inert, or nearly so, on the basis of probability at least a few of them would turn out to be particularly effective. Looked at in another way, they were intended to assure the durability, the invulnerability, of the Reminder that contained them: and even if they failed in that, and the Reminder was ever broken open, they would pour forth in an explosion of fiery energy, teja, conferring their benefits as reminders and protectors far and wide upon future generations."

"We can now see, too, why images inspire such fervent devotion. They fill the function for which the various sort of reminder, cetiya, were designed, but they also do rather more. They act as substitutes for the Buddha himself in a sort of mystical worship that reminds us of the bhakti of Hindu religions; and some people have a feeling that although the Buddha himself is inaccessible, he can be worshipped through his substitutes and somehow answer prayers through them too. At a less sublime level they are magical protectors, jealous gods who must be kept in a good humor, since they are equally capable of bestowing enormous favors and of bringing on a general disaster."

Making Merit

According to A.B. Griswold, the most obvious reason why Buddha images have been created in Thailand in such stupendous quantity is simply the intent to make merit (tam boon). And he explains that by doing good deeds, those who believe in transmigration lay up a store of merit for the future, like prudent people making deposits in a savings bank. To enter the monkhood for several days or months; to help in the construction or maintenance of a monastery; to contribute to education; to make gifts to the needy; to give alms to monks; to perform any act of kindness, great or small: all such things, and many others, are recognized as acts of merit. And of course it is an act of merit to create any sort of reminder, uddesikacetiya, from a great monument to a little heap of sand in the form of a stupa, from a colossal image to a tiny votive tablet.

The amount of merit acquired, it is felt, is a function of the effort expended by the donor in proportion to his means. That explains why the rich like to commission images of gold or precious stone, and why King Rama III (1824-1851) founded the vast reclining Buddha, over 40 meters long, at Wat Pho. Great efforts are expected of the possessors of great sources; but a poor man may earn as much merit by creating a simple reminder of clay.

It has been explained that in spite of the fact that Buddhism doesn't consider the Buddha a god, Buddha images seem to rank higher in Buddhism than crucifixes in Catholicism. Buddha images are considered animated in their own right, while crucifixes are symbols and symbols only. As A.B. Griswold pointed out, Buddhist may believe that a Buddha image can miraculously talk, and in this case, the spirit of the Buddha image is considered the talking force.

Catholicism also knows images that miraculously talk but Catholicism interprets such occurrences as the Holy Spirit talking through the medium of the image, and not the image talking on its own.

A.B. Griswold in his essay "What is a Buddha Image" named the Buddha "Sage of Rationalism". His essay also indicates that he sees himself on the side of those who attempt a rationalist interpretation of Buddhism. In spite of this, he defends what appears to be image worship even by Buddhist rationalist, and he does so with a seemingly rationalist explanation. The more this appears to be contradictory, the more interested one may be in his chain of arguments.

A.B. Griswold: "But what of the rationalists? Would they not view all such notions, if not with contempt, at least with a mildly amused skepticism? Yet we often see modern-minded Buddhists, including the leaders of the rationalist movement, prostrating themselves before an image and making offerings of flowers and incense."

"The usual answer is that they are expressing their gratitude to the memory of the Teacher who conferred the priceless gift of the Doctrine on mankind. While this answer may seem strange to a Westerner, I am sure it is right. In all countries that take their forms of politeness from India, the manifestations of respect accorded to a teacher looks very much like worship."

"Still, we might think it an exaggerated way to express gratitude to a Master who long ago passed into Total Extinction, or at least far beyond the range of human behavior, and who can consequently derive no possible satisfaction from such homage. But the rationalist knows that the expression of gratitude is really for the benefit of the living, reinforcing the power of the Reminder in his own feelings and in the feelings of others; and even in the West it sometimes occurs that the most skeptical writers, who have no belief in any sort of future life whatever, will dedicate a book to the memory of some deceased friend."

"There is still another reason for such outward acts of piety on the part of Buddhist rationalists. Though they are indeed atheists, in the sense that they allow no significant place for a god or gods, they are not at all bigoted; and unlike the atheists of Communist countries they have no thought of undertaking a crusade against religion. Though for their own part they consider faith to be rather a hindrance than a help to clear thinking, they freely admit that many people need faith as a support for good morals. Tolerance is a cardinal principle of Buddhism; they recognize the good features of all religions, and in particular they respect the traditional forms of Buddhist worship."

"And they believe that good manners are the counterpart, in small things, of good morals in large ones. This is a good thing for Westerners to bear in mind, even those Westerners who have no particular sympathy for Buddhism."

"Among the souvenirs a tourist takes home with him from Bangkok there will very likely be a few Buddha images. [The export of Buddha images has been prohibited only after A.B. Griswold's essay was first published.] They should not be used as door-stops or decorations for a bar, placed on the floor, made into lamps or coffee-tables, dressed up in humorous costumes, given nicknames, turned over to the children to play with, or treated in any other manner that does not befit objects of religious significance. To put them in unsuitable places is not only bad manners, which would hurt the feelings of any Buddhist who happened to visit the house; it is also a singularly unsatisfactory way to bring out the beauty of a work of art. No one in his right mind, no matter how little he might care about Christianity, would hang a crucifix on his wall upside down. Buddha images were made with the expectation that they would be placed in a position of honor - generally speaking, at such a height that their legs are at the level of the spectator's eye - and that is the way they can be seen to best advantage."

"Buddha images, however, are not 'works of art' in the ordinary sense. The purpose in making them was not to delight a connoisseur or to win praise from a critic; nor was it, except in a secondary way, to please the eye at all. As we have seen, they are religious mechanisms of a very peculiar kind. Nevertheless a great many of them are also objects of beauty by any standards; and there is certainly no harm in a non-Buddhist seeing them as such, provided he remembers that that is not the whole story. Unfortunately Western taste often seems to prefer a severed head or hand, rather than the complete image, and instances have been recorded of thieves mutilating images in monasteries to obtain such fragments for sale. I would not go so far as to say that we should refuse to display a detached head or hand that has been dug up, if the body has been lost - though in the eyes of an old-fashioned Buddhist such a display is rather gruesome and indeed likely to bring bad luck - but we should always remember that the whole image is much more valuable, and more worthy of display, than a mere fragment; and we should do everything we can to discourage the mutilation of images."

"Apart from that, we can only sense the inner beauty of a Buddha image by discovering what it means to Buddhists on different levels of understanding."

"Its surfaces and silhouette may please the eye, or even cause a gasp of surprise by their beauty. But they exist only as the capsule that contains the fiery energy; without that, whether we define it as magic or as psychological power, the image would not even have come into existence."

(excerpt from


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