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Indra’s lute

6 August, 2009 (05:00) | modern, paintings, southeast asia | By: xensen

Indra, a major Hindu deity, also figures in the Thai Buddhist belief system, where he seen as powerful but limited and subservient to the Buddha (and sometimes as one of the four guardian kings of the cardinal directions). He is recognizable by his green skin.

The image shown is a detail from a large painting of the story of the life of the Buddha in the collection of the Asian Art Museum (Scenes from the life of the Buddha, 1800-1850. Thailand; paint and gold on cloth. Gift from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Southeast Asian Art Collection, 2006.27.122.15).  The painting will be displayed during the museum’s upcoming Emerald Cities: Arts of Siam and Burma exhibition

In an essay I wrote on the subject of translation, I talked about the “middle way” of the Chinese translator Xuanzang (who lived in the seventh century but may be most familiar from his role in the Ming dynasty “Monkey” stories). Xuanzang insisted that translation be both “truthful” and “intelligible to the populace.” In the essay I go on to discuss other advocates of the middle way, such as the Mexican poet Octavio Paz.

In this detail Indra makes a case for the middle way in a charming manner. The Buddha-to-be (shortly before his enlightenment) has been troubled about whether to give up the extreme austerities he has been practicing. Here Indra appears to him and plucks three strings of a lute-like instrument. One string is too slack, and it makes only a dull sound. One string is too tight, and it breaks when plucked. Only the properly tightened string makes a beautiful sound.

Photo Wednesday: Wat Rajabophit

29 July, 2009 (05:00) | architecture/public, modern, southeast asia | By: xensen

Monks with Traits of a Crow

28 November, 2007 (05:00) | contemporary, paintings, southeast asia | By: xensen

monks with traits of a crowThis painting by Anupong Chanthorn (sorry I haven’t been able to find a higher-resolution image) has caused quite a stir in Thailand. Entitled Bhikku Sandan Ka (Monks with Traits of a Crow), it suggests immoral behavior (avarice, it would seem) among some of Thailand’s Buddhist monks. The title comes from a phrase attributed to the Buddha to describe a kind of immorality.

When the painting was awarded a prize and an annual art exhibition in Bangkok, some monks staged a protest. Led by Satian Wibhroma, a member of a Buddhist group known as the People’s Network to Protect the Nation, Religion and the Monarchy, they accused the painter of insulting Thai monks. They asked Silpakorn University to revoke the prizes awarded to Anupong, which the university refused. The story is told in Asia Times Online.

An editorial in Thailand’s The Nation asserts that

People who consider themselves good Buddhists, who really care about their religion, should thank artist Anupong Chanthorn for creating a pair of award-winning paintings that honestly reflect the precipitous decline of Buddhism in this country.

Buddhist temples used to be centres of learning, and monks were the guardians of our cultural heritage, but many temples have turned into dens of iniquity. The failure to reform Buddhism and keep it up to date with the drastic social and economic changes has not only resulted in the religion’s diminished influence as a force for good but also contributed to corruption and social decay. Thai society needs more artists and lay Buddhists like Anupong, who care enough about Buddhism to criticise, to satirise, to put pressure on the monastic order to reform. These people deserve praise, not condemnation.

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