Sculpting Buddhas

For every Saint sculpted by European artists I reckon there must be a thousand Buddhas sculpted in the Orient. It’s almost impossible to perform street photography without including them. Alternatively, you may decide to make them your primary subject. After all, the image of the Buddha is not a stage prop and shouldn’t be treated as such, despite being as much a part of the eastern environment as the ground itself.

Images of the Buddha are not representational in the same way that images of Christ, or the Saints, represent an individual human being who is nonetheless divine. A sculpture of the Buddha has an abstract, symbolic quality. It represents both an idea and an ideal. The idea is eternity and the ideal is the possibility of achieving oneness with eternity and liberation from the otherwise endless cycle of death and rebirth.

Eternity and Ephemerality
Street photography is all about capturing the ephemeral moment and preserving it for eternity — or at least for as long as people wish to view it. Unlike the sculptor, the photographer can’t separate these concepts of eternity and ephemerality. The conflict — or contrast, if you prefer — is built into the medium.

Move, point, click, eternity. That’s the photographer at work. Is it entirely coincidental that more cameras are manufactured in Buddhist countries (Japan, Thailand) than elsewhere? It’s interesting to reflect on this thought. We could be forgiven for thinking that the camera is a tool of Buddhist teaching.

All Buddhist sculptures are highly finished and smoothly polished, whether made of bronze or stone. They seem to be so self-contained and other-worldly you could almost believe they arrive in the world fully formed, without human assistance.

I love to see ancient Buddhist sculptures, standing or sitting in rows — especially in the rain. Repeatedly, they weather the storms yet succeed in maintaining their posture, even when the substance of which they’re made begins to erode.

Buddhas in the Making
Only during the sculpting or painting of a Buddhist figure do you get a sense of “process” rather than fixed, eternal serenity. I think my photo (above) of the craftsman in the purple shirt, who is smoothing the surface of the figure with some kind of resin, shows the process — but the moulded statue is already fully formed. Even here, the Buddha seems to be perfect, despite any ongoing activity to finish the work.

I took the shot from across a major road in a particularly busy part of Bangkok, near the Giant Swing — the huge wooden structure on which young men would perform the dangerous religious ceremony of “Lo Jin Ja.” Rooted in Hindu traditions, Buddhism is not all contemplation and quiet reflection!

To the Western mind, Buddhism appears to have been born out of a human desire for permanence in an impermanent world. Buddhists counter this view by eliminating desire itself. They set themselves on a path which, they believe, leads to freedom (from reincarnation), oneness (with the rest of existence), and eternity. You won’t get there, they say, if you desire it.

As a result, Buddhist societies have an easy acceptance of life in all its forms. I can’t be uncritical of the religion as a whole, because — as in all religions — cults and breakaway groups have a habit of making sudden appearances, enriching their founders and enslaving their adherents. Yet there are so many positive aspects, especially respect for life, tolerance shown to others, and reverence for the enormity of existence — that I can’t ignore it either.

In Thailand, what I value most about Buddhism is the way in which it interweaves with the everyday lives of the people. As I write, my 96-year-old father-in-law is celebrating his birthday by inviting a number of monks into his home for prayers and a meal. Younger people rarely have special birthday celebrations, but older people like to mark the big occasions: those that correspond with the 12-year-cycles.

Hence, 60, 72, 84, 96 are all occasions on which monks are needed, especially when you’re 72 and have completed your “six cycles” according to Eastern tradition — a tad longer than our “three score years and ten.”

The Forest, the City, and the Monastery
As I understand it, there are three environments in which the Buddhist adept — the Bodhisattva — can reside. They are the forest, the city, and the monastery.

Bodhisattvas have placed themselves on the path to enlightenment — and could achieve it with ease but stay to help others along the way. To me, those in the city seem to have the most noble calling, while those in the monastery have the advantage of peace and tranquility for reflection. Yet it’s the forest dwelling monks who are the most highly regarded, with their tradition consistently promoted as superior to the others.

sculpting Buddha

Back to Nature
Away from the normal city, I like to take pictures in Thailand’s Ancient City, the 200-acre park just to the south of Bangkok. Its construction began in the early 1960s but it’s filled with accurate reproductions of many ancient temples as well as with several original buildings, moved here to enhance the sense of authenticity.

“Ancient Siam” (as it’s now called) is not in the forest, as such, but set in splendid gardens with hundreds of trees and pathways. It gives you a real insight into the variety of Buddhist tradition and all the mythological events and narratives that support it.

Just above is my shot of people working cheerfully on their very latest sculpture. The woman has discarded her gloves to get a better grip of her spatula for carefully smoothing the torso. The Buddhist figure smiles back at her.

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