One of the myths I am trying to deconstruct in my blogs (Engage! and Dharma Nerds) is this notion that practicing Buddhism is only about meditation or reading scripture. Theravada in particular is presented to us as this strict, sterile practice of transcending self and world through ever more refined states of meditation, psychological healing, mind-training or arcane Buddhist philosophy. Theravada Buddhism is presented as rational, atheistic, secular and scientific. This image of Theravada prevails in western Buddhism because that is the form that we have been taught, the form that has been exported to us.
But that is not Buddhism as it is practiced in the Buddha-lands of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and other places in South Asia. The Theravada of South Asia is full of ritual, magic, deities and sacred beings of all kinds, depicted through a rich material culture of visual art, statuary, architecture, jewelry, clothing, and decoration. Because we in the West associate Buddhism with an anti-materialist message, westerners have tended to dismiss the ‘folk Buddhism’ of South Asia as ‘superstition’, as ‘folk religion’, as ‘not really Buddhist.’ This is quite sad because not only does it mischaracterize South Asian Buddhism, but it deprives our practice of a richly supportive and creative culture. Furthermore, while Theravada is the core of South Asian Buddhism, Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions are also present in the form of Buddhist art and the veneration of Bodhisattva deities.
This post contains photos from modern art exhibitions in northern Thailand taken by Justin McDaniel, a scholar of South Asian Buddhism, Thailand in particular. McDaniel has focused on the visual art and ritual practices of Buddhism in these cultures, its non-rationalistic and deistic forms. McDaniel’s article, Strolling through Temporary Temples: Buddhism and Installation Art in Modern Thailand, can be accessed through academic journals.
Strolling through Temporary Temples: Buddhism and Installation Art in Modern Thailand
by Justin Thomas McDaniel
To cite this article: Justin Thomas McDaniel (2017) Strolling through Temporary Temples: Buddhism and Installation Art in Modern Thailand, Contemporary Buddhism, 18:1, 165-198, DOI: 10.1080/14639947.2017.1308687
This seamless combination of art, commerce, religious teaching and activities, education, and temporary installations is still relatively new, but certainly growing and becoming part of the way that Thai Buddhists are learning to be Buddhist. In many ways, though, it is not wholly different from the ways Thai have encountered Buddhism for centuries. Monasteries have long been a place for commercial, educational, leisurely, meditational and artistic activity, often happening at the same time. Urban and rural monastic festivals have also long included temporary shrines, sand stupas, scroll paintings, dance performances, puppet shows and sermons.