The Buddha Image in Thai Culture
Representations of the Buddha can be found throughout Thai temple compounds. The Buddha occurs either as statue or in mural paintings. Hence, they are idealized images of the Great Buddha who lived in the sixth century BC in northeast India. He is commonly shown in either of the following four positions: seated, standing, walking, and reclining (as the following pictures illustrate). The Buddha’s hand gesture and posture refer to important events in his life.
The Buddha Image
Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakya clan, who was to become the Buddha, was born in a small Hindu kingdom neighbouring to Nepal. First he became an ascetic before reaching enlightenment. Afterwards, he taught the truths he had learned and hence gained many disciples. He died around the age of 80.
The Buddha put forward the Four Noble Truths concerning man’s condition and the Eightfold Path that should lead to enlightenment, perfection, absence from rebirths and finally to nirvana which is to be understood as the extinction of the ‘three poisions’, namely passion, aversion and ignorance. When these poisons or ‘fires’ are extinguished, freedom from the cycle of rebirth (samsara) is attained.
In the Reclining posture, the Buddha is also referred to as being in the ‘Sleeping Lion’s’ position which is the state in that the Buddha died. Buddha lies on the right side with knees slightly bend and the left hand on the thigh. In Buddhism, the ‘Sleeping Lion Posture’ is also the traditionally recommended mode for dying. A well-known Buddha Image in this position is the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok.
For example, a Walking Buddha is the Buddha Monthon (Phutthamonthon) which is created in the Sukhothai style. The image performs the abhaya mudra, the gesture of Reassurance and Dispelling Fear. Characteristic of the period are the broad shoulders and pendant arm. The flat feet and projecting heels are part of the anatomy characteristic of a Great Being.
It is also important to note that there are Buddha statues for each day of the week, each in different pose. They are often lined up in a row at a temple. Many Thai people know the day and hour they were born thus paying respect to the Buddha image presiding over their day of birth.
The Buddha of Monday is the one preventing calamities. The image for Tuesday is in the reclining posture. Wednesday, in fact, has two Buddha images, in the morning it is the Buddha holding an alms bowl and in the evening he is in the posture of retreating in the forest. The Thursday image is meditating and on Friday the Buddha is in reflection. The Saturday statue is sitting in meditation while being protected by Muchalinda’s cobra hood. Finally, the Sunday Buddha is in pensive thought.
The most prevalent posture and gesture in Thailand is the Buddha in sitting position with his right hand pointing down to the earth. By doing so, he calls on the earth to be his witness that over many lives he fulfilled and accomplished himself thus being able to reach enlightenment. For example, the Great Buddha of Wat Muang is a seated image pointing with his right hand to Mother Earth. Another famous example of the seated statue is the Golden Buddha at Wat Traimit in Bangkok’s Chinatown.
Summing up, we may claim that the Buddha image in Thai culture is very prominent and prevailing. Next time you visit a Thai Wat, check out what kind of images there are and find out which Buddha presides over your birthday 🙂
(Reference, Carol Stratton, What’s What In A Wat, Silkworm Books, 2010)