Culture of compassion

Print edition : December 18, 2009

On the island of Bali in Indonesia stands this dramatic depiction of Bali, a great hero from the Ramayana.-

GAUTAMA SIDDHARTHA is one of humanitys wisest teachers. He lived in the 6th century B.C. in the northern plains of India. He taught lessons of compassion and universal love. The message spread to all corners of Asia and shaped the culture of the continent. Today it is one the great religions of the world, with millions of followers: Buddhism.

The philosophy of Buddhism was accepted with open arms wherever it went. It is a philosophy that looks beyond the material aims of life to the eternal. Early Theravada Buddhism travelled in the 3rd century B.C. to Sri Lanka and to other countries of South-East Asia. In the first millennium A.D., Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism spread to Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Tibet (China), China, Korea and finally to Japan and the northern countries of Asia.

An 8th-9th century relief of a sophisticated sailing ship at the Borobudur stupa, Java, Indonesia.-

Since ancient times, ships carried trade goods between Indonesia, India and China. Archaeological remains in Indonesia have confirmed the close interactions the country had with India over 2,000 years ago.

A VIEW OF the Borobudur stupa. Built by the Sailendra kings in the 8th and 9th centuries, it is the tallest stupa in the world.-

In the first millennium, Chinese pilgrims travelled by sea and on land to the holy places of Buddhism in India. When they used the sea route, they spent much time in Indonesia, which had great ports. They have written considerably about the Indonesia of that time. Hinduism existed there in early times and Buddhism flourished from the 7th century onwards. Till today, the great epic of ethics, the Ramayana, is the most important cultural tradition of Indonesia. It may have arrived here by the 5th century. It is wonderful to see a Ramayana performance in Java, where the actors, the director, the narrator and all the others are Muslim.

In the 8th and 9th centuries, magnificent Buddhist monuments were constructed in Java. The Borobudur stupa was built by the Sailendra kings in this period. It is one of the worlds most magnificent Buddhist monuments. It is the tallest stupa in the world. There are many thousands of feet of very fine relief, which one can see as one climbs up and goes around the stupa.

BODHISATTAVA, 8TH-9TH CENTURY relief, Borobudur stupa.-

The bottom level presents the life of passions in the world: the kamadhatu. The next level presents the law of action and reward: the karmadhatu. Rising upwards, numerous reliefs depict the rupadhatu, the life and stories of the Buddha. He is the Rupa, the personification of the potential for enlightenment within us. Beyond that level come the levels of the final truth, which is formless: arupadhatu. Here, there are no distractions of the illusory forms of maya, and all that we see is the stupa. This is the final truth in all Buddhist thought, beyond all forms.

Climbing up to the summit of the stupa, the devotee leaves behind the maya, or illusions of the world, to come to the symbol of the formless eternal. He has left behind the noise and confusion of life: of kama, karma and finally even rupa. This great stupa clearly enunciates Buddhist philosophy, where one aims to leave the world of forms to reach finally a level of comprehension of the formless eternal. One is reminded of the Chitrasutra, the oldest-known treatise on art-making, which was composed out of ongoing traditions in about the 5th century. It states that the best way to imagine the eternal is as formless, without shape, without colour, sound or smell. It also says that deities are created to help us relate to various concepts while on our path towards the final truth.

THROUGH THIS GATEWAY at the Borobudur stupa one leaves kala, or time, behind and proceeds towards the understanding of the final truth of "arupa", which is formless.-

The great stupa is planned as a mandala, which provides a graded path for the ascent towards the final truth. This is in the tradition of the Yogatantra, which was developed by Buddhist thinkers like Asanga from the 4th century onwards. Mandalas began to appear in Buddhist art from the 5th century onwards.

Borobudur has two other beautiful Buddhist temples of the 8th and 9th centuries: the Powon temple and the Mendut temple. The nearby city of Yogyakarta has many magnificent Buddhist and Hindu temples, which were made during the reign of the Sailendra kings. These have the same high quality of art seen in the Borobudur stupa. This region is one of the finest heritage zones of the world.

THE PRAMBANAN SIVA temple at Yogyakarta in Java, Indonesia, originally built in the 9th century. Yogyakarta has many magnificent Buddhist and Hindu temples and is one of the finest heritage zones in the world.-

From the 13th to the mid-14th century, one of the great Buddhist centres of the world was at Sukhothai, in Thailand. Some of the most graceful pieces of Buddhist art were created here, in a style that is famous even today.

Monasteries of that period were perhaps made of wood and have not survived. What has continued and comes down to us is the art of the Buddha image, with all its elegance and beauty. In fact, since that time Thailand has had a magnificent tradition of Theravada Buddhist images. The lines of the Sukhothai Buddha figures have a vivid life of their own. The surfaces are smooth and gently curving. The peaceful expressions are sublime.

RAMA, 9TH CENTURY relief, Prambanan Siva temple, Yogyakarta.-

King U Thong of Thailand founded a new capital in the mid-14th century at a location 85 kilometres north of present-day Bangkok. It was named Ayutthaya, after the city of Ayodhya, the birthplace of Rama, in India. In fact, the king of Thailand personifies ideal virtues, as depicted in the character of Rama. His good and moral actions are believed to create peace and prosperity in the country. Till today, Brahmin priests are required at the coronation of the Thai King, to instil the qualities of Vishnu and Siva in him.

Many impressive structures that show the glorious Buddhist history of Ayutthaya survive at the site. Great Buddhist monasteries here were centres of philosophy, literature and the fine arts. Wat (or temple) Maha That was set up as the holy centre of the capital city by the king Borom Rajathiraj I. This grand complex was also the home of the Supreme Buddhist Patriarch at the time.

PAGODAS AT SUNRISE, in Bagan, Myanmar. In the 11th century, King Anawratha built thousands of pagodas at Bagan, making it one of the most glorious Buddhist sites in Asia. Inside the pagodas are paintings and beautiful Buddhas made from the 11th to the 18th century.-

In the architecture and Buddha statues at Ayutthaya, we see a continuation of earlier styles of the Sukhothai period. There are modifications as new forms were adopted through the 417 years of the period of Ayutthaya.

The beautiful Wat Rajburana at Ayutthaya was made in the 15th century. The magnificent temples of Ayutthaya show that the preoccupation of the kings was with what was beyond the material world. The temple has numerous depictions of Garuda, on whom Vishnu rides. The bird has been a royal symbol in Thailand since early times. It might be mentioned here that there is a Garuda dhwaja (or royal standard) made in the Bharhut Buddhist stupa railings of the 2nd century B.C. in central India. The Garuda also featured prominently in many Buddhist monasteries of the 11th to the 13th centuries across western Tibet, Ladakh, Spiti and Kinnaur.

In the 15th century, imposing chedis, or stupas, were created on a former palace site. This was named Wat Phra Si Sanphet. Wat Chai Wattanaram was built in the 17th century. It is another great sanctuary of peace. We are taken far from the ceaseless turmoil of the world outside to the stillness of the Buddhahood to be found deep inside us.

SEATED BUDDHA, WAT Maha That, 13th-14th centuries, Sukhothai Historical Park, Thailand. The lines of the Sukhothai Buddha figures have a vivid life of their own. The surfaces are smooth and gently curving.-

In 1767, Ayutthaya fell to the Burmese army. The city was sacked and burnt. The newly declared king, Taksin, established his capital at Bangkok, which became the seat of the Thai government in 1782. Since the 1780s numerous temples have been made and renovated in Bangkok. In Thailand, it is the divine responsibility of the king to maintain the Buddhist religion.

The Temple of the Reclining Buddha, the Wat Pho, is one of the Bangkok temples dating back to the 17th century. King Rama I expanded the temple when Bangkok was established as the capital of Thailand. The centrepiece of the Wat Pho is the huge statue of the reclining Buddha, almost 50 metres in length.

The most famous of the Bangkok temples is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, or Wat Phra Kaew. The temple was built from 1782 to 1784 during the reign of King Rama I, to house the Emerald Buddha. This temple attracts the largest number of tourists in Bangkok. The interior walls of the great temple are covered with mural paintings depicting scenes from the Ramayana. In fact, most Buddhist temples of Thailand are profusely painted with such scenes. Till today, the Ramayana, or Ramakien, is the great cultural tradition of Thailand. This epic of ethics is at the heart of the culture of this country, which is ruled by King Rama IX.

The murals of Thailand are very stylised and closely related to the dance dramas of the land. The costumes, crowns and jewellery are typical of Thailand. The gentle expressions and graceful gestures are deeply rooted in the tradition of compassion, which is found everywhere in the best of Buddhist art.

STANDING BUDDHA IN the exquisite Sukhothai style, 13th-14th centuries, at the Sukhothai Historical Park.-

Thailand continues the gentle traditions of Buddhism. The lives of the people are permeated by the desire for the spiritual search. Till today, in the midst of the modern world, the spirit of compassion of the Buddhas message continues in this land.

Myanmar was a great crucible of Buddhist influences and art which came to it over the centuries. At the end of the first millennium, Myanmar had a deep and direct relationship with the centre of Buddhist philosophy, at Bodhgaya in India. In fact, in the 11th century, the king of Myanmar restored the Mahabodhi temple at Bodhgaya at his own expense. He also made replicas of the Mahabodhi temple at his own capital of Bagan.

SEATED BUDDHAS, WAT Chai Wattanaram, 17th century, Ayutthaya, Thailand.-

Simultaneously, in the 11th century, King Anawratha declared Theravada Buddhism the state religion. To proclaim his deep reverence, he made thousands of pagodas at Bagan, making it one of the most glorious Buddhist sites of Asia. Inside the pagodas are paintings and beautiful Buddhas made from the 11th to the 18th century.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, foreign invaders destroyed the Buddhist centres of the plains of India. Scholars and artists from India took refuge in the deeply religious sanctuary of Myanmar. The paintings on the walls of the pagodas of Bagan are some of the finest and gentlest in the entire Buddhist tradition. The themes are those of the life of the Buddha and the Jataka stories of his previous lives. The surviving paintings from the 16th century onwards show the transition to the styles of Theravada Buddhism.

At Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, is the grand Shwedagon pagoda, almost a hundred metres high. It is the most sacred pagoda in Myanmar and is believed to enshrine the relics of the past four Buddhas. We are reminded that it is only in recent times that the focus of Buddhist worship has come entirely on the last Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha. In past times, all Buddhist traditions revered either four or seven Buddhas. These are also depicted in the Buddhist art of early times.

WAT PHRA SI Sanphet, built on a former palace site, 15th century, Ayutthaya, Thailand.-

Myanmar is a deeply religious country. Thousands of temples and monasteries have been made across the land. These are the traditional places not only for worship but also for education. The country has almost 500,000 monks and nuns of the Theravada Buddhist tradition.

Cambodia is another country that has a great history of sacred art and monuments. While the kings primarily worshipped Hindu deities, much Buddhist art was also created. The Hindu and Buddhist sculptures of Cambodia from the 6th to the 8th century A.D. are unrivalled for their sheer beauty and excellence.

In the early 12th century, King Suryavarman II created one of the greatest Hindu temples of all time, the Angkor Wat. It was dedicated to Vishnu and was later also used for Buddhist worship. The temple has magnificent relief carved everywhere. The open corridor of the first storey has more than a kilometre and a half of such narrative relief, over six feet high.

In the 13th century, King Jayavarman VII built the greatest Buddhist complex in Cambodia at his capital, Angkor Thom. The face towers of Angkor Thom have become a universally recognised symbol for Angkor. The faces look in the four directions, symbolising the universal benevolence of the Bodhisattva Lokeshvara. The Bayon, at the centre of Angkor Thom, is the kings own sacred temple-mountain. It is one of the most magnificent monuments of Buddhism.


South and central Vietnam have many Hindu and some Buddhist temples. These were made between the 7th and 13th centuries. A Buddhist monastery complex was built at Dong Duong in the 9th century. It must have been a most impressive centre of Buddhist worship in its time.

The archaeological museum at Danang in central Vietnam has numerous sculptures, which show a glorious history of art. The figures are graceful and their expressions sublime. As everywhere in South-East Asia, the preoccupation of the people was with that which was beyond the material world. This art takes us on a great journey within ourselves to find the fount of peace and stillness that is inside each of us.

In the centre of the peninsula of South-East Asia is the country of Laos. The people there are deeply religious and Theravada Buddhism is the basis of their culture. The country has more than 5,000 temples, and monks are deeply venerated. Most men in Laos live in the monasteries for some part of their lives in order to imbibe Buddhist ethics and a compassionate vision of the world.

Laos is a sacred land where ancient traditions, such as the daily giving of alms to monks, continue even today. Monks are those who have renounced material comforts and other attractions of the world. Society believes it to be its responsibility to look after the well-being of these renouncers, who have given up the ways of the world.

BIRTH OF THE Buddha, mural, Hteik Pann Pagoda, 12th century, Bagan, Myanmar.-

In the capital city of Vientiane stands the grand Wat Ongtue. It houses a colossal Buddha image, which weighs 10 tonnes. As in the tradition of Laos, the great temple is also an educational institution. Young men come here to gain knowledge of the arts and sciences as well as of the science of life.

The golden That Luang stupa is a national symbol of Laos. It was originally built in 1566 and was restored in 1953. The stupa is 45 metres high and is believed to contain a holy relic of the Buddha. The town of Luang Prabang is listed as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Site. Wat Visounarath, originally built in 1512, is the oldest standing temple in Luang Prabang. The art of the temple is exquisite and the interior preserves an atmosphere of great serenity and dignity. Wat Xiengthong was built around 1560 and is a classic example of the graceful architectural style of Luang Prabang.

The Wat Mai, or New Monastery, was originally made in 1796. It was given the present name after its restoration in 1821. Its walls are covered with wonderful painted reliefs of scenes from daily life and from the Jatakas.

THE GRAND WAT That Luang, Vientiane, Laos. A national symbol of Laos, it was originally built in the 16th century and restored in the mid-20th century.-

Buddhism has a great vision of the eternal harmony of the world. This faith, with its message of compassion, spread far and wide and shaped the culture of a continent, a culture of peace and gentleness, which continues even in the midst of the materialistic world of today.

Benoy K. Behl is a film-maker, art historian and photographer. He has taken over 34,000 photographs of Asian monuments and art heritage, made a hundred documentaries on art history and held exhibitions in 24 countries. His book The Ajanta Caves is published by Thames & Hudson, London, and Harry N. Abrams, New York.

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