February 15, 2015

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Buddhist Art in Southeast Asia

Over the course of my life, I've been fortunate enough to live and travel throughout many Southeast Asian countries as well as learn about the remarkable religions, traditions, and mythologies of the cultures. Although it's not the religion I practice, the teachings of Buddhism have had a profound impact on me. 

Buddhism is the dominant religion of contemporary Southeast Asian cultures, with up to 90% of the population some countries practicing Buddhism. Buddhism began with Shakyamuni Buddha who was born Siddhartha Gautama in India over 2500 years ago. He left the palace life to live as an ascetic in the wilderness and attained nirvana after sitting under the Bodhi tree for six years. He is the teacher of the Four Noble Truths, not a god but an enlightened being who has escaped the cyclical life cycles (Samsara) and achieved enlightenment (Nirvana). 

Shrines to Buddha, however, did not begin to appear in Indian monasteries until about 700 years after Shakyamuni Buddha's death. The unifier of India, Emperor Ashoka the Great, was said to have sent royal monks to Thailand and Myanmar (Burma). Buddhism then spread to China and other countries via the extensive trade route known as the Silk Road. 

The tradition of sculpting images of Buddha began 1800 years ago and continues today, as seen in this teakwood head of Buddha from Thailand. His calm features show his compassion and meditative state while the top-knot reflects enlightenment. Buddha's long earlobes, stretched by heavy jewelry, is evidence of his former life as prince. These features can also be seen in the contemporary prints of Buddha by Thai artist Vorakorn Metmanorom. 

Temple paintings of Buddhist legends and bodhisattvas (enlightened beings who exist on the edge of nirvana before crossing over to help others) functioned to honor spirit beings, beautify ritual spaces and teach morality lessons. Modern interpretations on tin, animated with lively characters, bring these tales out of the sanctuaries. 


Ceremonial ware used in rituals are a dominant part of Buddhism and they come in many materials and forms, such as this Burmese vintage cast brass bowl with intricate floral patterns and animal motif and these brightly patterned Burmese lacquerware offering vessels.

Many Burmese homes would have hpaya-zin, elaborate gilded wood and lacquer shrines, that were meant to hold miniature sculptures of Buddha for private contemplation. The shrine shown above is no longer available. It was absolutely one of my favorite things to have passed through my life.

Buddhist art continues to be a dominant form of visual expression throughout Southeast Asia today after centuries of tradition. If you'd like to read more about Buddhism and art, the Met has a superb article by Vidya Dehejia, which goes into much greater detail about the era.

And if you haven't already, check out the Southeast Asian Collection I've put together in the shop!


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