BUDDHISM | THAI BUDDHISM | BUDDHA IMAGES | TOTSACHAT

INTRODUCTION ON RELIGION & MYTHOLOGY

 

Siddhartha

The members of the Shakya clan lived on the banks of the Rohini river that ran through the southern foothills of the Himalayas. Their king, Suddhodana Gautama, established its capital in Kapilavastu where he had a great palace built. He ruled with wisdom and won the support of his subjects. The queen, Maya or Maha Maya (fig.), was the daughter of the uncle of Suddhodana, who reigned as a king over a neighbouring district of the same clan.

For twenty years Maya and Suddhodana remained childless, until one night Maya had a strange dream in which a white elephant entered the right hand side of her womb, and she became pregnant. According to tradition Maya returned to her parental home to give birth and stopped in the garden of Lumbini to rest. She was surrounded by Ashoka blossoms and when she reached out to pick a flower, the prince was born. The tradition has it that this event occurred on the eight day of the month of April, in 623 BC. The newborn was named Siddharta.

In the royal palace the joy was soon replaced by sorrow,  for some days after the birth of the prince,  Maya suddenly died. Her younger sister Maha Prajapati was appointed foster mother of the child and raised him with love and care.

A hermit with the name Asita, who lived in the mountains, not far away, noticed a strange radiation around the palace. Interpreting this as a good omen he set off to investigate and soon found the child in the palace. He immediately recognised the child to be a mahapurusha and predicted that if the child was to grow up in the palace he would become a great king who would conquer the world, but if he were to abandon his life at the court and turn to a religious life, he would become a buddha.

Other texts tell the story of the reusi (fig.) Kalewin who paid homage to the newborn prince who then performed his first miracle by placing himself on the turban of the sage. On the fifth day after the birth, King Suddhodana invited eight brahmin priests to predict the future for the prince. Seven of them confirmed he possessed the favourable signs of a monarch or a buddha, depending on whether he would aim for a secular or religious life. The eighth Brahmin affirmed that if he turned his back on a worldly life, he would attain Enlightenment.

At first the king was very pleased with this prediction, but later, he started to worry about the possibility that his only successor to the throne might leave him. Because of this the king made every effort to please the prince and tried to spoil him with all kinds of luxuries but within the palace walls. At the age of seventeen the prince started his training in royal and martial arts but his thoughts kept drifting off. One day in spring,  Siddhartha left the palace accompanied by his father and saw a bird that picked a worm from a freshly ploughed field. He wondered why living creatures had to kill each other. The prince who lost his own mother shortly after birth was deeply impressed by the tragedy of these small creatures. This thought and the spiritual wound it created deepened more each day.

The king became increasingly more concerned for Siddhartha and when he was nineteen years old arranged a marriage with princess Yashodhara. She was the daughter of Suprabuddha, prince of Devadaha castle and a brother of the deceased queen Maya. After Siddhartha had passed several tests, including the lifting of a heavy bow, he won the hand of the princess. At the age of twenty nine they had a son,  who they called Rahula. Siddhartha then decided to bid farewell to his princely life and fled the palace accompanied only by his servant Chandaka (fig.) and his horse Kanthaka.

Several times the devil tempted Siddhartha urging him to return to the palace promising him the whole world, but he refused. He then shaved bald and departed southward as a mendicant monk, first visiting the hermit Bhagava, whose ascetics he observed, and afterwards travelled on to Arada Kalapa and Udraka Ramaputra to study their methods of meditation, in order to attain Enlightenment. When he didn't see any salvation in this either, he went on to the land of Magadha, where he started an ascetic life on the banks of the Nairanjana (Neranjara) river in the Uruvilva forest.

He led an ascetic existence for six years in the presence of five disciples but was unable to reach his goal. He then decided to abandon this path. Emaciated from ascetic fasting, he took a bath in the nearby river, where he accepted a bowl of milk from a village girl named Sujata. Amazed and disappointed about this the panjawakkie left him, though they had initially followed him everywhere.

Having had his meal he put the bowl into the river Nairanjana, thinking if he was to gain Enlightenment, then may that bowl go against the current, i.e. to float upstream, which we are told came to be accomplished and which is often explained to symbolically signify that the Buddha's teaching went against all the teachings of his day.

Having wandered around as a mendicant monk and living the life of an ascetic, in which he couldn't find salvation, he decided to continue to meditate until he attained Enlightenment. This finally happened after a triumph over the temptations of Mara and thus Siddhartha became a buddha in 588 BC, at the age of thirty five.

Buddhism

Buddhism originated as a philosophy in 543 BC in North India and is based on the life of Siddharta Gautama, an Indian prince, whose father Suddhodana ruled over the kingdom of the Shakyas in present-day Nepal. In iconography the long earlobes of the Buddha, stretched from wearing heavy gold earrings, are proof of his noble descent. Buddhism emphasizes compassion for all living creatures, non-attachment, and release from all suffering by attaining Enlightenment which can be gained by following the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. After the Buddha's death, two schools gradually emerged, namely Mahayana and Theravada or Hinayana Buddhism. In Thailand the Theravada form is practiced.

Legend tells of Siddharta who, whilst meditating under the ‘Tree of Knowledge’,  was constantly disturbed by the diversions of Mara, the personification of evil, with the intention to distract him and prevent him discovering the Four Noble Truths. Siddharta, who had vowed not to leave the spot under the bodhi tree (fig.) before he found true understanding, suppressed evil and by touching the earth called upon nature to bear witness to his determination.

In iconography this event is depicted by Buddha images having the right hand on the knee and the finger tips pointing to the ground. The left hand rests on the lap with the palm up. This hand position or mudra is called bhumisparsa (fig.) and literally means ‘touching the earth’ and symbolizes ‘the suppression of evil’. The same mudra in Thailand is called Maravijaya, ‘victory over Mara’. Siddharta attained Enlightenment after 49 days of extreme meditation, at the age of thirty five. Since then he has been known to the world as Buddha, the Enlightened One, the Awakened One, Shakyamuni or Tatakot. Because his Enlightenment happened under a fig tree on the banks of the Neranjara river near Bodh Gaya, the scientific name of the tree became Ficus religiosa, holy fig tree.

After attaining Enlightenment the Buddha moved on to Mrigadava in Varanasi where the panjawakkie stayed. There he preached to them and proclaimed his teachings for the very first time. They became his first disciples and he set in motion the Wheel of Law. He then went on to convert his friend king Bimbisara and criss-crossed the country begging for food for the next 45 years teaching his doctrine convincing others of his way of life.

At the age of 80, on his way from Rajagriha to Shravasti the Buddha became ill at a place called Vaisali where he predicted his parinirvana, his final transition to nirvana. He continued on to Pava where he became seriously ill after eating food offered to him by the blacksmith Chunda. In spite of severe pain and weakness he eventually reached the woods that border Kusinagara and lay down between two sala trees. The Buddha taught his disciples to the very last moment. He passed away in 543 BC, on the exact same day as he was born, and on the same day as he reached Enlightenment.

The cremation of the body of the Buddha was conducted by Ananda, one of his favourite followers. Seven neighbouring rulers as well as king Ajatasatru demanded that his relics were divided amongst them. The residents of Kusinagara initially refused this and it almost led to a war. Through the advice and intervention of a wise man, named Drona, calamity was averted and the relics were divided between the eight countries. The ashes of the funeral pyre and an earthen jar with relics were given to two more rulers hence ten chedi were built to commemorate the Buddha and house his ashes.

Thai Buddhism

Originally the Thai were an animist people but during the reign of king Ramkamhaeng (1279-1298) Theravada Buddhism, the religion that originated in India and was introduced to Thailand by Indian missionaries and monks from Sri Lanka, was adopted as the official State religion. This religion was however know earlier especially through the campaigns of the Indian emperor Ashoka who sent Buddhist missionaries to several parts of Asia and Southeast Asia as early as the 3rd century. The religion was influenced by aspects from Brahmanism and Hinduism from which it is derived and which was known in the period of the mighty Khmer empire.

Buddhism has upheld  well during the sometimes turbulent chapters of Thai history. It was accepted as the state religion during the Sukhothai period and today around 95% of the Thai population is Therevada Buddhist, making Thailand the largest Therevada Buddhist country in the world. Therevada means ‘teachings of the elders’ and focuses on the Buddha and his teachings making this form of Buddhism the closest to the original teachings, although it is influenced by other religions.

In Thailand Buddhism is supervised by The Sangha, a board of senior monks. They keep a close watch on the correct teaching of tradition and the transmission of the ancient Pali texts, as well as on the order of monks that need to submit to the pahtimohk, the 227 rules of conduct on monastic discipline as described in the Vinaya Pitaka or Vinay Pidok. In the seventies some neo-Buddhist movements and sects emerged, like the Santi Asok(e) and the Dhammakaya, but they gained only a limited following and the Santi Asok(e) was even placed outside the Sangha because of its dogmatic interpretation of tradition.

An animist dimension of Buddhism is the superstitious belief in amulets and talisman. This belief is often stimulated by obsession, fear, syncretism and commercial aspects. Some venerated monks, the Phra saksit, are believed to possess special spiritual powers (saksit) and amulets blessed by them are used as protection against evil and bad luck. Officially the Sangha forbids the distribution of amulets since this is in defiance of the Buddhist doctrine which states that transmission of saksit on amulets equates to the display of transcendent skills. Many monks, though do not take this prohibition very seriously thus feeding the superstitions of the people. On the sidewalk around Wat Mahathat opposite Sanam Luang in Bangkok, a lively trade in amulets flourishes, usually with small images of the Buddha and of venerated monks, the Luang Pho.

One also encounters talisman, bringers of fortune. Popular with some Thai males is a phallus carved from wood and worn around the waist. This amulet, the pladkik, symbolises the Hindu god Shiva and is supposed to avert bad luck and attract good fortune. Shiva is Sanskrit for ‘luck’. Related to Shiva and the phallus symbol is the linga, in Thai called Siwaleung. A symbol of protection which is allowed by the Sangha is a thin white string made of cotton, a piece of thread blessed by monks called sai sin (fig.) and which protects against all kinds of evil. It is usually worn around the wrist but is also used in several kinds of rite, such as cremations, with weddings in the form of a mongkon, in a ceremony called mongkonlasut.

A semi Buddhist belief with roots in animism is the many small to large sahn phra phum (fig.), spirit houses placed in front of buildings where it is believed the ‘protecting spirit of the land’ will dwell. As soon as a new home is occupied these miniature temples are placed in front of the house so that the phra phum chao tih, the spirit that lived on the land, before the building was constructed, can move back in. To please the spirit regular offerings are made and the spirit houses start looking like small altars. Sometimes a jawed is placed inside.

Buddha Images

Buddha images are images of the historical  Buddha or Siddhartha Gautama after his Enlightenment. Any image of the Buddha is subject to strict significant iconographic rules, requiring to show the lakshana or physical characteristics of a buddha or great man, especially the 32 major marks described in Buddhist literature, from which the predestination of a buddha may be recognized at birth. These include an ushnisha (fig.), sometimes a flame, a lotus bud (fig.) or halo (fig.), long fingers and full shoulders, long earlobes, curled hair, etc.

Tradition later added several more characteristics such as an urna or buddha eye (fig.) and 108 signs on the foot soles (fig.). The position of the hands, in Sanskrit called mudra's (fig.), as well as certain poses or iryapatha (fig.), are used to relate to certain episodes in the Buddha's life. Different interpretations led to minor deviations on some characteristics and usually indicate a different origin, style or period. Buddha images can not be sold or bought, they are literally ‘rented’ or ‘rented out’.

Many Buddhists also believe that every Buddha image possesses a fraction of energy of the Enlightened One. The more images that are gathered together (fig.), as in Wat Phra Thamma Kaay, or the bigger the image, as in Wat Phra Chetuphon, the more energy will be radiated. That is why very large images are made or many smaller images are placed next to each other. The inner walls of Chinese temples are often decorated with hundreds, if not thousands of small Buddha images (fig.). It is said that they represent the words spoken by the Buddha. In Thai phra phutta roop.In Thai they are called phra phutta roop.

Totsachat

In Thai tradition the last ten incarnations of the Buddha are the most important and are called Totsachat. They are often found depicted on murals and are part of the Jataka, a word from Sanskrit-Pali, in Thai known as chadok that represent one of the 550 incarnations that every soul has to take before he can be born as a buddha. Generally it stands for the 547 life stories of the Buddha, but in Burma three more were added for reasons of symmetry for mural painting.

The jataka of Wetsandorn (Wessandon) or Vessantara is the last Totsachat and relates the story of the Buddha in his tenth and last incarnation as bodhisattva before his final incarnation as Buddha and emphasizes the merit of ‘giving’. Wetsandorn was born the son of king Sanjaya and queen Pusati who ruled over the kingdom of Sivi. At the age of sixteen he married Maddi with whom he had a son who they named Jali and a daughter, Kanha. From an early age he enjoyed giving things away. At some point he gave to some brahmins of a neighbouring kingdom a sacred white elephant with powers to bring rain. However this caused a severe drought in his own kingdom. The king's subjects became so angry they demanded that the prince should be exiled. The king gave into the demands of the people and sent Wetsandorn and Maddi, together with their children, into exile.

They left the palace in a royal carriage which on the way they also gave away to a group of Brahmins. Thus they eventually arrived on foot in the Himaphan forest where they lived the lives of ascetics. Not much later a Brahmin with the name Jujaka came to their ashram. He wanted Jali and Kanha to become slaves to help his wife. When Maddi was away to pick fruits in the forest Jujaka used the occasion to introduce himself to Wetsandorn. When the children heard the request of the Brahmin they tried hiding between the lotus leaves in a pond nearby, but Wetsandorn deeply touched by the story of Jujaka, called them out and gave them to the Brahmin (fig.). Though, he suddenly changed his mind and proposed to exchange them for a ransom, an idea he explained to his father king Sanjaya. Eventually the king and queen went to visit him in their refuge in the forest and took Wetsandorn and his family home to rule over Sivi.