The Walking Buddha
The Walking Buddha
By Thanong Khanthong
From Wat Inthraviharn you can take a cab, which needs to make a U-turn to get onto the Rama VIII Bridge. It is a beautiful cable bridge across the Chao Phya River. Most of the bridges across the Chao Phya River bear the names after the Rattanakosin Kings. And lo and behold, as you enter the main structure of the bridge, you can see an arch-like gate designed similar to a mould of a Buddha amulet of Phra Nangphaya. Phra Nangphaya from Pitsanulok is one of the five crown jewels of the Thai Buddha amulets. The other four are Phra Somdej Wat Rakhang from Bangkok, Phra Rod from Lamphun, Phra Phongsuphan from Suphan Buri and Phra Sumko from Kamphaengphet. If you have one of these Buddha amulets hanging around your neck, you are ready to face any vicissitudes in the world with mindfulness. As you pass through this auspicious gate, you feel that you have a full blessing from Phra Nangphaya for your journey into the holy Land of the Buddha. Your mind feels blissful.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej laid the foundation for the construction of the Phutthamonthon religious site in 1957 to commemorate the 2500th year of the Buddhist Era. Two years before, Field Marshal Plaek Phibulsongkram, initiated this project. But it was not until 1978 that the construction, marred by financial shortfall, was finished.
When you walk, you're conscious of your good conduct and your burden of preserving the legacy into the future.
The year 1957 or B.E. 2500 marked was the mid-point of the Buddhist Era as Buddhism under Sakayamuni Buddha was prophesied to last 5,000 years. Afterward Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, would be born into this world to attain a complete enlightenment, teach his Dharma before passing into Nirvana. Maitreya would create another Buddhist Era to succeed Sakayamuni Buddha. The Thais believe that Sakayamuni Buddha visited Suvarnabhumi in the ancient time and declared that Suvarnabhumi would become the Land of the Buddha. And Maitreya would be born in Suvarnabhumi, and no where else, when the time is ripe. The Buddha is believed to have created footprints, many of which are still not discovered, in Suvarnabhumi to symbolise his prophecy. In making his footprints, the Buddha radiated his spiritual power to turn hard stone into soft stone before printing his foot on it.
The huge Walking Buddha image cast in bronze gold measuring 15.8 metres marks the centre of Phutthamonthon religious site. Phra Sri Sakayathospholyan was designed in 1955 by one of the most well-known artists in Thailand, the late Professor Silp Birasri. But it was not until 1981 that this Buddha image was actually cast. Modern Thai artists trace their knowledge and inspiration from Professor Silp, the Italian-born teacher and artist, who pioneered art studies at the Silapakorn University. At first Professor Silp carved out the structure of the Walking Buddha with a size of 2.14 metres. But to commemorate the mid-point of the Buddhist Era, the size of the Walking Buddha was later expanded to 2,500 krabiat. One krabiat, a Thai unit of measurement, equals 0.25. Therefore the size of the Walking Buddha was 7.5 times the original design. King Bhumibol Adulyadej named this Buddha statue as Phra Sri Sakayathosaphonlayan, which represents the historical Buddha.
In the walking posture, Phra Sakayathospholyan raises his right foot in preparation to walk. A vast lotus seat is behind him. You can see his saffron flying as he has just risen from the lotus seat and is about to walk after his long sitting posture to attain enlightenment. There is another lotus below to greet the Buddha image's feet. The right hand of the Buddha image drops loosely to the side. The left hand is raised forward to the chest level. The Buddha image is striking in appearance. It has a beautiful face of a young Buddha, one who has just attained enlightenment.
This image is reminiscent of the walking Buddha posture created in the Sukhothai period. The walking Buddha posture is known in Thai as "phra leela". Phra leela has a delicate walking posture, with elements of feminism in movement and in the curved shape of the body. Phra leela illustrates the height of Sukhothai’s artistic excellence. You can also see some of the famous phra leela Buddha images of Sukhothai at Wat Benjamabophit, the Marble Temple built by King Chulalongkorn, in Bangkok. You can sense that Phra Sri Sakayathospholyan and the phra leela Buddha images at Wat Benjamabophit are about to walk together to usher the grand tradition of Buddhism into a new age in Suvarnabhumi.
After sitting and standing, our next mode of movement is to walk. The Walking Buddha signifies an action of a carrying on of the tradition of Buddhism so that this religion will last into the future. Otherwise, Buddhism will cease to prosper. The Walking Buddha of Buddhamonthon also represents Mudita, or sympathetic joy, which is the third virtue of the Four Brahmaviharas. In Mudita, you radiate your sympathetic joy to others with a selfless heart. You're happy when you see other people happy. You don't feel any craving for yourself, but you would like others to be happy. And when you walk, you create an action. In Buddhism, action, or deed, is most important, representing your karma. If you act with good deeds, you'll get good karma. If you act with bad deeds, you'll get bad karma. In other words, good deed leads to good result, while bad deed brings about bad result.
In his paper, The Aesthetics of Buddhist Sculpture, which was read before the Siam Society in 1949, Professor Silp pointed out that there are two ways of appreciating the old art. You may look at it according to its antiquity. Or you may appreciate it according to its beauty. "In general, archaeologists and historians are enthusiastic about very old objects because they represent for them the human activity of the past, while for an artist the value of an old object lies in the extent to which it is the expression of true beauty. The artist judges from an aesthetic point of view, while the archaeologists and historians judge from scientific principles,” he argued. But the late Mom Chao Chand Chirayu Rajani, a literary giant of Thailand, adopted a non-iconographical approach. Instead of looking at a Buddha image from the outside, he proposed to look from the inside, both artistically and spiritually. Then we intuitively see the artistic beauty and feel the spiritual meaning of the Buddha image without any too much why and wherefore. (Mom Chao Chand Chirayu Rajani, “Thai Imageries of Suvarnabhumi”, Bangkok: Amarin Printing Group, 1987)
Although Phra Srisakayathospholyan is a relatively new comer to the scene and its antiquity cannot be compared to the Sitting Buddha of Wat Suthat or the Standing Buddha of Wat Inthraviharn, this Buddha image is of no less importance in artistic and spiritual value. You only have to feel the Buddha image from the inside. On a Visakha Puja Day, the moon orbits around Phra Srisakayathospholyan as if this Buddha image were standing the centre of the universe.
The Sukhothai artisans and artists found their inspiration from the Buddhist legend in creating the walking Buddha posture. During the Lent period, the Buddha once went to preach to his Mother in a heaven called Tavatsinsa or the Heaven of the Thirty-Three Devata. After the Lent, the Buddha returned to earth by descending the crystal ladder, flanked by the golden and silver ladders. The Lord Indra and Brahma followed him respectively. Montri Umavijani argued that this event had a great meaning for Buddhist art. "First of all, it was a the basis of the iconography of the Walking Buddha. Besides, it had a great effect on the attitude towards perspecitve in Thai Buddhist art. It is said that when the Buddha returned to earth, he made a miracle by 'opening all the worlds to view'. All the levels of heaven, all levels of Hell and all continents were, therefore, laid bare and equidistant to the eyes. This partly explains why the works of Thai artists before the advent of Western influence were always two-dimensional," he said.
Each area of Buddhamonthon is equally one kilometre in length, representing each virtue of the Four Brahmaviharas. Each virtue in the Four Brahmaviharas is equally important to the others. But the Buddha also suggests that once you have perfected the virtues of the Four Brahmaviharas, you will also attain good conduct, sound concentration, shiny wisdom and full freedom of the mind.
While the Buddha was staying at Bhanda, a few months before his passing away, he addressed a large community of monks about the four qualities needed to break away from the cycle of rebirth. "It is because of not understanding, not penetrating four qualities that you and I have run and wandered the round of rebirth in this way for such a long time. Which four? It is because of not understanding, not penegrating noble conduct...noble concentration...noble wisdom...noble freedom that you and I have run and wandered the round of rebirth in this way for such a long time. But once noble conduct is understood and penetrated, once noble concentration is understood and penetrated, once noble wisdom is understood and penetrated, once noble freedom is understood and penetrated, then craving for existence is cut off, the conductor of existence is destroyed, and no longer is there rebirth." (Rupert Gethin, Saying of the Buddha, Page 69.)
The Walking Buddha at Phutthamonthon shows us that action, guided by good practice, concentration and wisdom, is the basis for all goodness. The Buddha image is also leading us by walking tirelessly toward the new age of Suvarnabhumi, where the Thais live happily with a bright face and act with selflessness.
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