Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Art Calling For Reform

Last October Doo Phra, the oil painting on the right, by Thailand’s Warthit Sembut, won one of the Young Thai Artist Awards meted out annually by the cultural foundation established by Siam Cement, one of the country’s leading corporations and one with close royal connections. The foundation invited Warthit to bring his family to the awards presentation in Bangkok; his parents drove all the way from Chiang Rai in the far north to attend. When they got to the venue, they found an empty frame dangling among the other prize-winning works. The foundation, supposedly made of concrete, had collapsed at the mere possibility that Warthit’s painting would draw complaints because of its depiction of Buddhist monks greedily looking over amulets. A few days later Warthit, accompanied by members of the Thai Artist Network, went to the offices of Siam Cement, handed back the trophy and cash and asked for his painting back. The Buddha advised us to detach ourselves from material things and be free of desire. However, most Thai monks neglect teaching the Dhamma and spend much of their time hawking blessed amulets, lucky charms and quack medicines. The title of the painting, Doo Phra means ‘monks watching’ or, if you turn the translation slightly, ‘watch the monks.’
The Siam Cement Foundation had reason to worry about complaints. The month previous there’d been an unholy row over another painting that showed monks in a bad light. Anupong Chanthorn’s Bhikkhu Sandan Ka, meaning ‘Monks With Traits of a Crow,’ a phrase which the artist says the Buddha used for bad monks (Vin.III,107 ?) - won the gold prize at the 2007 National Artist Awards and was displayed at Silpakorn University. This painting depicted two squatting monks with the beaks of crows rummaging through an alms bowl full of magic amulets as crows flutter around them. In Thai culture the crow is a symbol for avaricious opportunism. One of Chanthorn’s earlier paintings, entitled Ma-nus, showed mangy temple dogs reincarnating into monks. Unused to having their behavior questioned, dozens of monks and scores of laymen staged a series of protest rallies, demanding that the university withdraw the award and remove the painting from the show because it insulted the clergy. Some protesters burned a photo of Anupong while monks chanted a funeral prayer. The sound bites for the TV news came from a leader of the right wing People’s Network to Protect the Nation, Religion and the Monarchy. This group had been involved in the summer rallies outside Government House where the drafters of Thailand’s new constitution were prodded to include a passage declaring Buddhism the national religion. Several monks staged a hunger strike to underscore how much this meant to them. They only stopped their strike when Queen Sirikit said in her birthday speech that Buddhism shouldn’t be used for political ends. It is interesting that calls for the long overdue reform of the Thai Sangha are being left to mere artists like Sembut and Chanthorn rather than to the Dept. of Religious Affairs, the senior monks on the Ecclesiastical Council or the Sangharaja; yet more evidence of just how spiritually moribund the Thai Sangha is.
‘Too many of the 250,000 to 300,000 monks in this country do not observe even the most rudimentary precepts required of lay Buddhists - let alone the 227 precepts that those who take up the saffron robe are supposed to observe,’ The Nation said in an editorial concerning the recent controversy. ‘Buddhist temples used to be centres of learning, and monks were the guardians of our cultural heritage, but many temples have turned into dens of iniquity.’
Adapted from the Internet

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