Today’S Society Takes
Today’s society takes on many attributes of the past. The past taught the present how to build, how to create, and how to prosper, even through the mistakes. In this paper, I examine a piece from the Angkor period, “Buddha Enthroned,” as a symbolic relic for the ancient teachings of Buddhism and compare it to the conceptualization of prosperity in contemporary life in the United States which focuses on health, wealth, and quantity of relationships.
This artwork coincides in Thailand in the time of the Angkor king Jayavarman VII who was in rule from 1181- 1218. It is relatively large standing at almost two by six feet. The bronze piece illustrates an elaborate skill level of design, incorporating a different perspective on the Buddha. Instead of presenting the Buddha on a lotus pedestal, the viewer is shown the Buddha meditating on an extensive throne. The bronze sculpture has intricate details exemplifying the amount of time that went into making it. The throne, solely, illustrates wealth. The carving creates an arch over the Buddha in a flame like pattern, intertwining flower like motifs as well as symbols that embody “the power of the underworld.” In doing so, this sculpture compares to that of the Khmer temples in its mountain like design. Moreover, these motifs establish the divine presence in this piece, and how the Buddha is a supernatural being who continues to possess worldly traits.
The sculpture incorporates both royal regalia as well as spiritual. As in most Buddhist sculptures, this one depicts a mudra that is called Maravijaya, otherwise known as overcoming malicious or rather evil forces. This particular mudra shows how Buddha withstood an attack by Mara, the king of demons, and gestured to the ground, calling upon Mother Earth. In other words, calling to witness his right to reach enlightenment. This is shown by the right hand over the knee and the left resting palm upwards in the lap.
The Buddha bestows a royal persona, embodying the embellishments of large earrings, a crown and necklace. Furthermore, this Buddha is depicted without a belly. This differs from other sculptures of Buddha because he is fit, and not wealthy in the sense of being overfed but instead disciplined. Contrarily, this could be construed as the King Jayavarman VII, attempting to represent himself as a divine authority, characterized by attributes of Buddha. The Buddha is beholding power and material wealth like a king as well as portraying spiritual attributes.
The intricate detailing of this sculpture goes back to the hardship of the time in Khmer empire. The history of the Khmer is outlined by greatness, an extensive territorial expansion, all leading to an inevitable decline. When Jayavarman VII came into rule, an extensive building power came with him. During that time of the Khmer empire there was an expansion of Cambodia, leading to many wars that cost the nation’s resources. On top of that, temple building remained the primary focus, leaving priests and shrines rich and maintained while the economy weakened. Jayavarman VII eventually converted to Theravada Buddhism, a form of Buddhism argued to be the original form and the most conservative. The goal is to reach Enlightenment, seeking to eliminate suffering and gain introspection. The sculpture embodies a serpent like design on the throne which depicts Mara. The Buddha however, has a calm face of meditation as he calls to witness in his search for Enlightenment. Often times this particular face is referred to as the Kumai, which signifies compassionate watchfulness. This relic of Buddha also portrays a diffusion of the Gandhara style. Gandhara styles were typically influenced primarily by Greek and Roman tradition rather than Indian, where Buddhism supposedly developed. The Gandhara style depicts a more wealthy and prosperous image just as this sculpture, rather than a man-like being. After ideas were traded along the silk road, the Gandhara style began to imitate Chinese dress and was eventually diffused into cultures in areas like Thailand, which is most likely the reason that the Buddha in this sculpture wears traditional dress as well as richly jeweled accessories.
The Khmer empire was influenced greatly under Jayavarman VII’s rule. He expanded the empire through a building program, extending highway systems and building numerous rest houses and hospitals. It was a prosperous time for Angkor period but it also resulted in a weak economic system. While there was a large amount of resources devoted to infrastructure, many of the nation’s resources were dedicated towards religious projects, eventually depleting them. This is evident through the extravagant artwork portraying Buddha. While the economy was weak, much of the wealth in the society was focalized towards art and architecture. The multiple sections of the pedestal, throne, and the Buddha himself allow for a dramatic representation. As a result, Buddha is represented as a divine figure, beholding prosperity, peace and sanctuary in ignoring the world’s distractions.
Buddhism allowed for the peace in the society to be regained. After a long period of turmoil, when Jayavaramn VII converted to Theravada Buddhism, people sought for peace and retrospection. Thai people believed in the concept of power and sought harmony in their interaction with relative strangers. Their goal was to be humble while achieving prosperity in their daily lives, ultimately influencing those around them in the manner of behavior. The idea of Buddhism was not necessarily vocalized, but rather followed. It developed a sense of harmony, letting go or rather eliminating suffering from one’s life. Dually noted, Thai people felt that power and possession of material wealth alone was not enough. Just like in the sense of money, they believed that it was important to possess power, but one must be recognized for it; one must be worthy of being recognized. The cultural aspects of the society were influenced greatly by the social connections and trading on the silk road, allowing ideas to diffuse and change overtime. Consequently, allowing Buddhism to become a timeless doctrine of the past.
As time passed, Buddhism began to grow as the ideology diffused and transformed to fit the standards of the people. Buddhism ultimately created a timeless doctrine, adjusting to the needs of different people, different eras and different cultures and today, it heavily influences how we think. Today’s society revolves around a sense of open-mindedness, and in closer thought could be derived from the teachings of Buddha. One of the few teachings followed the idea of thinking for oneself and acting accordingly, preserving a sense of righteousness and considering the pros and cons to avoid a negative outcome. Consequently, one of the ways to reach this self-introspection was to meditate, which is now a common method to destress in modern day United States. Yoga is a practice that takes place in classes, in the home and anywhere one can reach tranquil thought and consideration. It has inevitably turned into a routine, or common practice used by millions of people while the roots may have gone all the way to Buddhism. Mediation taught by Buddhism was a way to reject the distractions of the world and find one’s way to enlightenment.
Additionally, Buddhism has inspired mental health in the sense of peace and tranquility, foregoing the daily stresses of life and focusing on eliminating them. Buddha’s teachings encouraged people to be self-reliant, in order to end human suffering. Many of Buddha’s teachings coincided with the ideology of each person is his own master. As prevalent in today’s culture, it is idealized for people to have a sense of independence and peace in their day to day lives. If one is not prosperous mentally, then the rest falls apart. One must be ever changing, and allow themselves to engage in freedom of thought, inevitably creating the goal of growing as a person. Buddhism, although used in a routine manner, has developed an ideology that has set root in society today. It has created an idealized life of being mentally stable in the sense of peace and escaping the distractions of the world.
On another note, Buddhism has not only impacted health but also the idea of prosperity in a monetary sense. Like the sculpture of the Buddha, who possessed great jewels and an extravagant throne, it is important to thrive in one’s responsibilities as an individual. Thai’s believed in the concept of application and with that came power. In other words, they sought to attain power while remaining humble. Consequently, having a strong monetary foundation allowed them to be prosperous in their lives, and having materialistic items allowed them to demonstrate their social standing. In today’s day and age, people hope to achieve a large monetary possession, whether it is having a large house, an expensive car, nice clothes or making a large sum in their daily jobs. To do so, one must work for it by getting good grades in school, getting a diploma, and ultimately achieving a profession that allows them to do things with leniency. One of Buddha’s teachings coincides with this because it goes back to the idea of self-reliance. One must work for it, acting as expected within society. The perceived individual is based on how one is dressed and treated, leading to the next idea of relationships.
Within the Thai culture, relationships were influenced by the Buddhist Doctrine as one must be self-reliant, but also respected. It is recognized that there was a relationship between the identity of a person and the position they held within the culture. Much like that in today’s society, it is based on social hierarchy and achieving recognition from a large amount of people rather than the loyalties of a few. By having the numerous relationships and social connections with people, one has the political standing to be perceived and respected with a higher status. This is prevalent in modern society in the sense of social media, and having a following. Many people are referred to as social media influencers, who are the next creators of the world, influencing innovations in technology, creativity, and inspiring the next generation. Consequently, there is a lack of individual quality relationship, due to the large followings that people seek to have. In the Angkor culture, Thai people believed that interpersonal relationships coincided with the hierarchies of power and influence. By gathering a large amount of social connections, one has the ability to influence many, earning respect from many. The relationships between Thai people were solely based on the idea of mutual gains, seeking out the best opportunities which is much like that in today’s society. People, although attempting to help one another, are much more independent and wish to prosper. In order to achieve that, people must find the best opportunities and forfeit some to win more.
The Angkor period came with many struggles as well as insights. One sculpture holds a large amount of history, symbolizing a timeless doctrine of Buddhism that has transcended into daily life of people. The teachings of Buddha, from withstanding the distractions of the worldly evils, the ability to grow through having wealth, as well as seeking to gain a large amount of relationships, have been incorporated into modern society. Although these symbols addressed from the “Buddha Enthroned” sculpture remain important, it is still one to hold many secrets.