It may be hard to believe but there are still places in Asia that are not overrun by too many people, too many cars, too much pollution, too many tourists and too much over-consumption. Laos is one. This landlocked country bordered by Thailand, Vietnam, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia and China has somehow managed to survive 35 years of Communism-light avoiding the political excesses and reeducation camps that befell Vietnam, the killing fields of Cambodia and Mao’s mad-capped eccentricities that culminated in China’s devastating Cultural Revolution.
Photo of frangipani blossom on Lao airplane tail, Savannakhet, by PHKushlis November 2009.
Yes, Laos is still a one party state run by the Communists but even the Communists have had royal connections and the country’s Buddhist, folk and hill tribe traditions are in far more evidence than its politics. Yes, the population is largely poor - the statistics place it among the poorest in the world - particularly in comparison with its more affluent Thai neighbors but to be poor anywhere in the tropics of Southeast Asia rarely means to go hungry or without shelter.
Map of Laos right from Perry Castaneda Map Collection, University of Texas.
Even though I worked in Thailand years ago at the end of the Vietnam War, visits to Laos were pretty much off-limits with the exception of the capital Vientiane. In fact, I only once spent a couple of hours in Vientiane when I was an Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer at the US Embassy in Bangkok – flying up from Bangkok and then returning across the Mekong by none too sturdy wooden speed boat with folk guitarist in tow.
From the Buddha Caves to the Irrawaddy Dolphins
Last fall, however, I spent a week touring Laos from the Pak Ou Buddha Caves north of the former royal capital of Luang Prabang where the Ou River joins the Mekong to the Cambodian border and the Irrawaddy fresh water dolphins unpredictably soaring out dolphin-like of their watery habitat in the Mekong’s south.
Photo left of Buddha Caves by PHKushlis, November 2009.
Laos is foremost a land of Buddhist monks – and the gold one sees is likely to be saffron robes and Buddhist temple decorations. Laos is also a land of forests, of elephants, of the frangipani tree, of coffee and tea plantations in the Bolevan Plateau, of Khmer ruins and, of course, the wide – but shallow and muddy – Mekong River that wends its way south from China, often forming the border with Thailand and then meandering through Cambodia and Vietnam before reaching the Pacific Ocean.
Santa Fe is full of Buddhists, but no one has erupted with religious rage since this image (a sculpture by David Kimble Anderson) was placed on display in the atrium of a building that housed an art gallery and other business enterprises. As anyone with the least facility in reading symbols will immediately have grasped, there are innumerable ways of interpreting this work of art. Since many possible interpretations are decidedly negative, I found my recalling the violent reactions to the now infamous Danish cartoons, which were condemned by many believers as an affront to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. The result? Riots in several countries. Some people unfortunately died.
Let’s consider some ways in which the Anderson piece might be understood. The gold surface could be an indictment of materialism on the part of traditional Buddhist temple builders or on the part of current practitioners whose lives verge, hypocritically perhaps, on the sumptuous. Of course, many traditional images of the Buddha are also flamboyantly gilt, to symbolize the transcendent value of the teachings and to honor the one who enunciated them.
In this case, however, the figure appears to be bandaged. It is, evidently, blind and essentially quadriplegic. Unable to see. Unable to act. Impotent. Useless. Is this a statement about the futility and irrelevance of Buddhism? On the other hand, meditative insights are available to those who sit without moving, looking inward. Sometimes these insights have effects that are far more powerful than actions that are not guided by wisdom.
Which, one wonders, did the sculptor have in mind?
I simply don’t know. When I first saw this image, I was and still am totally ignorant of the sculptor’s intention, as ignorant as many of those who rioted over the Danish cartoons surely were. Nor would many of those angry Muslims have cared in the least whether the cartoonists’ intentions were pure or not. The cartoons, taken at face value, appear to insult the prophet. Enough.
This past weekend I had an opportunity to show a photo of the blind Buddha to a very knowledgeable Buddhist teacher/scholar. “Give me your first reaction,” I asked. “How do you feel? What are your unconsidered thoughts?” I should have known better. I did not get any unconsidered thoughts.
But I did get some interesting information. This scholar said that the image reminds him of the mummy of Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chinese Cha’an (or Zen) Buddhism, who was born in AD 638 and is known for enunciating the revered Diamond Jewel Platform Sutra. Evidently it was the custom to mummify great teachers back then in China. The proper term, I just learned courtesy of Google, is “whole body relics.” Mummies! This seemed strange to me. Buddhism supposedly teaches impermanence, while mummies are intended to make the physical remains last forever or as long as possible. My bewildered personal reaction to Buddhist mummies notwithstanding, could Anderson’s work be an homage to Hui Neng?
And so the inquiry widens, opening my horizons, giving me pause to think.