– The Dhammakāya gāthā is written in the symbolized heart of a statue, and it is then placed inside the statue in order to enliven it
– The Buddha image consecration ceremony is closely related to the Buddha himself according to the myth of the Mahāmunī image in Burma
– The ceremony of installing a ‘ heart’ of a Buddha image is normally held after the eye-opening ceremony in northern Thai tradition
“Then, the Buddha breathed upon the [Mahāmunī] image to impart ‘life’ in it and the image was transformed into life-like one, so life-like indeed that to eyes of men, nats, Saka, and Brahma.”
There is no problem to understand a Buddha statue as the presence of the living Buddha when he is still alive because an image is enlivened or consecrated by him. In contrast, one might question that how is such idea possible after his parinibbāna ? Although the Buddha [Tathāgata “thus-gone”] has passed away so far, an image of the Buddha is still understood by northern Thai Buddhists as the Buddha himself. The reason for this issue is that an image of the Buddha must be undergone by the process of giving ‘life’ before it is properly venerated. Stanley J. Tambiah (1984) proposes that there are four dimensions about the procedure of giving “life” to a material representation of the Buddha in the ritual consecration ceremony. First, life and supernatural powers will be transfused into a new Buddha statue from an older one, and the newly consecrated statue is considered as a “reincarnation” of the older image. Second, the power of the recitations of Paritta , of Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta “the first sermon of the Buddha”, and of Paṭhama Sambhodi “an account of Buddha’s first enlightenment” will be stored in the statue, and bring it a ‘life’. Third, the meditative power of holy monks will be transferred to an image, and the image will be en-spirited by transforming into the dhammakāya. Forth, the eye-opening ceremony is performed to make an image becomes alive (jīva). Another ritual ceremony in northern Thailand is called “the ceremony of installing a ‘heart’ of the Buddha.” The Dhammakāya gāthā is written in the symbolized heart of a statue, and it is then placed inside the statue in order to enliven it (Suksavas, 2016). In this essay, I will respectively discuss how the consecration ceremony, the eye-opening ceremony, and the ceremony of placing a ‘heart’ of the Buddha are understood as the technologies of enlivening a new Buddha statue, and I will then argue that in northern Thai Buddhist culture, after the Buddha’s parinibbāna his image is undergone the process of giving ‘life’ [by three ritual ceremonies], so the image is perceived as not only an iconic representation of the Buddha but also the Buddha himself.
Donald K. Swearer (1995:270-2), in the concept of ‘presence’, has explained that a Buddha image is considered by northern Thai Buddhists as the presence of ‘the living Buddha.’ The reason why Lān Nā people think like this is that according to Buddha-tamnān, the Buddha himself visited and created a sacred land named ‘Lān Nā.’He also established his ongoing presence in each location by allowing the construction of his image, leaving his footprint, and donating his sacred hair relics. The Buddha, consequently, predicts that after his death (parinibbāṇa) the bodily relics will be enshrined here [Lān Nā]. Another information is found in Tamān Ang Salung (Chronicle of the Water Basin), the northern Thai legendary chronicle (16th C.E.). There is a similar allowance made by the Buddha toward the construction of a Buddha statue.
“[After they were made] the images were put in an appropriate place and everyone worshipped the Buddha…. The Buddha blessed the people by saying, ‘Sādhu … it is good that you have made these images of me because I will not always be here with you.”
There is no problem about how a Buddha image is perceived as the presence of the living Buddha when he is still alive. The reason for this is that the image is given ‘life’ by the Buddha himself. The questions, however, might be raised that after the Buddha’s death (parinibbāna) how is an image of him understood as the presence of the living Buddha?
The Kosala Bimba Vaṇṇanā (KBV), the myth of the first Buddha image’s construction provides a concept of a Buddha statue which is seen as the presence of the living Buddha at the time of his absence, though it is just a temporary absence, and the Buddha was in fact still alive at that time. Swearer comments that in the KBV, making a Buddha image at the time of his temporary absence can be interpreted as a metaphor for the future profound problem whether or not the Buddha’s arūpa or “immaterial” can be given a material form. Therefore, in the context of the KBV he has pointed out that
“The Buddha image is not merely a physical likeness of this great teacher, the Enlightened One. Rather, the Buddha is the “thus-gone one” (Tathāgata), and the image is an embodiment of this thus-gone truth [which is acted as the presence of the living Buddha].” (Swearer, 1995:270)
In order to answer the questions; how is a Buddha image understood by Lān Nā people as the presence of the living Buddha after his parinibbāna? and how has a material representation of the Buddha been given ‘life’ (jīva)?, the ritual consecration ceremony should be discussed here because this activity is considered by scholars such as Swearer (2004), Suksavas(2016) Schober (1997) and Tambiah (1984) as one of the technologies to “enliven” a Buddha image or making the Buddha present. In this section, I will focus on the process of giving ‘life’ to a Buddha image in the Buddha image consecration ceremony (budhābhiseka), particularly in northern Thailand.
The Buddha image consecration ceremony is closely related to the Buddha himself according to the myth of the Mahāmunī image in Burma. Vissakamma casted the image by duplicating the Buddha physical body (rūpakāya). The Buddha, consequently, consecrated it by breathing upon, and the image becomes alive and venerates to the Buddha. At the present day, the Mahāmunī image has been treated by Burmese Buddhists as the Buddha himself. Although the myth like this could not be found in the legends of northern Thailand, the ritual consecration ceremony has become the main technology to enliven a Buddha image so far.
Swearer (2004) proposes that the goal of Buddha image consecration (Buddhābhiseka) in northern Thailand is to enliven or en-spirit a statue. The ceremony can be held anytime, but according to the Buddhābhisekagāthā, 16th C.E. northern Thai text, the Buddhābhiseka should properly be held in the full moon day of the Visākha day because the miraculous power of the Buddha’s enlightenment will successfully be instilled into the image. The Buddha image consecration ceremony is often processed in wihān “ a new image hall” or bot “the building used for monastic activities” because the supernatural power of the older Buddha statue in bot (normally there is one main Buddha image) will transfer to the new ones which are subject to a reincarnation of the old one.During the consecration ceremony the paritta “protective chant”, of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta “the first sermon of the Buddha to his five disciples” and the Paṭhama Sambhodi “an account of Buddha’s first enlightenment” will be recited by a group of monks. By using the sacred thread (sāi siñcana) the miraculous power of these sacred recitations will be transferred from a particular source such as the main Buddha image to animate or inanimate objects. Therefore, the new Buddha image will be recharged with the power of Buddha’s enlightenment and in this point, the material representation of the Buddha is en-spirited and becomes the presence of the living Buddha. Tambiah notes that
“The Buddha images and other objects that imitate them are created with power and energy because they have undergone a “life-giving process” that “animates” them. The “life-giving process” is the subject of this” (Tambiah, 1984:230)
In northern Thai Buddhābhiseka, the recitations of particular texts, the Paṭhama Sambhodi or Pathom Somphot “an account of Buddha’s biographies”, the Sittāt Ok Buat “Siddhattha’s great renunciation” are to assure that a Buddha image will attain the same experiences as the Buddha himself [the story is recorded in those recited texts] so that the stone or stucco can be represented as the presence of Siddhartha’s body who was transformed by immortality. According to the Paṭhama Sambhodi composed by the supreme patriarch Pussadeva (1813-1900 A.D.), in term of getting a life, the Buddha firstly got a life when he was born by rūpakāya “the material form”, and the Buddha was secondly born by the dhammakāya when he attained enlightenment (sammāsambodhiñāṇa). Thus, the recitations of these texts are requested because to ensure that an image will experience the second birth and is enlivened by the dhammakāya “the spiritual body of the Buddha or the Buddha’s spirit.” Another interpretation is that the recitations of the Paṭhama Sambhodi and Sittāt Ok Buat are to infuse bodhiñāṇa (transcendental knowledge) and the dhammakāya to an image of the Buddha.The images are then enlivenedand is seen as the one reality of the merging of rūpakāya and dhammakāya.
Another important feature of the Buddhābhiseka in northernThailand is that the holy monks who are believed to have attained special jhānic powers are invited to the ceremony in order to generate their spiritual perfection. This activity is explained by Tambiah as one of the ways to enliven the image. At the time of his enlightenment, the Buddha practiced meditation (kammaṭṭhāna) in order to transform his rūpakāya into his dhammakāya [similarly, I have presented in the first section about the second birth of the historical Buddha-the Buddha was born by dhammakāya at the time of his enlightenment]. Therefore, the statue can also be transformed in the dhammakāya via a specific ritual procedure which is associated with the meditation of charismatic monks. The group of holy monks will seat in deep meditation before the statue to be consecrated. The monk will recall his pāramī “power” of their own kammaṭṭhāna attainment, and as the result of this, the image will be transformed into dhammakāya. At this point, the spiritual body of the Buddha (dhammakāya) is replaced into the image which is then considered as the presence of the Buddha himself. In addition, the most common activity during the Buddha image consecration, which is not only found in northern Thailand but also in central Bangkok, is pouring water. In the most profound point, the consecration (abhiseka) should not be understood as making sacred in the sense of purification, but it also should be realized as the technology of enlivening the image by forcing of sacred water to the statue.
In northern Thailand, the “Eye-opening Sutta” or Suat Boek Phranet (SBP) normally is recited in the eye-opening ceremony at the end of the Buddha image consecration. The SBP is a Pāli text with a unique northern Thai Buddhism style. Gombrich (1966) who has done a research on the Buddha image consecration in Sri Lanka has presented that the trace of “the eye-opening ceremony” can presumably found in the work of Buddhaghosa (a great commentator on Pāli cannons in the 5th CE.). In Sri Lanka, the popular ceremony involving with the eyes of the Buddha statue is called netra pinkama which literally means “eye ceremony.” An official title to this ceremony is netra pratiṣṭhāpanaya utsavaya or “festival of setting the eyes.” This ceremony is linked to the Akkhipūjā by Gombrich because the meaning of such corresponds with netra pinkama. In the article, he proposes that the Buddhaghosa describes the scene when the beautiful Buddha image had been constructed to the king Asoka (3rd BCE), he celebrated the Akkhipūjā for seven days.
In northern Thailand, the purpose of opening the eyes of an image is to enliven it, to bring to life, to make it present and to instill it with miraculous power. The similar concept can also be found in Cambodia (studied by Bizot) and Sri Lanka (studied by Gombrich).
“The very act of consecration indicates that the statue is being brought to life, for it consists simply in painting in the eyes.” (Gombrich, 1996: 26)
“The ceremony of opening the eyes of the “a statue is the rites which make the statue made of stucco or wood become alive (jīva) so it can be venerated with the same title as the Buddha himself.” (Bizot, 1992:293)
The centrality of the opening eyes of the Buddha image originates from the significance of the ‘vision’ which is considered as the core of Prince Siddhatta’s enlightenment. This scheme is recreated in the northern Thailand during the eye-opening ceremony. In that ceremony, the Dhammacakkappavatana Sutta “turning the wheel of the Dhamma” is recited so as to recreate an event when the Buddha attained cakkhu which brings him a second life (born by dhammakāya). After he got enlightenment, the Buddha went to preach the first sermon “Dhammacakkappavatana Sutta” for his five disciples. The Buddha explains the practice for achieving the ultimate goal. He also describes what he has experienced in the insight meditation at the time of enlightenment.
“There are these two extremes that are not to be indulged in by one who has gone forth. Which two? That which is devoted to sensual pleasure with reference to sensual objects: base, vulgar, common, ignoble, unprofitable; and that which is devoted to self-affliction: painful, ignoble, unprofitable. Avoiding both of these extremes, the middle way realized by the Tathagata — producing vision, producing knowledge — leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding.” (Bhikkhu, 1993:1)
According to the quotation above, the first meditation result that the Buddha experienced is cakkhu “vision.” When the vision occurs it leads to other factors, and finally, the attainment of enlightenment is reached. Similarly, the most important point in the Paṭhama Sambhodi and Sittāt Ok Buat, which I have mentioned in the consecration section a, is the scene when the Buddha attained enlightenment or he was secondly born by Dhammakāya. Such scene is deeply re-emphasized in Dhammacakkappavatana Sutta during the eye-opening ceremony. Therefore, the chanting of the Dhammacakkappavatana Sutta during the eye-opening ceremony in northern Thailand has been played in the context of giving ‘life’ to a material representation of the imageby recreating an important point of the second birth (born by dhammakāya) of the Buddha.
Furthermore, the core of Buddha’s enlightenment ‘cakkhu’ has been recreated in another recitation. Swearer has suggested that in northern Thailand, there is a distinctive recitation of the particular text known as suat boek “Eye-opening Sutta.” The text itself describes the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment and the image consecration, but the more interesting is the style of its chant which is unique to northern Thai Buddhism called “spirit calling” or riak khwan. Swearer notes that
“The chant [riak khwan] becomes the medium of through which the unseen reality of the Buddha or the Buddha’s spirit (dhammakāya) is joined to the material reality of the image (rūpakāya).”(Swearer, 2004:96)
Although there is a similar idea about the method of giving ‘life’ to the statue regarding to the eye-opening ceremony which is found in northern Thailand, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka, there are some differences in the details of that pattern on each country. In Cambodia, for instance, the eye-opening ceremony is stressed out as an important part of the Buddha image consecration. The Dhammakāya gāthā is recited in such ceremony but in northern Thailand, instead of reciting the Dhammakāya formula there is a particular text called Suat Boek Sutta recited during the ceremony. F. Bizot presents that “the recitation of the Dhammakāya formula in Khmer tradition is to introduce each of the twenty-seven parts of the dhammakāya [in the Dhammakāya gāthā ] corresponding with the Buddha image[budharūpa or rūpakāya].” In addition, the Dhammakāya gāthā , linked to Yogāvacara tradition, is recited in order to give ‘life’ (jīva) to a material representation of the Buddha by transforming the dhammakāya “the holy Buddha’s spirit” into it.
So far Swearer has not witnessed the recitation of the Dhammakāya gāthā during the eye-opening ceremony in northern Thailand . However, the Tamrā Kān Kosāng Phraphuttarūp “the manual for construction of a Buddha image”, which the Dhammakāya formula is composed there, suggests that the relationship between the recitation of the Dhammakāya gāthā and the concept of ‘the presence of the Buddha himself’ through the construction of his image is explained.
“Altogether these [twenty-six] features of Buddha (Buddhalakaṇa) are called the dhammakāya. If one constructs a Buddha statue and recites the text [the Dhammakāya], it will be the same as though the Buddha himself was present.”(Swearer, 2004, 185)
Even though there is no evidence of the recitation of the Dhammakāya formula in northern Thai eye-opening ceremony, the concept of “making the Buddha present” or making a material representation of the Buddha becomes a Buddha himself’ is also preserved in northern Thailand. Moreover, according to the quotation above the use of this formula in northern Thailand is different from Cambodia because it seems to be requested to recite in a daily life of northern Thai Buddhist rather than a particular event such as “eye-opening ceremony.”
As I have presented in the second section “the eye-opening ceremony” in northern Thailand, the Dhammakāya gāthā is not recited in that ceremony, but this gāthā is played as the main feature in the ceremony of installing a ‘heart’ of the Buddha in Lān Nā tradition. The ceremony is considered as the way of giving ‘life’ to a statue. In this section, I will present how “the ceremony of installing a ‘heart’ of the Buddha” is important to ‘the procedure of giving ‘life’ to an image.’
The ceremony of installing a ‘heart’ of an image is not only found in Thailand but also China and Tibet. In Thailand, this ceremony can, at least, be traced back to the Sukhothai period (1283-1317 A.D) because a hole is commonly found on the chest of a stucco Buddha image, and this hole is used to put relics, manuscripts, and valuables inside. The location on the chest of an image including sacred elements is characterized as “the heart of an image (Buddha).” The ceremony of installing a ‘ heart’ of a Buddha image is normally held after the eye-opening ceremony in northern Thai tradition, and apparently, the heart of an image looks like a human heart with additional organs such as small intestine, large intestine, liver, and ribs.
According to Tamrā Kān Kosāng Phraputtharūp (the manual for constructing a Buddha image (15th-16th CE), the recitations of stanzas or gāthās are not only used in the process of installing a ‘heart’ of a Buddha image but the alphabets of the gāthā are characterized as the sacred feature kwon as yantra (Thai, tham yan). There are eleven yantra diaphragms in the manual for making a Buddha image, and these elements are to be inscribed on strips of silvers and golden plates, and then applied on different parts of an image especially the ‘heart’. Placing the yantra on various parts of the Buddha can be interpreted as the Buddha has the Dhamma as his body, so an image of the Buddha should be not seen as a material representation of the Buddha but the Dhamma + kāya “the Body of Dhamma.” Swearer is aware of the complexities of the yantra’s interpretation but he has suggested that the yantras which are placed in various parts of the Buddha image encapsulate the meaning of both esoteric and exoteric levels meaning that is either manifest or hidden-much like the image itself represents reality in both a material form (rūpakāya) and beyond form (arūpa or dhammakāya).
There is no direct evidence about how the Dhammakāya formula is applied in the ceremony of installing heart of the Buddha image in the manual for making a Buddha image. However, the manual for installing a ‘heart’ of a Buddha image and of stūpa or chedī composed by Krūbā Kong (1902-1989 A.D.)-a holy northern Thai monk- has provided that
“This Dhammakāya gāthā the previous great teachers have been recommended that it[Dhammakāya gāthā] should be written in on the plate and put it inside a Buddha image and stūpa or chedī. People, who recite this stanza regularly, will gain a great merit and finally will attain nibbāna or Buddhahood depending on their ultimate goal.”
According to the quotation above, the Dhammakāya gāthā is not only requested to recite in northern Thai Buddhists but also the letters of the gāthā contain miraculous power. The gāthā is written as yantra on the heart of the statue in order to sacralize the image and bring it a ‘life’. Since the Dhammakāya is understood by Lān Nā people as the holy Buddha spirit, as arūpa “immaterial” and as having twenty-six characteristics which can manifest a Buddha image, so that a material heart of a Buddha image symbolizes an immaterial heart of the Buddha or the Buddha’s spirit known as the dhammkāya. The image will not become the presence of the Buddha himself until it is completed by installing a’ heart’ of a Buddha image. Such activity is symbolized as the transformation of the Buddha’s spirit (dhammakāya) to a material representation of the Buddha, and as the process of enlivening an image. Furthermore, as I have demonstrated in the second section about the Dhammakāya formula in the manual for making a Buddha image and its recitation context, the similarity [the Dhammakāya gāthā is applied in a daily life of Lān Nā people rather than in a particular event] can be found in the manual for installing a ‘heart’ of a Buddha image and of stūpa or chedī. Therefore, it can be assumed that the ways to enliven the Buddha image and making the Buddha present in Lān Nā tradition one should construct a Buddha image and should apply the Dhammakāya formula in both recitations (not only in particular event but also daily life context) and writing as yantra.
In conclusion, as Lān Nā legendary chronicle presents that the Buddha himself created the sacred geographical location named “Lān Nā” , and at that time he authorized a construction of his image. Therefore, while he is alive a Buddha image is understood as the presence of the living Buddha “Gautama.” After his parinibbāna in northern Thai tradition, the Buddha is brought to ‘life’ by the special ritual ceremonies known as the Buddha image consecration, the eye-opening ceremony and the ceremony of installing a ‘heart’ of a Buddha image. In the essay, I have presented the first technology to enliven a Buddha statue known as Buddhābhiseka. In northern Thailand, a material representation of the Buddha will be enlivened by various recitations such as Paritta, Pathom Somphot and Sittāt Ok Buat .The recitations will produce a miraculous power and then be transferred from monks to the image(s). The Pathom Somphot ,and Sittāt Ok Buat are recited during the consecration ceremony in order to ensure that the image will attain the same experience as the Buddha himself. Especially, at the time of his enlightenment which found in Pathom Somphot and Sittāt Ok Buat the Buddha is secondly enlivened by dhammakāya as having attained Sammāsambhodiñāṇa. During the Buddha image consecration the holy monks are invited to generate their spiritual power in order to en-spirit or enliven a statue by transforming the Buddha’s spirit (dhammakāya) into a material representation of the Buddha and consequently the two elements are merged to one ultimate reality. In northern Thailand, the eye-opening ceremony is considered as part of the Buddhābhiseka, and is seen as one of the technologies to give ‘life’ to an image. I have demonstrated that the eye-opening ceremony can be found in Buddhagosha work (the 5th CE.) and the opening of the Buddha image’s eyes derives from an important of cakkhu or “vision”. This fact is crucial to transform the price Sidattha to be the Buddha. According to the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the first mediation result that the Buddha experienced is cakkhu, which leads him to be enlightened one. Therefore, without cakku the Buddha would not be able to attain enlightenment and that why the eye-opening ceremony has been played as an important technology to give ‘life’ to an image in a ritual context. Another tool to make a Buddha image becomes alive is the ceremony of installing ‘heart’ of an image. I have stated in the last section that since the Dhammakāya gāthā has not been used in a particular event such as “eye-opening ceremony”[but it should be recited in a daily life] in northern Thailand, the gāthā is recommended to be written as yantra and placed in the heart of an image. The heart of an image symbolizes the Buddha’s spirit that can manifest a Buddha image and makes it present as the Buddha himself. A Buddha image will not be a Buddharūpa which is understood by Lān Nā people as both an iconographical representation and the presence of the Buddha himself until the image is completed by the consecration ceremony, the eye- opening ceremony and the ceremony of installing a ‘heart’ into a Buddha image. Therefore, without the three ceremonies the image would not effectively be given ‘life’, and would be seen as the presence of the living Buddha, and I have argued that there is no problem for northern Thai Buddhists to understand that a Buddha image is represented as the Buddha himself after his parinibbāna because the image has been undergone the process of giving ‘life’ [by the consecration ceremony, the eye-opening ceremony, and the ceremony of installing a ‘heart’ of the Buddha].
Research by : Mr Woramate Malasart
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