Book review: Enlightened Ways: The Many Streams of Buddhist Art in Thailand

Review by Jeffrey Martin

Title Enlightened Ways: The Many Streams of Buddhist Art in Thailand
Authors Heidi Tan, Alan Chong
Publisher Asian Civilisations Museum, 2012
ISBN 9810746288, 9789810746285

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Issued in conjunction with an exhibit through mid-April (2013) at the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore, Enlightened Ways:  The Many Streams of Buddhist Art in Thailand examines the varied religious influences on Thai Buddhist art.  One might expect this be little more than Theravada Buddhism, but the curators of the exhibit are interested to demonstrate otherwise.  Through a collection of nearly 200 items, the influence of Mahayana Buddhism, Brahmanism, and indigenous spirit worship are explored in examples of sculpture, painting, and enlightened manuscripts.  Objects of day-to-day living are included as well, such as ritual implements, amulets, furniture, textiles, and ceramics.  The works are divided into eight historical periods, with the earliest pieces dating to 5th century CE and the latest constructed especially for the exhibit, a replica of a Salak Yom tree, typically raised at rural festivals and decorated with material and monetary donations to members of the local sangha.

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As museum director Alan Chong notes in his forward, the purpose of the exhibit is not to define Thai Buddhism, nor Thai Buddhist art, but instead to document “art related to the evolving practice of Buddhism in the region now demarcated by the borders of Thailand.”  This explains the inclusion of items and images not typically associated with a doctrinal view of Buddhism, including 14th and 15th century bronzes of Ganesha, Yasksha, and Vishnu, as well as collections of magical amulets, merit-making clay tablets, and fortune-telling manuscripts.  Scholar Peter Skilling observes in his essay on devotional aesthetics that

…the overall concerns and day-to-day lives of Buddhists go beyond sectarianism or narrow definitions.  More important than rigid dogmatics is the quest for merit, success, and happiness, acted out through liturgies and devotion, and in cults of images and relics.

One might also note less benign motivations.  Power and prestige have typically been associated with merit-making as well as with the possession of relics.  And tapping into sacred power has been at the heart of the amulet trade, as well as that of another genre not explored here, the tattoo.

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The book features essays from well-known names in Buddhist studies, including:

  • The Aesthetics of Devotion – Peter Skilling
  • The Walking Buddha in Thailand – John Listopad
  • Naming the Buddha – Amara Srisuchat
  • A Buddha in the Palm of Your Hand – Justin McDaniel
  • Trees of Offering – Alexandra Denes

Among the other contributors is one who rates only acknowledgement in the copyrights, but without whose work a book wouldn’t even be possible.  Photographer Richard Lingner has done an excellent job capturing the form, color and textures of nearly 200 pieces of art, allowing those of us who can’t visit Singapore to experience these beautiful works on display at the Asian Civilisations Museum.

Available at
Select Books
Abe Books

Scans of additional pages at
Theravada Buddhist Civilizations

Video tour with curator Heidi Tan

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One response to “Book review: Enlightened Ways: The Many Streams of Buddhist Art in Thailand

  1. Waldemar Sailer

    I wonder what the text states on Vajrayana Buddhism? I am anxious to read the text.

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