Friday, January 23, 2015

Some Things Are Not What They First Appear

Carved Wood - Ban Na Kha, Thailand

In this blog I have often stated that "There is the way that things are supposed to be and then there is the way that things are." Although my focus in life as well as photography in the past nine years have been in Asia, specifically Southeast Asia, that saying, perhaps bordering on a cliché, often describes conditions throughout the world and although there is no known evidence to support it, I suspect it also applies to the inhabitants of the International Space Station.

The human condition thirsts and lusts for order, stability. and fears change.  In an effort to quench our thirst, create order and "ensure" stability in our lives, we have created laws, codes, and a sense of the ways that things are supposed to be.  Even today this quest evolves into concepts of social justice, economic equity, rights, and "fairness".  These codes, laws, senses of the way that things should be as well as altruistic memes are quite often created by those who believe that they know more, know better, and even know best for everyone else.  Unfortunately or perhaps fortunately, that is not the way that things are.  This world is a cornucopia of diversity, contradictions, incongruities, inconsistencies and for most people, frustrations and disappointments.  Reality often does not conform with expectations or "the way things are supposed to be" no matter the amount or quality of the knowledge that you may possess or have convinced yourself that you have.

"Things are often not what they first appear to be" is another cliché that is often all too true.  Each of us interprets our environment based upon our individual perspectives, life experiences, cultural biases, instilled values and training.  Our "reality" is a mélange of the sensory inputs to our brain and our interpretation and evaluation of those inputs based upon our individuality.

The photograph at the beginning of this blog is most likely an example of the adage "Some Things Are Not What They First Appear."  The "Carved Wood - Ban Na Kha, Thailand" photograph is of a portion of a wood carved door.  A carved door?  Carved door to what ... Hugh Hefner's bedroom? Entry to a "gentlemen's club"?  Door to one of those notorious (naughtious?) Thai Go-Gos?  No - actually far from all of that. The section in the photograph is actually part of a door to a Viharn (Sermon Hall) at Wat Nakha Twewi (Thewee and a couple other spelling variants)

Entrance Door At Wat Nakha Thewi

The door into the Viharn is heavy and richly carved.  So what does a bare chested young woman dancing have to do with Buddha or Buddhism?  Is this a story that can be shared in mixed company or even shared with children?  The answer is "Yes".

The female figure is a representation of an extremely important deity and she is not dancing.  She is Phra Mae Thorani.  Carvings, paintings, and sculptures of Phra Mae Thorani are common at Buddhist temples in Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Lao (Lao People's Democratic Republic).

Phra Mae Thorani is often depicted beneath Buddha just as she is in the above door panel - don't worry. it is not what you think or what it may appear to some people.

Buddha Calling the Earth

Notice the carved Buddha in the section of the door above Phra Mae Thorani - he is sitting cross legged on a lotus flower with his left hand resting in his lap with the open palm facing up while the palm of his right hand rests on his right knee with the fingers pointing straight down.  This posture of Buddha is called "Buddha Calling the Earth"

Buddha Calling the Earth - Sop Ruak (The Golden Triangle) Thailand

I have not performed any research or statistical analysis of the depictions that I have seen of Buddha, but it seems to me that "Buddha Calling the Earth" is very popular if not the most popular posture - and for a very good reason; there is a great story behind it.

Buddha Calling the Earth - Ayuthaya, Thailand
Buddha did not become enlightened over night.  He had many life cycles, some not even human (123 as an animal), before attaining enlightenment or liberation. In one of the stories, some people say myths but for me the term has too much of a negative connotation), Buddha was a Bodhisattva (a being whose goal is to attain enlightenment, a previous life of Buddha) who was meditating under a Bodhi tree (ficus religiosa). He vowed to remain meditating under the tree until he became enlightened.  After seven years, his body was ravaged.

Mara, The Evil One (the Buddhist Devil) apparently out of jealousy wanted to prevent Buddha from attaining liberation.  Mara represents temptation, sin and death.   He is the King of the Heaven of sensual delight - the quenching of the thirst for pleasure, power, and existence.  Mara first tried to convince and reason with the Buddha to stop and give up his seat under the tree thus giving up on his quest for enlightenment.  When that did not work, Mara showed up with his army, his daughters, and wild animals to drive away the Bodhisattva from his throne - one way or another.  The gods that were watching over Buddha tried to stop Mara's army but when they could not, they fled leaving Buddha alone to resist Mara, alone and physically weakened after seven years of meditation.

Mara called upon his army to witness his power and what he planned to do next.  Buddha had no one to witness for his good deeds.  He stretched out his right hand and touched the Earth to call forth the earth deity.

Phra Mae Thorani - Huay Xai, Lao

From underneath Buddha's throne, Phra Mae Thorani, the Earth Goddess, in the form of a beautiful young woman rose to bear witness of the Bodhisattva's good deeds. Phra Mae Thorani affirmed Buddha's right to remain on his throne under the tree.  As she twisted her long hair, torrents of water which had been accumulated over the ages from Buddha's libations (pouring of water in rituals to the gods) caused a great flood which washed away Mara and his army.  Buddha was thus freed to continue his path to enlightenment.

The Earth deity - Phra Mae Thorani, Vat Jom Khao Manilet, Lao
The carved door section at Wat Nakha Tewi turned out to be a significant religious representation associated with the victory over the temptations of sensual delights - existence, power, and pleasure. It was not an invitation for or representation of the vanquished temptations as it may have first appeared without knowing the story.

One of the fascinating benefits of living in this region is all the opportunities to experience and learn just how different your new reality can become as you develop greater perspectives and interpretation for everything beyond your first perception.  Your reality from your old world is reborn as you learn that some things are not what they first appear and that it is acceptable for things to not be the way they are supposed to be especially if that way that you thought was the only way they should be.

For me, this is a great story as well as an inspiring story.  I plan on taking a series of photographs based upon the symbolism and imagery of Phra Mae Thorani.  As it turns out, for me, classical sculpture and posing is not limited to Greek or Roman culture.

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