29 June 2013

"Ten Thousand Bridges" is Approved for Exhibition in Bangkok this September

I'm excited to report that AKSHA's first public art project has received approval from the management of Suan Rotfi, a large park in northern Bangkok that is home to the Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives.

The exhibit opens Sunday, September 1, 2013 and will feature a site-specific installation that involves a 150 meter-long "bridge" that links the Avalokitesvara statue in BIA's courtyard with the Nalikae coconut tree on an island in the middle of the lake.

It is inspired by a traditional lullaby from Southern Thailand used by Buddhadasa Bhikku in his teachings. (Here is the current English translation.)

Those familiar with Buddhist teachings will find deep significance in its lines, which may have roots in Sri Vijaya, a Vajrayana kingdom that flourished Southern Thailand during the 5th to 13th Centuries.

Unknown to most visitors of the three-year-old center, the lullaby also served as the basis of the building's architecture.

So I expanded the song into a children's story called "The Nalikae Tree" which I hope will help to unfold the lullaby for modern audiences. (This text will be available in my next post.)

While the "Bridge" will only be up for the 5-week exhibition, we will leave a permanent sculpture on the island itself: 4 spheres which also emerge from the "The Nalikae Tree" story.

Those who've been following AKSHA's progress may be familiar with these beads... representing Luminous Abundance, Luminous Space, Luminous Ground and Transcendence (right to left). In essence, the jewelry we created are miniature replicas of the beads in the children's story and the sculpture at BIA.

25 June 2013

Nalikae Beads: Breaking the Mold

To make the island bead sculptures, I decided to sacrifice my beloved exercise ball in the mold making process. We did this first with the help of students and teachers at Pohchang Academy of Art, Bangkok.

The four giant beads will be about 70cm in diameter each. The process involves making a master mold, then casting four basic beads. After unique textures are added to each bead, a mold is taken of each. A final fiberglass form is then taken from this final mold. This process takes about 4 weeks. 

Someone accidentally punctured the ball in the process! (He ran it over to a bike shop which patched for us.)

Six heavy blocks of solid wax--transported by motorbike--will go into creating the surface texture of the sculptures after casting. 

Coconut fiber--also transported by motorbike with the wax--is used to strengthen the plaster mold. 

Releasing my ball from the mold by deflating it. 

Painstaking process of adding texture to the wax masters of each bead sculpture.

Ice, of our student team, applies the heat gun to a bead that earns the nickname "Ferrero Rocher".  

No, its not chocolate. But we all wished it was! (Its was and plasticine.) 

02 June 2013

Cut the Crap: Cave Culture.

I come across a lot of questionable information in my research. In the rush to cash in on the popularity of Buddhist topics, many writers and publishers take short cuts, sensationalize events, or project their own biases on history and dharma. What worries me is that the gems-- truly valuable information--are lost in the avalanche of mud running through libraries and the internet.

To my disappointment, I found one such article on Tricycle Mag recently and felt compelled to write a letter in response. "Consider the source: Why did Zen monks live in caves?" by Andy Ferguson is cheeky and simplistic, to say the least. At worst, it perpetuates Chinese communist re-interpretations of history.

Here's the article: http://www.tricycle.com/blog/consider-source-why-did-zen-monks-live-caves#comment-42594

Here's my response:

"This article could have been much better. 

First, the notion that monks were seen at this point in history as people who were "hiding out from the government" or escaping from being productive members of society sounds to me as either a Chinese Communist re-interpretation or a projection of Western ideology unto an ancient Asian culture. In my research, I have yet to see evidence to support this, (except perhaps during times when monarchs were not Buddhists and sought to repress or expel monks). The assertion that monks were seen as tax evaders by ancient kings runs counter to the historical fact that Chinese kings and high officials were themselves patrons of Buddhism and sought to build these vast monastic complexes and monuments as a means to gain merit.

Second, in "considering the source", we should first consider that the Dunhuang monks were following a tradition begun by the Buddha himself in his lifetime and a tradition that was well established in India before Buddhism spread throughout Asia. Siddhartha spent 6 years meditating in a cave about 12km northeast of Bodhgaya before achieving enlightenment. (Known as Dungeswari in India, Tibetan Buddhists refer to it as the Mahakala Cave.) Thus, those who sought to follow in the Buddha's footsteps venerated and emulated his activities, as students like us do to this day. 

The practice of meditating in caves and the royal patronage of establishing cave monasteries was widespread throughout India by 2nd Century BC. The vast Ajanta and Ellora cave complexes are just two examples that were emulated in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afganistan, then throughout Southeast, East Asia and Tibet. By the time the Dunhuang caves, also known as Mogao Caves, were created 4-500 years later (366 CE), cave monasteries were an integral part of the Buddhist landscape. (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ajanta_Caves.)

The Pali canon refers to meditation in a secluded place such as "the foot of a tree, in a forest or cave, on a mountain, in a cemetery, jungle, or in a peaceful and secluded open place" (from Buddhadasa Bhikkhu's writings). The cultivation of solitude in living (kaya-vivekka), during short or long periods is understood as useful in separating from mental defilements.

While initially inhabited by hermits, the Dunhuang caves eventually became quite a busy spiritual community because of the traffic of commerce--and thus pilgrims and patrons--from the Silk Road. We can imagine that, far from hiding out in isolation, the monks there served the spiritual needs of travelers and merchants and were in turn supported by them. This is why the caves were eventually abandoned when the Silk Road was no longer in use. (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mogao_Caves)

I am curious to know where Andy gets his perspective from. This article is somewhat simplistic, and misses an opportunity to share many fascinating aspects about cave monasteries. For example, in many caves monks did not have to bring water up to the caves. They engineered sophisticated systems for directing natural springs and rainwater across the rock surface and into reservoirs (a practice passed on from monks in India and Sri Lanka.) 

We must always be vigilant in what we read and write about the history of Buddhadharma.
And when we're in the business of producing knowledge, it is essential that we also "consider the source" for what we publish.

M. Mangahas
US Fulbright Fellow in Buddhist Art
Director of AKSHA

View from the monks caves in Mihintale, Sri Lanka. 

01 June 2013

Wat Suan Mokkh, Chaiya

Uploading some images from my recent visit to Wat Suan Mokkh in Chaiya. I am on my way to the airport--so will add details a little later. But in short, I wanted to learn more about Ajahn Buddhdasa Bikkhu, his quest to reproduce some of the earliest pieces of Buddhist from the 2-4th Centuries BC, and the Spiritual Theater. This place probably has the most complete collection of early Buddhist art created in the centuries after his death.   ...more later...