The Awkward Reality of Thailand’s Established Buddhism

Author: Jintamas Saksornchai

At first glance it was another typical painting of the peaceful-looking Buddha, in the likeness of the famous Jinaraj Buddha: seated inside an arch frame with both eyes closed, one hand on his knee, another on his lap.

But a closer look reveals that the figure isn’t the traditional golden Buddha one is used to seeing, but the Japanese superhero Ultraman, posed in front of a backdrop of designer brand Louis Vuitton’s trademarked patterns.

The painting is part of a four-piece “Ultraman Buddha” collection, created by an art student, Supparat Chaijungreed, in northeastern Thailand. The others show several Ultramans in superhero-like poses, with their heads replaced by that of the Buddha. Photos of the artwork on public display went viral in September and triggered major public backlash, with people condemning it for being “extremely inappropriate”.

The artwork, and the strident response it attracted, has prompted many to come out to challenge conservatives on their claims of “right” and “wrong” artistic interpretation. The controversy fumed for nearly a month with both sides refusing to back down.

The artwork, and the strident response it attracted, has prompted many to come out to challenge conservatives on their claims of “right” and “wrong” artistic interpretation.

While some have concerns that conservatives might be gaining ground in Thailand, this national kerfuffle has also demonstrated that there’s a growing sceptism of the concept that something can be so sacred that it is beyond question. And such sceptics are ready to push back at what they perceive to be obsolete at a time of more development and diversity.

Ekkachai Arinthamo—a monk who has, for over a decade, used modern art to try to shift the old image of Buddhism and make it more appealing to a younger generation—says that change is inevitable, and should be embraced in order to sustain the future of the religion.

“The older generation must ask themselves, how long can they actually preserve Buddhism as the way it is, and in the future, how can they pass on its principles? Because in the end, the future of the religion will lie in the hands of the younger generation,” he says

‘The pillar’

More than 90% of Thailand’s population in 2018 identifies as Buddhist, according to national statistics, and the kingdom prides itself as a Buddhist nation. Buddhism’s place in the state discourse as a pillar that all citizens must uphold in order to safeguard the nation is very secure.

Buddhism’s sacrosanct status in the country’s mainstream nationalism rhetoric is so entrenched in society that it’s become an unspoken rule that it’s something that cannot be “touched”, theology lecturer Sinchai Chaojaroenrat says to New Naratif in an interview.

“(Buddhism) is so revered, and the law is made in such a way as to build the country’s culture on the religion.”

“It’s because Thailand has characterised Buddhism as a state religion,” he says. “It’s so revered, and the law is made in such a way as to build the country’s culture on the religion. It therefore inevitably impacts the majority public sentiment when it comes to thinking about what’s right and wrong.”

Although upset over a student’s artwork might not seem like a matter to concern a provincial chief, the Nakhon Ratchasima governor, who presides over the area in which Supparat is based, pressured her to make a public apology. He also told the media that he’d instructed all educational institutes to “vet” their students’ work before putting them up for public display. On top of that, he asked his administration to advice all artists to refrain from initiating “conflicts of thoughts that will disturb the public order.”

Given its hallowed place in Thai society, Thai authorities often feel the need to position themselves as champions of Buddhism. Last year, a mere online rumour that General Prayut Chan-ocha—then-junta chairman and now-prime minister—was supporting Islam over Buddhism prompted a swift government response to reassure the people that both Prayut and his wife are devoted Buddhists.

Before the March elections that put an end to the latest military rule, the junta that Prayut presided over chose not to oblige demands to recognise Buddhism as the national religion in the 2017 Constitution. But while the latest Constitution states that all people are equal regardless of their religion, it also states that the government must protect Buddhism from being sabotaged. The Constitution also states that one’s freedom of religion and belief must not pose “any harm to the state’s security,” a clause that hadn’t been present in any of the previous constitutions, according to iLaw, a Thai human rights group advocating law reform.

iLaw points out that the Constitution obliges the state to protect and promote Theravada Buddhism—the school of Buddhism followed by the majority of Thais—over and above other religions, through education. Unlike Thailand’s two previous constitutions, this iteration does not require the state to promote harmony between all religions.

Crossed wires

The country’s constant reproduction of its established nationalism discourse is now facing challenges, becoming increasingly unrelatable in the context of a fast-evolving modern society. An anti-establishment sentiment has begun to show up in many artistic representations of Buddhism, often meeting with repercussions from those wanting to keep religious imagery sacred.

In 2007, Thai artist Anupong Chantorn’s award-winning painting “Bhikku Sandan Ka” (Monks as Crows), depicting two ill-looking monks with their mouths like beaks of crows, aimed to criticise those who don the yellow robes with their own agenda (whether it’s to access benefits or use a monk’s exalted status to exploit others). It was met with a series of protests and threats of lawsuits from several Buddhist groups. 

In 2015, the horror film Arpat was briefly banned after some scenes were deemed “offensive” to Buddhism. The ban was only lifted when edits were made to the film. Temple murals featuring the Buddha and villains from the Marvel superhero franchise The Avengers drew scorn from traditionalists after photos emerged on social media last year.

When “Ultraman Buddha” first caught the public’s attention, a Buddhist hardline group, the Protection Organisation of National Buddhism, claimed on its Facebook page that the artwork was an insult to their faith. “An artwork that looks down upon and tramples on something that people respect and worship, can it really be regarded as an art from a true artist?”

Ekkachai, a monk using his talent in photography and graphic design to modernise images of Buddhism, says that, while he can see the creativity in “Ultraman Buddha,” he also understands why it caused such an uproar.

“[Ultraman] is known as a cartoon character,” he says. “When it’s incorporated with something people hold sacred, it looks like that thing gets reduced to being no different than just a toy.”

Three men pose with the Ultraman paintings that they bought from the artist. Pakorn Porncheewangkoon

The first chance Supparat had to publicly explain how she’d originally conceived her work was when she was forced to apologise. Speaking through tears, she said that she’d never intended to insult Buddhism. 

“I only wanted to show that Buddha is like a superhero, who can remain calm while being provoked, and can eradicate all wickedness for humankind, making our world a peaceful place,” she said.

The attempt to show her honest intention still failed to satisfy many. Another Buddhist group, the Buddhist Power of the Land, soon filed a police complaint against Supparat and her supporters. In a statement to the media, the group leader Jaroon Wannakasinanont said her art “destroys the nation’s heritage” and “hurt the feelings of Buddhists across the nation”.

But other Thais were angered by what they saw as unnecessary public shaming and humiliation when the student was forced to seek atonement before the local chief monk.

Pakorn Porncheewangkoon, a butcher in Bangkok who purchased one of the paintings, tells New Naratif that such backlash prompted him to put the painting up for a charity auction, to show that traditionalists “are not the only ones with the right to speak.”

“I saw that the authorities had a lot of reactions to this case, and all were single-minded on it being a subversion to Buddhism,” he says. 

“I felt that I had to strike back at conservatism rooted deep in our country. The best way to get back at them was to make the painting become beneficial to society.”

The painting he owned was auctioned for 600,000 baht. He then was asked to put another painting up for bidding. His online post quickly went viral, and the second painting was sold for two million baht. Most of the money was used to buy medical equipment for rural hospitals.

A way forward

Being a Buddhist who was ordained before, Pakorn describes that outcome as a “slap on the faces” of the conservatives, saying it clearly showed that conservatism is waning as opposition to it is becoming more outspoken.

“I think Buddhism has never been questioned as much as this before. We’ve always been told to listen to [the establishment], to believe them, and people didn’t dare to question them out of fear of backlash,” he says. “The balance of society is changing. We’re approaching the era where people are sharing their thoughts, not forcing thoughts onto others.”

Pakorn thinks the “violent” reactions of those offended by his auctions helped drive the price of the second painting up, again proving his point that support for conservatives might be eroding in modern Thai society.

“The more outrageous they were, the stronger the retaliation, making the price rocket to two million. I’d really like to thank them for making that happen,” he says.

Sinchai, the religious studies academic and writer, says he doesn’t think Thai society will succumb so easily to the trend of right-wing populism emerging around the world, although state influence is still a worry.

He points to the strong defence of the student artist mounted by different quarters of Thai society. “Thais are tired of it, or are able to see the degeneration of Buddhism and its organised body. That’s why they don’t see the need to defend Buddhism so intensely,” he says. 

Artist monk Ekkachai calls for more tolerance from both sides. He wants Buddhist imagery to become less rigid and more relevant to modern-day society, and believes the change can be achieved through a balanced mix between the old and the new, based on his own experience incorporating the trendy minimalistic style into Buddhist art.

“If it’s too obsolete, you can’t communicate with the young. If it’s too modern, you’ll push the old away,” he says. “My mission is to create productive media that can be understood by both the young and old, for them to be able to coexist peacefully.”

“If it’s too obsolete, you can’t communicate with the young. If it’s too modern, you’ll push the old away.”

“There, of course, will be questions from both sides. But if there are no questions, no discussions, new knowledge won’t ever be conceived. We won’t be able to learn anything,” he adds.

It remains an open question if such compromise and understanding will happen in Thailand’s current political climate, where the establishment appears to be feeling increasingly insecure, and dissidents feel growing frustration over oppression. The rage over “Ultraman Buddha” has already abated, but the issue is still far from resolved. Instead, the current calm is filled with an awkward silence that will likely once again explode when a new trigger comes.


Jintamas Saksornchai

Jintamas Saksornchai is a Bangkok-based Thai reporter. She began a career in journalism from 2012, and has her work published, both in Thai and English languages, with established local outlets such as Khaosod English and Prachatai. She has covered an extensive range of topics in Thailand, with a focus on civil and cultural issues.

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