The Buddha, Ultraman and a middle way
Japanese superhero Ultraman, known for protecting the world against evil, has become an unlikely test of Thailand's cultural expression limits.
A student at Nakhon Ratchasima Rajabhat University recently stirred up controversy after her paintings -- which depicted Lord Buddha as the 1970s Japanese superhero -- went on show at an exhibition in a shopping mall in Nakhon Ratchasima last week.
Photographs of the painting, which were widely shared on social media, sparked criticism for being "inappropriate".
Due to the backlash, the paintings were removed by the event organiser. Later, the provincial governor, along with the university's vice-rector, took the student to Nakhon Ratchasima's chief monk to apologise.
He also instructed all education institutions in the province to thoroughly check their students' works before displaying them in public.
The governor's actions have deepened the controversy. National artists Chalermchai Kositpipat and Suchart Sawadsri were among the people who came out to defend the student. Meanwhile, hardcore right-wing politician Pareena Kraikupt cranked up the view that the pieces are "sacrilegeous".
Polls have gone up on social media about whether the paintings constitute an offence to Buddhism and whether the works deserve to be condemned. Many netizens urged the student to have her works displayed at other galleries or produce more along the same theme, as they are sure there will be a healthy demand for them.
The "Ultraman Buddha" scandal goes to show how far Thai society has regressed into conservatism and how awkward the situation has become as the prevailing discourse is evidently ill-equipped to cope with the increasingly diverse reality on the ground.
The result is uncertainty and insecurity on the part of people who want everything to stay the same, and increasing angst from those who wish to expand their horizons -- those who want to break away from traditions and try out new things.
The two forces are on a collision course, as they were even before the 1932 Revolution. The lesson that should have been learned is how to manage these different interests and yearnings in society so that they don't end up in violence or cataclysms.
First, let's tackle the question of whether the paintings should be considered sacrilegious.
While it is generally accepted that Buddha's image, as an object of worship, deserves to be treated with respect, the paintings in question are works of art. The student did not intend them to be worshipped. Why should the works be considered offensive?
As the student, who reportedly offered her apologies to the province's chief monk in tears said, it was not her intention to offend Buddhism. She painted the Buddha as a superhero as she believed he was "like one". Lord Buddha was able to stay calm in the midst of temptations. He could protect human beings from evil and keep the world in peace, just like the cartoon hero.
People who know a bit about the Ultraman series may realise that there already is a strong connection between Ultraman and the Buddha.
Back when the series was conceived in the 1960s, a Thai man named Sompote Saengduanchai was reportedly involved in coming up with the designs for the characters. Among his designs which he claimed were selected by the company that produced the Ultraman series was the superhero's face which Sompote said was inspired by a Sukhothai-style image of the Buddha.
Sompote and the Ultraman company were involved in several court cases later over who had the rights over the character. But that is besides the point. The point is that there may have been some resemblance between the Buddha's image and Ultraman to begin with. Why was there no uproar?
Since the Ultraman Buddha is meant to be a work of art, the student's artistic licence is clear. She expressed her thoughts about the Buddha in her own imagination. She did not compel people to worship her works. She can't force people to look if they don't like them. Why must she apologise for her artistic expression?
Compared to other Buddhism-related art, the Ultraman Buddha may not even be the most scandalous. How about the Doraemon amulets? Temple murals that depict erotic art? Not to mention the commercialisation of Buddhism, which is going on in thousands of temples around the country. What about the sale of amulets? Endorsement of superstitious rites? The seeming competition to raise funds to build grandiose buildings? Aren't these practices more sacrilegious than a piece of art?
The crucial question concerns where to draw the line between sacredness and relevancy or inclusiveness. The Buddha preached about the middle way. There must be some truth in it.
Atiya Achakulwisut is a Bangkok Post columnist.
Columnist for the Bangkok Post
Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.