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Can we use Buddhist symbols as educational tools?

Today if one makes a visit to the many Buddhist centres dotting the Klang Valley, especially the newer ones (and significantly mostly Theravada ones), one is greeted with its "minimalism" outlook.


Except for the Buddha statue and the shrine, complete with oil lamps, flowers, candles and maybe some smaller Buddha statues, there are hardly any other symbolic decor inside the hall. There could be a Dharma wheel located somewhere, or perhaps some lotus carvings but basically there is nothing else to suggest one can learn something just by walking into the centre, without attending talks, picking up a Buddhist booklet to read or participating in Dharma studies or meditation sessions.


I'm of course referring to the so-called "Malaysian Buddhist centres", not the Thais, Sinhalese or even Chinese Mahayana temples where indigenous culture depicting  the life, stories and teachings of the Buddha are a strong influence. Why and when did this aspect of "minimalism" layout take root?


Some suggest that the inspiration comes from Japanese temples. But here, there are no inspiring gardens to speak of.


Perhaps cost is a factor, given that land for Buddhist centres can be hard to get in Kuala Lumpur and its surrounding areas. But if (Malaysian) Chinese Mahayana temples can be built with their beautiful carvings and paintings, then why can't Theravada centres accommodate the display of symbols within its centres?



The Suan Mokhh Bangkok Experience


Some time in late April 2023, I had the privilege to visit the Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives Foundation or BIA (https://en.bia.or.th/bia). The facility, better known by its non-official name "Suan Mokhh Bangkok", after the famous Wat Suan Mokkh meditation centre in  Ubon Ratchathani, was established to collect and maintain Dharma teachings of the late Buddhadasa Bhikkhu.



This industrial looking, minimalist aesthetic building is located beside a lake within the vast Vachirabenjatas Park. The first thing that greets the visitor is the information centre and the library. This whole area is called the "Co-Dhamma Space" where one can come and literally chill.


Students can come to do their homework, office workers can get coffee and chat with their friends and colleagues. The library is where you get to see Buddhadasa Bhikkhu's collections, such as his kuti, his diary, books and other paraphernalia.



What's interesting is the area outside the building. Here one gets to see a large number of Buddhist symbols displayed all over the vicinity. These are not mere pictures, but replicate carvings of ancient murals found in Ajanta Caves, Sanchi and Amaravati stupas from India. The symbols on display are mainly from pre "Buddha statue" times, or the aniconic (non-human) versions. In early Buddhism, aniconic symbols were often used as representations or reminders of the Buddha, his teachings, or the path to enlightenment.


These symbols played an essential role in dispensing the message of the Buddha Dharma in the absence of anthropomorphic or figurative representations of the Buddha.

Some prominent aniconic symbols displayed there were images of the Bodhi Tree, the Dharma Wheel (Dharmachakra), Stupa, Lotus Flower, Empty Throne, Footprints (Buddhapada) and various Dharmachakra Mudras. Other famous icons such as the Asoka period's "Tri-ratna" (representing the triple gem), life of the Buddha stories, dependent origination folktale, metaphors for non-self can also be seen.



What's truly encouraging is that this Theravada centre is open-minded enough to display Tibetan thangkas that illustrate processes of meditation such as the "Calm Abiding" (kammathana painting and the "Wheel of Zen" garden.


If there were no contemporary art pieces available, then modern sculptures could be seen to carry Dharma meanings. There is one simple cement monument with 5 poles sticking from ground up. Originally it represented the five important events in the life of the Buddha: birth, renunciation, enlightenment, first sermon and death. But later, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu recounted that it could also represent Buddhist teachings which can be counted on one hand. The sculpture could represent any of the following: five hindrances (nīvaraṇa), the five groups of clinging (upādānakkhandha), the five powers (bala), the five sovereigns (indriya), the five essentials (dhammasāra), the five paths & fruits & nibbāna (magga-phalanibbāna).



All the items on display were prominently accompanied with information plaques (both in Thai and English) which explains the meaning of each symbol or carving or painting. QR codes are also available for readers to find out more about the meaning of the displays.


The point for all this is that, when I walked through the entire area unaccompanied, I was already soaking up information about Buddhist knowledge. There was no human to guide me. Yet with just the physical displays, the information plaques and the QR Codes were enough to bring me into another realm. This was all before I entered the main sections of the centre, which were the teaching (Dharma) hall and meditation  rooms, where one could experience Dharma teachings from human contact.


The symbols, carving replicas, paintings and sculptures told me much of the immensely rich story of the Buddha and Buddhism within a short period. Imagine the centre had none of these except for one big Buddha statue.



Lessons for Malaysian Buddhist centres


Suan Mokhh Bangkok clearly demonstrates that any Buddhist real estate or building can provide an educational experience by itself. The building is already there. Rather than having a big Buddha statue and many plain walls, would it be more useful if symbols were placed strategically around the facility that passively invites visitors to explore and learn? Why not maximise its potential and make full use of the real estate?


What is required then is for the centre to employ a good curator to draw up a storyboard to showcase the type of stories it wants the building to convey. It may not be necessary to have all the centres coming up with the same storyline, but with a little bit of creativity and imagination, the building could be an attraction by itself.


The aim of the exercise should also provide historical and cultural context in which these symbols represent. Explaining their significance within the Buddhist tradition will be essential, as it encourages respectful exploration and understanding of different religious practices. Taken together, Dharma teachings and their cultural context provide potent multi faceted educational opportunities and would serve to enrich the visitors experience.


So imagine once all the symbols are in place, temple regulars can become story tellers and guide new visitors to their new realm of the Buddhist world. Each and every one of the centre's devotee could be an ambassador of some kind. Imagine increasing the number of knowledgeable Buddhists like this manifold within a short time. This effort will also democratize Dharma outreach by placing it into the hands of everyone associated with the centre.


So rather than lamenting the negative state of affairs after Covid, why not put on the thinking cap and find ways to make their building a talking point for Dharma learning? What Buddhist stories will it tell? How to make the life of the Buddha become alive? What platform to use: Sculpture? Painting? Modern art installation? Hologram? 3D animation? A tropical garden?


I've been hearing how tough it has been for local centres to draw back devotees after the many lockdowns imposed by Covid. Perhaps this is the time to relook at how effective they have been in managing the use of their properties. If Malaysian Chinese Mahayana centres and Suan Mokhh Bangkok can do it, I find no reason why other Malaysian Buddhist centres cannot.

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