Thursday, December 15, 2011

Lao Buddha of the Day: 15th Century

While I often hear people talking about preserving our culture and heritage, we see very few of those same people who can recognize and talk at length about what makes that culture distinctive. A notable and egregious example of this comes to the traditional Lao approach to Buddhist statues.

While over 60% of the Lao are nominally Buddhist, in the US many of the younger and even some of the older generation can correctly identify an example of a Lao Buddha compared to a Thai, Burmese or Khmer-style Buddha, although it is easier to distinguish them from Japanese, Chinese, and Tibetan statues of the Buddha.

Above is an example from the 15th century (1400-1499). This is from the earliest days of Lan Xang, although there aren't too many details about this particular piece except that it was sold by a foreign antiques dealer to a private collector.

Lao Buddha statues are extremely rare and arguably extremely valuable because Lao sculptors tended to take a more individual approach to carving and casting each statue. 

There's a widespread opinion that Lao Buddhism tends to be more rigid and orthodox because of its adherence to Theravada principles, but if you really look at it closely, the Lao eschew uniformity and are more often than not drawn to the beauty of diversity of individual expression. This, of course, has its ups and downs, and as we've seen, can come into conflict with people who are used to living in a society focused on mass production and conformity rather than celebrating the hand-crafted and individual journeys of one another.

You might hear it said that Laos is a land of a thousand smiles, and that's because no two Lao smiles are exactly alike. This is reflected in many other aspects of our lives. There are some who might argue this can hold us back, but I'd always see it as a strength.

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