It is so obvious that it is easy to miss. Buddhists focus their religiosity on the figure of the Buddha. If I counted the first several taxi drivers, three have a Buddha statue on their dashboards, the Buddhist equivalent of St. Christopher. Given the traffic in Taiwan and Myanmar, they all need extra help!
Apart from their varying artistic excellences, the sculptural representations of the Buddha vary immensely. I am struck by the visual Buddha’s display at Fo Guang Shan Monastery and visitor’s complex in Taiwan. The Standing Buddha is probably 100 feet tall; the sitting Buddha is over 125 feet tall. Rather irreverently, but humorously, one person asks, “I wonder how tall the Sitting Buddha would he be if he was standing?” In the main Shrine Hall, I see three Buddhas: Shakyamundi who is the historical Buddha in the middle, flanked by Amitabha Buddha and the Medicine Buddha. Similarly, in a display on the Memorial Hall Plaza I see painted bas reliefs of key episodes of the Buddha’s life. Inside the Memorial Hall, there is a large walk-through exhibit describing the life of the Buddha. Fo Guang Shan loves displaying the Buddha.
Yet, Fo Guang Shan encourages the viewer to see more than simply the Buddha. As I walk past the reception area, I walk by the Garden of 500 Arhats, wise Buddhists beings. As I move toward the Memorial Hall, I walk by numerous Bodhisattvas, yet-to-be compassionate Buddhas. More controversial for Li May, a young woman Buddhist from Singapore with whom I am touring Fo Guang Shan, is the additional Confucian and Taoist figures. In Taiwan, to her dismay, Buddhists have figures beyond simple historic Buddha figures.
As I travel through Myanmar, I see the same focus on the Buddha. In the rich and ornate Shwegon Pagoda in downtown Yangon, I see actual gold and silver Buddhas. In the halls of Schwedagon Pagoda, I can see the same basic Buddha life scenes on murals just below the hall’s ceiling. I see his birth, his renunciation, his sitting under the Bodhi tree, his fighting Mara, his enlightenment, his evangelizing the Dharma message, his death.
Yet, unlike Fo Guang Shan, there is restraint. There is no attempt to portray other divine religious figures. There may be an occasional statue of a famous monk or king; but there are no other Buddha bodies, no other Bodhisattvas; no other Arhats. There is a restrained visual display of the Buddha.
I can mention a final set of sightings. Besides the Buddha images, I see the words of the Buddha. At Fo Guang Shan, I encounter a few recorded words of the Buddha in the museum. Yet, I see more sayings attributed to Master Hsing Yun who is the founder of Fo Guang Shan than to the Buddha. In Myanmar, I see in the Schwedagon Pagoda’s Museum, several basic expressions of Buddhism such as: “Do not harm.” The Kuthodaw Pagoda, another Yangon pagoda, promotes having the “world’s largest book.” There are hundreds of marble slabs with the earliest writings attributed to the Buddha carved into the stone. In contrast to Fo Guang Shan, I don’t notice other Buddhist’s words given the same visibility.
Why the differences? At least, in the selection preference, Fo Guang Shan in Taiwan is an expression of Mahayana Buddhism. The various pagodas and monasteries in Myanmar are Theravada. In short, Mahayana Buddhism encourages not only focusing upon the Buddha, but also allowing the religious imagination to include all sorts of other figures. Theravada Buddhism, in contrast, exercises restraint by generally restricting its primary attention to the historical or history-like Buddha. Besides the visible representations of the Buddha, this difference carries over into more doctrinal and ethical spheres. Buddhists can be guided by a rule of either liberality or restraint as they focus upon the Buddha.
I see more than a random display of the Buddha in Taiwan and Myanmar. Just as American Baptists in Illinois are different from Southern Baptists in Georgia, Buddhists vary by location and tradition. The different Buddha sightings are linked to deeper commitment about what can be displayed, what can be thought, and what can be connected to living responsibly in Taiwan’s Mahayana Buddhist tradition and in Myanmar’s Theravada tradition.