Crow art has Thai monks flapping

By Prangtip Daorueng, Inter Press Service, Nov 14, 2007

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Few would have thought that a painting would have the power to shake the foundations of modern-day temple life in Thailand, a country which prides itself as a center of Buddhism.

But before painter Anupong Chanthorn started working on his masterpiece, Bhikku Sandan Ka (Monks With Traits of a Crow), he spent time seeking meaningful messages in Buddhist texts. That diligence paid off when the painting bagged the country's most prestigious national art award in September.

Since then, the painting's powerful message has not only elevated the painter to the ranks of well-respected national artists, but also sparked an open national debate on how much monks, who symbolically represent a fundamental part of Buddhism, can and should be criticized.

The painting, composed using a yellow cord traditionally worn by Buddhist monks, portrays the painter's disagreement with the immoral behavior of some clergy members. It shows two monks with pointed and sharp mouths resembling a crow's beak squatting and facing each other on the floor with crows looking over their shoulders.

Shortly after the painting was displayed at the annual art exhibition in Bangkok, a group of Buddhist monks staged a series of emotional protest rallies which served to stimulate further debate. Late in September about 100 laymen and monks from two major Buddhist universities protested in front of the Silpakorn University campus where the exhibition was held.

They demanded the university withdraw the award given to the painter and remove the painting from the exhibition because it was insulting to the Buddhist clergy. Angry protesters carried Anupong's picture decorated with wreaths, and monks who joined the protest chanted a Buddhist prayer that is traditionally used at funerals. Civilians in the group later cremated the picture.

Protest leader Satian Wibhroma, a member of a Buddhist group known as the People's Network to Protect the Nation, Religion and the Monarchy, accused the painter of insulting Thai monks as a whole. While crows in the painting represented greedy and evil spirits, amulets in the alms-bowls indicated superstitious beliefs which are against Buddhist teachings, Satian said.

The painting also associated monks with immoral behavior and would adversely impact Buddhism in the country if put on public display, he added. Anupong dismissed such claims. He said that through the painting he intended to present certain hard facts about modern-day Buddhism in Thai society. One reality was that some people became monks only to take advantage of the religion which, he said, hurt many Buddhists.

Anupong said that Buddhist texts faithfully reproduced the Buddha's mention of different types of immoral behavior that may afflict monks, including the “monks with traits of a crow” phrase he used in titling the portrait. "I intend to use this painting to bring back good conscience in people," he said in an interview.

Diminished influence

An estimated 94% of the Thai population follows Theravada Buddhism. Although monks are traditionally beyond criticism, corruption and sexual scandals involving temples and individual monks reported in the local media in recent years have slowly changed public attitudes.

"Too many of the 250,000 to 300,000 monks in this country do not observe even the most rudimentary precepts required of lay Buddhists - let alone the 227 precepts that those who take up the saffron robe are supposed to observe," said a recent editorial in The Nation newspaper.

"Buddhist temples used to be centers of learning, and monks were the guardians of our cultural heritage, but many temples have turned into dens of iniquity. The failure to reform Buddhism and keep it up to date with the drastic social and economic changes has not only resulted in the religion's diminished influence as a force for good but also contributed to corruption and social decay," the editorial said.

Public reaction to the painting was mixed. Some government officials and Buddhists said the painting, regardless of what it attempts to convey, could hurt the feelings of the average Thai Buddhist. But many leading intellectuals, artists and an overwhelming number of anonymous writers on the Internet defended the painting for its honest message.

Some said monks should be more open-minded in listening to frank criticism. Different opinions surfaced among monks too. The revered monk Phra Payom Kalayano said the painting was an attempt by the painter to express his concerns to society. "Monks who are the subject of criticism should recognize facts, as Lord Buddha taught us to accept criticism from people," he said.

The uproar was the second time this year that normally moderate Thai society has been confronted with a high profile case of religious extremism. Earlier this year a group of monks and laypeople staged a campaign demanding that the new constitution declare Buddhism as the state religion. The campaign was aimed at the Constitutional Drafting Assembly, which was set up after last year's military coup to write a new charter.

Buddhism has never been officially declared Thailand's national religion. The previous constitution mentioned that both the king and the government traditionally upheld and supported all religions represented in the kingdom, including a significant Muslim minority. The assembly rejected the demand and retained the same language in the newly-drafted constitution as in previous constitutions.

Despite a month of rallies and publicity-generating hunger strikes, the campaign was not well-received by the majority of Thais and was criticized for being politically motivated. A poll taken by a Bangkok-based organization showed that about 80% of Thais who participated in the survey disagreed with the protesters' demands.

The campaign died down after Queen Sirikit expressed her concern over the issue in her birthday speech in August, saying that she disagreed with having the charter enshrine Buddhism as the national religion. She also said that she did not want Buddhism to be involved with politics.

Meanwhile, Anupong seems to have many allies. Silpakorn University and members of the panel of judges for the art awards recently released a statement standing by their decision. They refused to withdraw the painter's award and said that they would continue displaying the painting in future exhibitions.

Committee member and senior artist Kiartsak Charnnaroth said that those who disagreed with the painting had the right to express their opinion, but such criticism would not in any sense reduce the value of the painting. "I see moral courage in telling society the truth here," said independent academic Cholthep Panboonchu. "I also think that the argument of the monks [who criticized the painting] was an attempt to bring in cultural and spiritual discourses to silence others."

We Need Your Help to Train the
Buddhist AI Chat Bot
(Neural Operator for Responsible Buddhist Understanding)

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your name in the payment slip. Thank you.

Dear Friends in the Dharma,

We seek your generous support to help us train NORBU, the word's first Buddhist AI Chat Bot.

Here are some ways you can contribute to this noble cause:

One-time Donation or Loan: A single contribution, regardless of its size, will go a long way in helping us reach our goal and make the Buddhist LLM a beacon of wisdom for all.

How will your donation / loan be used? Download the NORBU White Paper for details.

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your purpose of payment (loan or donation) in the payment slip. Thank you.

Once payment is banked in, please send the payment slip via email to: Your donation/loan will be published and publicly acknowledged on the Buddhist Channel.

Spread the Word: Share this initiative with your friends, family and fellow Dharma enthusiasts. Join "Friends of Norbu" at: Together, we can build a stronger community and create a positive impact on a global scale.

Volunteer: If you possess expertise in AI, natural language processing, Dharma knowledge in terms of Buddhist sutras in various languages or related fields, and wish to lend your skills, please contact us. Your knowledge and passion could be invaluable to our project's success.

Your support is part of a collective effort to preserve and disseminate the profound teachings of Buddhism. By contributing to the NORBU, you become a "virtual Bodhisattva" to make Buddhist wisdom more accessible to seekers worldwide.

Thank you for helping to make NORBU a wise and compassionate Buddhist Chatbot!

May you be blessed with inner peace and wisdom,

With deepest gratitude,

Kooi F. Lim
On behalf of The Buddhist Channel Team

Note: To date, we have received the following contributions for NORBU:
US$ 75 from Gary Gach (Loan)
US$ 50 from Chong Sim Keong
MYR 300 from Wilson Tee
MYR 500 from Lim Yan Pok
MYR 50 from Oon Yeoh
MYR 200 from Ooi Poh Tin
MYR 300 from Lai Swee Pin
MYR 100 from Ong Hooi Sian
MYR 1,000 from Fam Sin Nin
MYR 500 from Oh teik Bin
MYR 300 from Yeoh Ai Guat
MYR 300 from Yong Lily
MYR 50 from Bandar Utama Buddhist Society
MYR 1,000 from Chiam Swee Ann
MYR 1,000 from Lye Veei Chiew
MYR 1,000 from Por Yong Tong
MYR 80 from Lee Wai Yee
MYR 500 from Pek Chee Hen
MYR 300 from Hor Tuck Loon
MYR 1,000 from Wise Payments Malaysia Sdn Bhd
MYR 200 from Teo Yen Hua
MYR 500 from Ng Wee Keat
MYR 10,000 from Chang Quai Hung, Jackie (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from K. C. Lim & Agnes (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from Juin & Jooky Tan (Loan)
MYR 100 from Poh Boon Fong (on behalf of SXI Buddhist Students Society)
MYR 10,000 from Fam Shan-Shan (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from John Fam (Loan)
MYR 500 from Phang Cheng Kar
MYR 100 from Lee Suat Yee
MYR 500 from Teo Chwee Hoon (on behalf of Lai Siow Kee)
MYR 200 from Mak Yuen Chau

We express our deep gratitude for the support and generosity.

If you have any enquiries, please write to: