Crow art has Thai monks
flapping By Prangtip Daorueng
BANGKOK - 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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."