Pictures of the dharma

Art May 06, 2013 00:00

By The Nation

4,673 Viewed

Shunning his iconic status, Buddhadasa Bhiku shared icons of a different kind

Buddhadasa Bhiku (1906-93) is fondly remembered for effectively teaching the dharma through sermons, vipassana meditation and poetry. Few people know, though, that the abbot of Suan Mokh monastery in Surat Thani also used photography as a teaching aid.

All is revealed in the exhibition “Dharma Text Next to Image” at the Kathmandu Photo Gallery.

Drawn from the Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives, 30 images have been printed and enlarged for the sixth edition of the gallery’s project “Seeking Forgotten Thai Photographers”.

By 1972, at age 66, Buddhadasa Bhiku had already attained fame as an enlightened monk, and as such struggled to stop people from making his portraits the object of “superstitious” worship. The essence of Buddhism, he wanted followers to remember, lay in shunning the ego.

But he ultimately realised that his efforts were futile, and make a series of self-portraits in and around Suan Mokh, utilising its statue of Bodhisattava Sri Vijaya, the lotus blossoms, the monks’ pets and even mounds of dirt and rocks.

In some photos he poses alone but uses darkroom tricks to create double and triple images and thus a dharma riddle that the viewer might interpret with wisdom. He distributed each picture with a poem about the dharma written for it.

These 423 Buddhist poems and photographs clearly reveal the Buddhadasa’s understanding of art and technology, particularly the potential of photography as a medium for spreading the dharma. It was an idea far ahead of his time, long before the Thai art world learned about “conceptual art”.


“Dharma Text Next to Image” continues through June 30 at the Kathmandu Photo Gallery, 87 Pan Road near the Indian Temple off Silom Road.

The gallery is open daily except Monday from 11 to 7. Find out more at (02) 234 6700 or