An artist in Thailand has stirred controversy this month over paintings depicting the Buddha as the 1970s Japanese superhero Ultraman. The artist, a student from Nakhon Ratchasima Rajabhat University and whose name has been withheld by the authorities for her safety, explained that she wanted to represent the Buddha as a hero who protects the world, just like Ultraman. Following widespread complaints, her work was removed from public exhibition and the artist publicly apologized to the chief monk of the northeastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima, where the university is based, as well as the provincial governor.
The apology and removal, however, did not assuage a group of Buddhist hardliners. The group, calling itself “Buddhist Power of the Land,” filed a police complaint, later dropped, against the artist and four others involved in the exhibition on the grounds that the paintings were disrespectful to Buddhism. Thai law prohibits insults or defamation of religion, with penalties of up to seven years in prison for those convicted.
“The paintings dishonored and offended Buddhists and harmed a national treasure,” according to Buddhist Power of the Land representative Charoon Wonnakasinanone. (The Japan News)
Samat Jabjon, the vice rector of Nakhon Ratchasima Rajabhat University, told Thailand’s Bangkok Post newspaper that the institute should step in to assist quickly rather than allow the student to face pressure alone. “The student should be commended for the ‘artistic courage’ to create the painting, which was bound to stoke discontent in some quarters of society.” (Bangkok Post) He further suggested that a middle path would allow students to enjoy artistic freedom while still taking social sensitivity into consideration.
“Buddhist Power of the Land” said that it had dropped the complaints against the university student after uncovering what they described as a larger plot to destroy Buddhism. “The student was paid to do this. That’s her business,” group representative Pattachan Vichienrat said in an interview. “But now we know there’s a large network conspiring to destroy Buddhism. Now that we know this much information, the police must expand their investigation.” (Khaosod English)
Several experts and commentators have raised concerns over the rise of ultraconservative Buddhist groups in Thailand in recent years, especially as younger generations who are exposed to other worldviews do not always maintain traditional beliefs. “The policy of this country has been adoring Buddhism as one of the pillars of the country, this made the majority of the people become extreme Buddhists, but nowadays the young people think differently,” said religion academic Dr. Sinchai Chaojaroenrat. (ABC News)
The senior staff writer for the Khaosod English news website further wrote that: “As a non-Muslim, non-Christian, and technically a Buddhist myself, I find it very disturbing that there are people who feel insecurity despite the fact that an overwhelming percentage of Thais call themselves Buddhists. . . . It’s not enough that nine out of 10 Thais consider themselves Buddhists. These radical ‘Buddhists’ still feel insecure. Their insecurity is ironically very un-Buddhist as they seem not to understand the concept of non-attachment and impermanence. (Khaosod English)
One of the four Ultraman Buddha paintings was auctioned for 600,000 baht (US$19,660) early in the month, while another painting later netted two million baht (US$65,530).
Organizers of the auctions said about 260,000 baht (US$8,520) of the money would go to cover education costs for the artist, while the rest would be donated to hospitals.
Theravada Buddhism is practiced by about 94.5 per cent of Thailand’s 69 million citizens, and is enshrined in the country’s constitution as one of the three pillars of Thai society, alongside the nation and the monarchy.
Thai’s ‘Ultraman Buddha’ draws fire (The Japan News)
‘Ultraman Buddha’ paintings banned from sale (Bangkok Post)
Group Drops ‘Ultraman Buddha’ Charges, But Sees Larger Conspiracy (Khaosod English)
Buddha depicted as action figure Ultraman prompts calls in Thailand to jail student artist (ABC News)
Opinion: A Growing Paranoia in Buddhist Thailand (Khaosod English)