Sick Buddha: Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Ever seen something amazing while travelling only to realise later that you had no idea what you were really looking at? So it was with my trip to the Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho.

Wat Pho Temple Complex in Bangkok was redesigned as a centre for art and learning by King Rama III in the 19th Century. It was intended for Thai people from all classes and backgrounds, so much of this learning is imparted through artwork rather than written text.

Wall murals display massage and acupressure points on anatomical figures, while the Yogi statues in the garden teach visitors a series of more than 20 self-stretching and self massage poses.

In the midst of all this is the Reclining Buddha. An imposing, impressive 12 metre high, 46 metre long statue decorated in gold leaf and mother of pearl inlay. A must-visit for tourists, the Reclining Buddha, at first, seems like an expensive spectacle when compared with the educational murals and statues that surround it.

Lying on his right side supported by his right hand, in a pose not unlike how I used to watch Saturday morning cartoons, Buddha looks pretty relaxed.

Which is interesting, given that what you’re actually looking at is Buddha’s final earthly moments. Or, as it’s often described, his “last illness”. In other words: Sick Buddha.

Statues of the reclining, or sleeping Buddha aren’t uncommon and can be found all over Asia as well as in the garden decor sections of many hardware stores in the west. But you might be surprised to learn, as I was, that they actually depict the historical Buddha at 80 years old (although he doesn’t look at day over 35).

gold Buddha statue
There isn’t a line on that face.
(Photo: TaylorSimpson@unsplash)

By this point in his life, he’d achieved enlightenment and knew he was facing “nirvana-after-death” or Parinirvanasana, which meant he would not be reincarnated after death. His cycle of rebirth was over. However, rather than depict this moment of finality as sombre or sad, the reclining Buddha statue highlights his serenity and “the compassion and calmness that comes with enlightenment”.

And this is what makes the Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho just as educational as the murals and statues that surround it. A sort of “Hold Fast” or “Hang in There” motivational art work of its day. Intended to encourage followers to continue their journey towards enlightenment, by gently reminding them (through a relaxed pose and calm expression clad in gold) of the rewards.

Kinda makes me wish I’d known that when I was looking at it.

Bibliography and Further Reading:


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