Message from a Stucco Buddha

Message from a Stucco Buddha

What mysterious gifts are people hiding within them?

Passing people in the street, I sometimes wonder—as a writer and student of humanity—what mysterious gifts are people hiding within them?

True, people carry burdens and sorrows, sometimes almost beyond bearing, and there are real villains loose in the world, who choose to harm others for reasons beyond our current understandings. But if there are secret evil doers, surely the other kind of person—the secret good-doer, the person of kindness and appreciation for life. I suspect these folks are way more typical.

A true story from Southeast Asia takes this thought to a deeper level

Nobody knew how long the stucco Buddha had sat in the courtyard outside one of the Temples. In Thailand there are many, many Buddhas . All over Asia, for that matter. This particular Buddha had sat outside the grounds of a Wat, or Temple for so many years that people didn’t know where it came from. He was covered in clay stucco, about 15 feet (4.5 m) tall, the fairly typical image of Buddha sitting in the lotus position, eyes open, with a little half-smile on his face.

The stucco Buddha withstood Thailand’s political and social changes and weathered monsoon rains for generation after generation. In modern times, foreign visitors frequently posed beside the sacred image. Sometimes they overstepped the bounds—put hats on his head, or threw an arm around the good old Buddha like he was their good ‘ol buddy, culturally insensitive acts that can get a tourist arrested in some countries. Kids left candy wrappers in his lap. Other people brought flower and fruit offerings to the Buddha, or just paused to meditate before the image of Gautama Siddhartha, the Enlightened One.

And the Buddha kept smiling, as though guarding some deep secret, right in the midst of life.

Then the city of Bangkok decided to build a highway

Then the city of Bangkok decided to build a highway right through the courtyard where the Buddha sat. The Enlightened One got an eviction notice. The government was actually quite accommodating and offered heavy-lift equipment to move the stucco Buddha indoors.

The monks realized this would be good for the statue, too. Inside the Wat the Buddha could be venerated by the faithful and photographed by tourists in a more controlled way. After all, even though it was poorly constructed, the Buddha was centuries old and deserved to retire with dignity.

When the government crane began hoisting the stucco Buddha, the massive statue began to crack. To make matters worse, rain started to fall on the split stone. The head monk temporarily halted the project and ordered the workers to lower the Buddha to the ground and throw a canvas tarp over the big idol.

The workers went home and once more the Buddha sat alone in the rain outside the Temple, conspicuously hidden under a weatherproof shroud.

Something shining in the light beam

Sometime in the night the head monk decided to check on whether the cracked statue had deteriorated in the rain. He focused a flashlight under the tarp to see how dry it was. When the beam touched the crack a tiny glimmer radiated back at him. Removing the tarp, the monk examined the crack and found there definitely was something shining in the light beam.

So, he fetched a hammer and chisel and tapped at the stucco, which crumbled away, revealing more gleaming surface. After hours of work in the darkness, the dawn rose over a sight which had not been seen for nearly three centuries: a solid gold, 15-foot Buddha weighing 5.5 tons.

The Buddha was cast from the gold

Scholars later suggested that Thai monks in the fifteenth century smelted gold to cast the Buddha. Three hundred years later another generation of monks desperately wanted to protect their beloved golden idol from an invading Burmese army. They secretly coated their divine treasure with clay in order to disguise it.

Apparently, they did their work too well. After the monks all died in that eighteenth century invasion, nobody knew what had happened to the golden Buddha… or had a clue about the true identity of this rather ordinary mud-stucco model in the now-deserted monastery. Later, when Bangkok was built, the statue was moved into the city and left outside a deserted temple. And the solid gold Buddha had been hiding in plain sight ever since.

How many people hide great, deep, incredible gifts under a rather ordinary coating of flesh and bone?

Today it sits in Wat Traimit (Temple of The Solid Gold Buddha).  Some art historians consider the Gold Buddha to be the most valuable sacred object in the world.

Now the question I sometimes myself ask is this: How many people do you pass on the street every day who are, in reality, solid Gold Buddha’s in disguise? How many people hide great, deep, incredible gifts under a rather ordinary coating of flesh and bone?

I encourage all my sci-fi writer friends (and their readers) to think about alien cultures and human beings through this lens.

Tom Shepherd

Tucson, AZ

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