Buddhist Arts in Southeast Asia
A diverse region in terms of cultures, Southeast Asia is a big multicultural hub, integrating different beliefs and hosting some of the world’s dominant Islamic, Buddhist, and Christian states. According to the World Christian Database, Southeast Asia hosts over 163 million Buddhists who account for more than 33% of the world’s Buddhist population. The same source also ranks Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam among the top 10 “most Buddhist nations” in the world (percentage of Buddhists among the country’s population), with Thailand and Cambodia ranking first and second. Even predominantly Muslim nations such as Brunei Darussalam and Malaysia are among the 20 “most Buddhist nations in the world”.
Although Southeast Asia houses such a large number of spiritual beliefs and practices, peaceful interactions and coexistence have been the norm until intolerance, secular values and misguided nationalism changed the moral landscape. The lack of cross‑cultural understanding often results in cultural insensitivity, and leads to social conflicts. It is crucial, therefore, to promote cross‑cultural understanding and dialogue among Southeast Asians in order to achieve unity, peace, and sustainable social development. Countries in Southeast Asia are working to enhance mutual understanding and respect through political, social, and, most importantly, educational means.
Since spiritual beliefs are communicated through and expressed by arts, one way to gain a better understanding of a culture is by disseminating the knowledge about its arts. As a result, institutions with educational mandates in the region, including schools, universities, and museums, are the providers of the knowledge on different cultures and beliefs. Museums usually display collections of different spiritual beliefs, and art history lessons are given at schools and universities along with other subjects.
However, it has been noted that the personnel working with spiritual/religious collections, and teaching spiritual/religious arts, sometimes lack the necessary knowledge and experiences to properly deal with the collections, or to disseminate the relevant information to the public. There is also a concern about the misinterpretation, misrepresentation, and mistreating of religious and spiritual heritage by cultural and educational institutions, which are possible causes of cultural and social conflicts.
To promote a better understanding of spiritual/religious arts in Southeast Asia, through its innovative ‘Sacred Universe’ Flagship Programme, SEAMEO SPAFA will conduct a series of regional workshops from 2012 to 2016 on the spiritual arts of the ASEAN region. They will encompass the study of the arts of the major religions and spiritual beliefs in the region with the aim of furthering cross-cultural understanding and exchanges of knowledge among participants, who will become part of a network of experts in Southeast Asian arts who share the spiritual values of these traditions as expressed through both old and new works of art.
Furthering professional competence in the fields of archaeology and fine arts through regional programmes and activities has always been one of SEAMEO SPAFA’s main objectives for the past 25 years. As efforts at building economic and social communities and regional integration in the ASEAN region are accelerated, gaps in the understanding of the various fundamental aspects of Southeast Asian diverse cultural and spiritual roots are clearly visible. Material culture has overtaken spiritual values that have guided the peoples in the region for centuries. It has become necessary to restore the balance between material well-being and spiritual needs so as to reduce social and economic conflicts caused by ignorance and cross‑cultural misunderstanding.
As beliefs and practices of the main religions of Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, as well as the indigenous and other Asian traditions, form the core of the peoples’ lives in the Southeast Asian region, they should be better understood by all, especially educators and professionals in the fields of cultural heritage and fine arts. For these reasons, SEAMEO SPAFA has established a Flagship Programme entitled ‘Sacred Universe’ to support meetings, training, workshops, networking, and research in specific themes in fine arts, photographic arts, religious arts, performing arts and oral traditions of Southeast Asia.
- Advance cross‑cultural understanding and mutual knowledge among Southeast Asian participants.
- Introduce participants to fundamental knowledge on Buddhist Arts, which will further their knowledge and appreciation, as well as skills in managing Buddhist artefacts and collections, and in disseminating knowledge on Buddhist arts.
- Promote dialogue between workshop participants, which will create a platform for future regional collaboration
Methods to Achieve Objectives
Participants will be chosen according to religious background because the aim is to have a majority who are not Buddhist, thus creating an exchange and learning experience. Participants will study the different branches of Buddhism such as Theravada and Mahayana. Site visits to stupas and temples will be arranged to analyse the architecture and its symbolism. The Buddha’s images, mural paintings and iconography will also be covered, as well as the different art styles between neighbouring countries like Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. There will be lectures and discussions/presentations to conclude and evaluate the subjects taught per session. The 7-day intensive workshop will include lectures, study visits, group activities and hands-on sessions, which will enhance the participants’ understanding of Buddhist Arts.
22 non-Buddhist museum curators, heritage managers, art teachers, and cultural practitioners from 11 SEAMEO member countries; and 30 paying participants.
- Participants have a better understanding and knowledge in Buddhist arts of Southeast Asia and enhanced skills in their profession.
- A network of ASEAN experts on shared heritage and a platform for future regional collaboration on Southeast Asian arts will be established.