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We think these days a lot about Buddhist ethics, which often involves some thought about Buddhist politics. We tend to think a lot less about Buddhist aesthetics.

Now there’s an obvious explanation that could be given for this: the Buddhist dhamma teaches that worldly pleasures mire us in suffering. So aesthetics, insofar as it deals with pleasurable phenomena like art, is something Buddhists should avoid. In response I give you this:

Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Bangkok

Throughout the Buddhist world, temples – Buddhist temples – are gorgeous, stunning places. Often, as at Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew above, they are dazzling, colourful, baroque affairs. In Japan they are more minimalist and natural – but in a way tied deeply to the broader Japanese aesthetic that prizes such qualities. What one rarely finds is anything like the austere small North American churches, shared by evangelicals and Unitarians alike, that meet in basements shorn of adornment. The anti-aesthetic characterization of Buddhism suggests that such simple temples are what one should find. But one doesn’t.

Of course the rhetorical move is always available of saying the temple-builders are bad Buddhists, that they misunderstand something central about their own tradition – as Salafi Muslims say to their fellow Muslims who worship deceased saints. One can certainly say that without lapsing into incoherence; it is an appropriately normative depiction of what Buddhism should be. But is it a good normative description? Is it correct?

I would first offer a point from my own experience: it was in part the sensuous colour-soaked temples of Thailand, including Wat Phra Kaew, that brought me into Buddhism in the first place. Those temples were among my favourite things about the country – second only to the food. I couldn’t get enough of them, I kept coming back. That brought me into conversation with monks, got me thinking about Buddhism, kept my mind on it. All of which, in turn, primed me for the life-changing experience of realizing how well the Second Noble Truth applied to me – beginning a lifelong engagement with Buddhism that would culminate in my declaring myself a Buddhist. Would that all have happened if the temples had been drab and functional affairs? I strongly suspect that it wouldn’t. I would probably have read a book or two on Buddhism out of curiosity and left it at that. Buddhism wouldn’t have been in my mind to make sense of my suffering; I would have had to do that all on my own. I don’t think I can be the only person who has kept Buddhist teachings in mind because of the beauty of the temples.

So at a bare minimum, there is an impeccably Buddhist rationale for beautiful temples as an upāya, a skillful means to attract less developed people (like my 21-year-old self) to the dhamma. Augustine looks at church music in this way: he recognizes its value for bringing people to Jesus Christ and his teachings, although he frets about the danger that people might ignore the lyrics and love the music for his own sake.

But I am aware of few if any Buddhist Augustines who warn about the potential risks of temples’ worldly sensuality. That does not seem to have been something that has bothered Asian Buddhists. We are surely better off asking: how have they thought about the beauty of temples?

Here I am most indebted to a fascinating dissertation by architecture scholar Vannapa Pimviriyakul, entitled Light in Thai Places. Vannapa interviewed many Thai temple-goers (élite urban and poor rural) about what qualities they want their temples to have, especially in the ubosoth or bot (the central chamber that contains the main Buddha image, derived from the Pali uposatha because it is where the ordination ceremony for monks takes place). What should a properly built Thai ubosoth be like?

A key Thai concept in such discussions was saksit (or khwaam saksit, an abstracted form). This was a concept that Vannapa herself felt was an “important experiential quality in a Thai ubosoth“, but she did not ask villagers about it:

I was hesitant to explore this idea and did not know how to explain such a concept, feeling that it might sound like nonsense to westerners. At that time, then, I felt it would be best to allow references to this quality to come forth spontaneously from the interviewees as the conversation went along. (158)

But come up spontaneously it did. The respondents said that gold and decorations, along with dim lighting and a sense that the temple is old, are important because they make a temple saksit. So what is this quality that is important to Thais but that Westerners might think nonsense? First, an account from a Westerner, an English teacher named Robert Wilson, who asked Thais about it:

When I asked Thai people why everyone on a bus wai’ed and bowed their head as it passed a shrine on the road to Chiang Mai, I was told “Saksit.” The same answer came when I asked why Thai people worshiped at shrines to Hindu gods despite not being Hindu, why their kings were expected (not allowed, expected) to have as many wives as possible, or why they wore images of the Buddha. Yet when I asked them what saksit was, the only answer I could seem to get was “natural power,” “supernatural power,” or, most often, “I can’t explain.” What baffled me the most was that Buddha images were thought to exude saksit despite the fact that the Buddha never taught anything about it.

A translation as some sort of “power” makes sense. Saksit is the Thai pronunciation of the Pali saktisiddhi, accomplishment of power. A supernatural element makes sense too: the super-powers sometimes ascribed to accomplished yogis (flying, invisibility and so on) are referred to in Sanskrit and Pali as siddhi. And so one can see why Vannapa would be nervous about discussing saksit to a scientifically minded Western audience. It is the just sort of thing I find easy to dismiss as “superstition”. But before we go quite that far, let’s look at just what sort of power saksit is. Consider this explanation from one of Vannapa’s Thai informants:

Seeing the image of the Buddha reminds me of his teachings. He taught us to be good persons. I suddenly calm down. I don’t know why. My consciousness tells me that I have to compose myself upon facing the main Buddha image. Something there suppresses my emotions. The scene I see makes me start thinking of doing good deeds and being generous. This is the characteristic of a Thai ubosoth that I would call kwaam sak sit. (Vannapa 155)

The power here is something that the Buddha image and the temple do to people who view them – makes them feel calmer, become better people. The informant finds that the Buddha image does that to him, but he doesn’t know how it does it – he knows the power is there, he just doesn’t know what sort of power it is.

So one could read this power as something intrinsic to the image and space themselves, something that takes hold of people who enter irrespective of who they are. If so, then the temple should have this effect even on people who dismiss Thai temples as “gaudy” and prefer plain, bland New England churches, or the kind of angular boxes that have inexplicably bewitched architects since the Second World War. Or even on Salafi Muslims who would see the temple as idolatry (and are the modernist architects’ aesthetic kin.) I don’t see much reason to believe that this would be the case; I doubt that the temple would have any power to affect such people. The view that it would, would indeed seem to me superstitious, unscientific.

But one could also read it as something psychological, a relationship that the space has on those who allow themselves to be affected by it. And that is just what I would do. Because I would find it hard to deny that saksit has had exactly this effect on me. I felt it strongly when I visited Thailand earlier this year, felt a sense of awe and peacefulness in view of the Buddha images. Perhaps a decade and a half of Buddhist study has presupposed me to that. But something of it surely also hit my younger self, turned my impressionable young mind to learning more from the Buddha.

To naturalize a supposedly supernatural phenomenon in psychological terms is an idea with a long pedigree (and includes the idea of naturalized karma, of course). What’s important about saksit is the way it is not merely psychological but aesthetic. Visual, sensual beauty is treated as having power – and for those ready to appreciate it, I think it has exactly that.