Basilique Notre-Dame – one of the most magnificent cathedrals in North America – was the first work of architecture to leave a real impact on me, as an undergraduate in Montréal. I visited it again recently for the first time in a long time, and this time it made me think: saksit.
That is: the best work I know of on Thai temple architecture, Vannapa Pimviriyakul’s Light in Thai Places, uses the term saksit to refer to an emotional effect that temples should have, produced by physical features (dim light, decoration, gold). (That idea of physical qualities producing emotional effects is central to the core Indian aesthetic idea of rasa – I don’t know about a historical link between the two concepts, but I would be surprised to find there wasn’t one.) The specific emotional effects in question are of calm, reverence, making one want to be a better person. And the interior of Notre-Dame – dim and ornate and old as Thai temple interiors are – made me feel something like what I felt in the temples. It seemed to me that here, very far from a Thai Buddhist context, we had a different example of saksit.
What I think is really interesting about viewing a Christian building in Thai Buddhist terms is the significant contrast with the Catholic aesthetic theory that inspired the cathedral’s builders. As I understand it, medieval Christian aesthetic thinkers – heavily influenced by Plato – focused on mirroring the proportion and harmony that they believed were in the mind of God and influencing creation. Thus medieval Europeans often believed that musical ratios were directly related to the ratios of planetary orbits – a belief in cosmic correspondences of the sort one finds in Francesco Sizzi. Thomas Aquinas took beauty to have the four primary standards of actuality, proportion, radiance and wholeness, each of which reflects the relationship between the persons of the trinity.
Medieval Christian aesthetics, then, is closely tied to cosmology – whereas Buddhist aesthetics is tied to psychology. It is not that one is more supernatural than the other; many Thais, asked to describe saksit, describe it as a kind of supernatural power (a reason Vannapa was initially reluctant to discuss the concept). But it is a power over us, over our minds and emotions. The medieval Christian aesthetic is not primarily about us but about God and the harmony of the cosmos.
All of which has implications well beyond aesthetics proper. A long time ago I had been surprised to find that this blog had spent significant time exploring the relationship between phenomena called “religious” and those called “scientific”. My surprise came because I had typically found discussions of “religion and science” really boring. But I have come to see why: most discussions of “religion and science” are really about the relationship between Abrahamic monotheisms, especially Christianity, and science. So the scientific theories of most interest are Darwinian evolution and the Big Bang – because these seem to be in tension with the cosmology that is so central to the Book of Genesis and its account of divine creation.
But such questions are of far less importance to Buddhism! Buddhists have a developed cosmology, of course, and it is not much better a fit with modern science than the Christian cosmology is. But there are also psychological theories, of the functioning of the human soul, in the Bible and later Christian tradition (nowhere more so than in Augustine). They’re just not a priority. So likewise, the concern suffusing the Pali suttas is the psychological state of dukkha, suffering – and the path to its ending. The Abhidhamma, an attempt to develop the Buddha’s teaching in a more precise and technical way, is all about classifying our mental states. Questions about the cosmos, on the other hand, are specified among the questions that tend not to edification.
So the distinction between a Christian aesthetic of cosmic harmony and a Buddhist aesthetic of psychological power is not merely one of preference or cultural norms. It is closely tied up with the philosophical emphasis of the larger tradition in which the aesthetics are embedded. And to read Basilique Notre-Dame in terms of saksit is to read it against the intentions of its creators – as, of course, the European missionaries and colonizers did when they judged South Asian art, positively or negatively, by their own standards.
But such evaluation, of one tradition by the standards of another, is an intrinsic part of cross-cultural encounter. And as someone who has been shaped by both Western and Asian ideas – Thailand as much as India, in the latter case – I realize I find the Thai theory more compelling. Our modern investigations of the cosmos have found few correspondences. But our modern investigations of the human mind has found plenty of ways that people are irrational and lead themselves to suffering – and are now themselves suggesting that Buddhist techniques are a promising avenue for fighting this problem. And perhaps not only Buddhism. The importance of premodern traditions – call them “religions” if you must – may well be best understood as psychological. The saksit of a cathedral may well help us alleviate our suffering.
To say that is to interpret Christianity and other traditions in Buddhist terms. So be it.