Buddhism is a combination of indigenous beliefs and customs and Theravada Buddhist
concepts and practices. The Buddha sought to teach people the moral and spiritual
path to enlightenment. At his own enlightenment, the Buddha became knowledgeable
of the cycles of rebirth (reincarnation), karma, and the Four Holy Truths. Karma
is defined as the principle that individuals are reborn well or poorly depending
on their actions in previous lives. For example, hatred and violence lead to
hell, whereas kindness and generosity lead to happy lives in human or god-like
forms. Minor actions can have effects on appearance, levels of wealth, and health,
among others. All intentional actions contribute to the sum of an individual’s
karma. A more advanced approach to Buddhist thought can be found in the Four
Holy Truths, which state that a) all individuals are subject to suffering, b)
the cause of this suffering is craving, c) the attainment of nirvana will end
this suffering, and d) the path to nirvana is via the Eight-fold Path or Middle
Way which focuses upon correct behavior and thoughts.
Not all individuals are able to understand and practice the Buddha’s teachings
upon first hearing them, and various methods are used to assist these beings
to come to a higher understanding of Buddhist concepts. One method is the production
and honoring of Buddha images, stupas, and religious art, which can function
both as reminders of the most recent Buddha and his ideas, and as reliquaries.
As Buddhism diffused from India to other countries, religious art was altered
to suit local expression. For example, the Buddhas on display here show the
Burmese interpretation of canonical descriptions, as well as revealing peculiarly
Burmese features, such as extensive ribbons and crowns.
Unorthodox ideas were also incorporated into Burmese Buddhist art. The Dekhina
Thakha, for example, is a non-canonical image that functions as a protector
and is used as a Buddha image on private altars at home. Shin Thivali, a monk,
has also come to symbolize protection, in addition to his position as a spiritually
Many other elements of Burmese art also play a protective role. Nagas (serpents/dragons),
devas (gods), bilu (ogres), lokanat (guardians of the directions and harmony),
and kinnari (creatures who are half-human and half-bird) are liberally depicted
in Burmese art to ward off evil and to provide a cosmological balance to the
world. Bilu are usually placed at the entrance to area; lokanat at the entrance
to a building or close to the king’s throne. Kinnari and Kinnara are located
on doors, on wall paintings or roofs of monasteries, on wall paintings, and
at the corners of buildings. Devas and nagas can be seen within religious buildings.
The devas are connected with the heavens, while the nagas are associated with
water and territory or soil.