- Smoke, No Fire
A posting on Facebook provides an unexpected addition to the publication of "A Buddha Image for Exorcism," The Journal of Burma Studies 20, no. 2 (2016): 335-372. The journal article established the identity and manner in which a noncanonical Buddha image was most likely created and used by Buddhist wizards (weikza). These conclusions are now corroborated and expanded by photographs, a video clip, and a note posted by Hla Than Aung (www.facebook.com/aung.hlathan/posts/1754717078153948; Posted: 9 September 2017; Accessed: 18 February 2019).
The image on Facebook, reportedly used especially for exorcism, is clearly akin to that in the Burma Art Collection, Northern Illinois University (NIU), although it is more recently and crudely cast in a silver-colored metal rather than bronze. The iconography and dress are alike: the standing image holds a myrobalan fruit in each hand, the left hand extended forward; the right, not left, shoulder is covered by the robe (the sanghati robe is not indicated); there are four (instead of nine) sa, da, ba, wa "in" or cabalistic squares on the chest and back and on both palms; bits along the inner margin of the middle finger on the right hand are missing (deliberately removed?); the hair of both figures resembles a cap, and on the internet image there may be an addition to the original; a wide belt girds the figure and there is a "relic" or "philosopher stone" pellet inside.
Hla Than Aung notes:
The Burmese name for this image type is "Nga Tin Kote" or "Double Robe over right shoulder" (referring to the "double" or thicker robe worn during inclement weather. Importantly, in Buddhist orthodox practice, [End Page 143] the left, not right, shoulder is covered.) Such images are esteemed as magical in ritual use, and, consequently, are venerated differently than conventional Buddha images. They are rare and expensive to purchase; approximately 15 are extant. In addition to their ability to exorcise debilitating spirits and grant wishes, they have many, paranormal properties resulting in part from the spherical philosopher's stone encased within the hollow interior: if inappropriately presented with food, the image will turn away; if approached with a needle, the image will repel it; if a candle flame is held near the head, a halo will appear; if a candle flame is held below the domical base and then moved away, the flame will follow for up to three feet.
The irregular openings in the unusual domical base of this image type encourage a flame to flare upward under the image. Discoloration, evidently caused by heat, was discovered under the dome of the example in the Burma Art Collection, NIU, and subject of the 2016 article.
After thorough experimentation with the Burma Art Collection image, none of the above magical abilities proved to be active. However, a remarkable discovery was made: a narrow, air shaft connects the apex of the dome to the outside, exiting between the Buddha's feet. When an incense cone is lit and placed inside the dome, the shaft then functions to draw air in through the lateral rectangular openings projecting smoke upward from between the feet. Thus, is created a nebulous, changing aura of smoke that actively surrounds the image. In the author's experience, this feature is unique in the world of Buddhist sculpture to this type of Burmese Buddha image used for exorcism. [End Page 144]
I am indebted to Professor Thomas Patton for bringing this post to my attention and to Akar Kyaw for assisting with the translation of the idiosyncratic text. Professor Emeritus RICHARD M. COOLER earned his PhD in Southeast Asian art and architectural history at Cornell University in 1979 under the tutelage of Dr. Stanley J. O'Connor. His selection as a US State Department Special Exchange Scholar took him to Burma in 1974 before returning to his position at Northern Illinois University where he became the founding director of the Center for Burma Studies where he developed and curated its unique collection of Burmese art (1985–2001). Together with Dr. Michael Aung Thwin, he founded The Journal of Burma Studies in 1997 and served as Managing Editor. His...