Herdsmen’s statues embody a different take on spirituality

(No.12, Vol.2, Dec 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Bodhisattva, gilded wood, 70 cm high, Phuoc Dong Pagoda, Di An District, Binh Duong Province,
Southern Vietnam; Bodhidharma, gilded wood, 60 cm high, Phuoc Dong Pagoda, Di An District, Binh Duong Province, Southern Vietnam

The ghost king lord of life, painted wood, 85 cm high, Long Phuoc Pagoda, Ba Tri District, Ben Tre Province, Mekong Delta.

Buddha statues that are said to be made by herdsmen, usually children, are images that often convey a deep sense of subjective individuality - a philosophical term which we shall explain shortly. They are humanized as the incarnation of their creators’ souls and emotions. Thus, each of the Buddha statues is an individual achievement that itself expresses the resourcefulness and acquired knowhow of the community of inhabitants of the southern frontier.
The pair of antithetical couplets inscribed on two pillars of the pagoda gate when we arrived in Long Phuoc, An Duc Commune, Ba Tri District, Ben Tre Province in the Mekong Delta indicates that the construction of the pagoda was initiated by herdsmen and that afterwards, the first monk to reside at the pagoda was Minh Tri.
We heard a number of oral stories about this sort of herdsmen pagoda and only half believed the actual history at the root of them. Since then, whenever we had the occasion to go someplace, we paid attention to whether or not there was a herdsmen pagoda around and, if we were told that there was, then we endeavoured immediately to find any surviving relics-especially statues, which were usually moulded from clay and, according to oral transmission, were fashioned by herdsmen. Although the number remains incomplete, to date we have seen with our own eyes about 40 herdsmen pagodas in localities all over Southern Vietnam.
Herdsmen pagodas can be understood as village pagodas that belonged to the institutional structure of village culture in the past, which includes community houses, pagodas, shrines, and martial halls. They can be understood as small pagodas dedicated to the worship of Buddha and erected by villagers of their own volition in order to answer the spiritual needs of the community. There, deities and Buddha were worshiped, with the latter venerated more in keeping with the mind of folk Buddhism than the cultivation and study of the Buddha’s actual creed.
At An Phuoc (Peace and Happiness) Pagoda, which goes by the colloquial name Hoc Tra Herdsmen Pagoda and is located in An Binh Tay, Ba Tri District, Ben Tre Province a few kilometres away from Long Phuoc Pagoda, the people recall that, in the beginning, herdsmen would often get together to play by moulding statues of deities and Buddha and erect a small cloister in which to venerate them. Remaining vestiges include a statue of a Bodhisattva riding a golden tiger and a statue of the Earth God performing the Lion Dance. Both of them achieve a profound visual effect, making it hard for one to say that they were fashioned by buffalo herders.

Mother Xiem-Mother Soc effigy, painted cement, 70 cm high, To Pagoda , Thu Dau Mot, Binh Duong Province, Southern Vietnam

At Da Luon (Eel Skin) Pagoda in Dong Son, Go Cong, Tien Giang Province in the Mekong Delta, a more elaborate legend is told about the pagoda’s history: A long time ago, herdsmen fiddled with moulding statues of deities and the Buddha from clay for fun. When they got tired of playing, they took the statues and tossed them into Mr Tu pond, supposedly so that the statues could bathe and cool off. Strangely, the statues floated. The terrified youngsters pulled out the statues and placed them in a thatched hut for worship. Afterwards, a Buddhist bonze came from far away and, once he saw the desolate, cursory pagoda, made up his mind to stay and rebuild it.
Phat Noi (Floating Buddha) Pagoda or Phuoc Lam (Forest of Happiness) Pagoda in Rang Hamlet, Trung Lap Ha Commune, Cu Chi, Ho Chi Minh City was founded 200 years ago. It, too, is a herdsmen pagoda. Folk legend has it that a Mr Phan Su, along with his neighbourhood friends, released their buffaloes into the forest one day and amused themselves by diving into Dat Set (Clay) Pool in order to get clay with which to mould into Buddha statues for fun. At the end of the day, youngsters herded the buffaloes back home and threw the Buddha statues into the forest. That evening, the children caught fevers and spoke in tongues continuously. After they inquired, the parents learned what had happened and planned to erect a pagoda in which to worship the statues so that they could repent to the Buddha. Yet, the village did not approve of building the pagoda, reasoning that it was mere superstition. In order to set things straight, the village chief took the clay Buddha statues and set them on a monkey bridge across Dat Set (Clay) Pool and pulled out the bridge. The folktale has it that among the statues that fell in, eight Buddha statues floated on the surface of the water. That’s when the villagers got together, and some with their labour, others with their possessions, built a thatched pagoda to worship the Buddha statues. In 1963, the pagoda was hit by an American bomb and collapsed, so it was moved to Trung Hoa Market. The relics that remain include a clay statue and some wooden statues, all of which were primitively fashioned but possess unique character.
In general, legends about the impetus for the pastoral pagodas differ in each place. But many are formulated similarly; child buffalo herders moulded clay statues and the statues all floated on water when were tossed in. In history, beliefs in statues that float and drift someplace where people then establish shrines and pagodas to worship are very common.
Regardless of the veracity of the claims of miraculous circumstances, one thing is true: There is an assortment of folk Buddhist statues that formed spontaneously at the time when land was cleared away and villages were founded in Southern Vietnam. While the artists of the statues were monks and Buddhist devotees, pastoral children were accredited with their creation. Clearly, Buddhist sculptural graphic art in Southern Vietnam from the beginning until the 1950s was a parallel procession of two lineages: folk and professional. The line of folk statues are most evident and numerous in earthen and wooden statues (we can also add terracotta and compound statues). Therein, clay statues, which are called herdsmen statues, can be regarded as seminal in the history of graphic Buddhist statues.

Previous life of Devadatta, wood, 87 cm high, at Phuoc Lam Pagoda, Cu Chi, Ho Chi Minh City.

An assistant to Bao Zheng (999-1062), a Chinese official in ancient China, well know as a symbol of justice, earthen, Van Duc Pagoda, Binh Thanh District, HCMC. Photo Kim Thanh

The underlying feature of herdsmen Buddhist statutes is their unsophisticated and unassuming nature, which astounds the viewer like the instant jolt one gets the moment the long propagation of a worker’s song is suddenly heard resonating across the river. In other words, they are not fashioned according to the conventions of graphic art and the artists are unknowledgeable about Buddhist sculpture’s ritual norms – physiognomy, meditation posture, mudras (spiritual hand gestures), and religious attire. Instead, they are created in their own particular modes with a subjectivity befitting the resourcefulness of their creators. They are formed precisely as if they were done ‘without contrivance, without attachment, without tarrying’. The created works constitute the feelings and ideas of their creators without the painstaking, deliberate effort of a professional artisan. This lack of form leads to the originality of each Buddhist statue. They are mainly a matter of shape and stop at the point of creating the appearance. They do not labour over details, but rather emphasize a divine aura and spiritual character.
Take for example the assemblage of herdsmen Buddhist statues at Thanh Son (Green Mountain) Pagoda in Hoc Mon, Ho Chi Minh City. We see that they are cursory to the point that if we rely only on the features of the figure, meditation posture, and mudras, it is difficult to determine exactly what each statue represents; they all just sit in meditation posture with hands folded in a certain mudra.
Though said to be without form, the statues are not entirely capricious, but rather almost all manners of expression originate from some recollection of a Buddha or Bodhisattva image in the minds of their creators, so that there is some degree of distinction between images of Buddhas and bonzes, along with those of deities that are not objects of Buddhist devotion. Besides the general shape, other visual details were also treated with attention such as meditation posture (the ‘lotus position’), and, in most situations, the two hands express some form of mudra; although, as we have noted, they are not entirely in keeping with the norms determined by Buddhist sculpture. For instance, the meditating Buddha statue at Linh Chau (Numinous Pearl) Pagoda (in Tan Tay, Go Cong), despite being largely damaged, is still imbued with a Buddha’s serene and compassionate aura. This is in clear contrast to the statue of Ta Mun (the protector and progenitor of the Ta Mun people) at the pastoral Phuoc Dong Pagoda (in Tan Binh, Di An, Binh Duong). Here, the Ta Mun statue has strong features, unrealistic coloration, and a distorted figure – entirely in keeping with the artistic sensibilities of the Expressionists.

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva at Phật Bồng Con (Budhha holding her child) Pagoda, cai Rang, Chau Thanh, Can Tho City, Mekong Delta.

Anada, painted wood, 36 cm high, Thanh Son Pagoda, Hoc Mon, Ho Chi Minh City

Through comparison, we see that although the Buddhist statues are not particular about the principles of sculpture, in the minds of their creators was the latent model of a Buddha statue, or Buddha portrait, from which emerged the mind to fashion the statue. In other words, Buddhism in general and Buddhist statues in particular, through history’s passing, became the culture of the people. Here, ‘culture’ is understood as the spirit of the folk that endures through time, even if everything else were to pass away. It is this spirit that simmered beneath the surface until the time when the effort to tame frontier lands and establish a livelihood reached some level of stability and the settlers’ inner feelings broke out into a soul-felt craving, a spiritual need. They dug clay up from under their feet to be moulded into Buddha statues, and they erected pagodas in which to worship the Buddha. Here, it is also noteworthy that the majority of herdsmen pagodas venerate both Buddha statues and those of a variety of miscellaneous spirits. From this cultural perspective, herdsmen Buddhist statutes convey a deep, subjective, humanized character that embodies the feelings and souls of their creators. To some degree, it can be said that herdsmen Buddha statues came into the world through a pantheistic mindset and with rudimentary features. They have many points of similarity with primitive art, which we come across in the archaeological excavations of the early historical period.
According to a prevalent conception in Southern Vietnam, herdsmen are the progeny of the God of Agriculture, and so it follows that supernatural forces like demons and forlorn ghosts must all remain deferent and obedient to them. Hence, young herdsmen have the right to enjoy ritual offerings, including those to forsaken spirits. Folk stories relate that whenever a herdsman raised and waved his hands, immediately rafts carrying ritual offerings to forsaken spirits – such as those used in propitiation rites to ward off pestilence and miasma – drew up to the riverbank. In general, young herdsmen are exceptional members of society in the eyes of the community, and, owing to a firm belief in being the children of the God of Agriculture, they have the ability to communicate with the spiritual realm and watch over the realms above and beyond the mortal world.

Text and photos by Huynh Ngoc Trang & Nguyen Dai Phuc
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