Punakha Dzong is the second of Bhutan's Dzongs built by order of the first Shabdrung in 1637. His body is housed in a room inside a sealed casket attended by two monks. The Bhutanese believe that his body has never decomposed, a moot point since the casket cannot be opened.
The central shrine of the Dzong, the utze, is magnificent. It is six stories high with a Sakyamuni Buddha that extends from floor to roof. This is the hall of 100 pillars, though, in fact, there are only 54. Each pillar is wrapped in embossed copper and leafed in gold. The traditional thousand buddhas are painted on the wall at the very top of the hall while around the sides are 69 statues representing each of the abbots of the Dzong since its foundation in 1637. Once the Dzong was built the Shabdrung established a body of monks here, 600 strong, all of whom were brought from the Cheri Monastery in the upper Thimphu Valley.
The hall exudes serenity. Even though 54 pillars break up the space, it is not a nervous space. The pillars impart confidence. And then there is that massive six-story high Sakyamuni Buddha, his half-closed eyes looking downward and inward, the quiet smile on his face communicating pleasure in what he is seeing.
Contrast this with a cathedral in Rome. The figure that greets the visitor is of a God with nails driven into his palms and his feet, hanging from a cross on which he has been taunted and tortured. The message of the Buddha is something like, I am in this state of bliss because of the way I used my mind to pierce the veil of illusion we all live in. If you do the same, you, too, will find bliss. The message of Christ on the Cross is, I have suffered excruciating pain and contemptible mutilation because of your sins. You, therefore, are responsible for it. What are you going to do about it?
There is a paradox for me as I enter the hall of 100 pillars. The message that the iconography imparts is attractive. The iconography that that message has engendered is less so. In the west it is exactly the opposite. There the message is torturous, the iconography beautiful. For me, the peak of western sculpture is Michaelangelo's Pieta, an incredible work of art of the highest order whose inner meaning of suffering, torture and painful death couldn't be more of a downer. If it is true that great art comes from suffering, Christianity is the perfect engine for it.
Buddhist temple art on the other hand rests on repetition. Every temple is a near replica of every other temple and every Buddha the spitting image of the previous one. Why? Because originality is prized in the west, much less so in the east. In general the farther east one goes the more communal the culture becomes and hence the less original. The two ends of the cultural spectrum are represented by Japan on the one hand, where, as the saying goes, the nail that sticks up is hammered down, and by the United States on the other, where individualism is our national mantra.
Which is better? Well, you pays your money and you takes your choice.
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