3/4 – The Buddha and the King

Arriving in Paro, I am immediately struck by the beauty and consistency of the architecture, and by the amazing array of Buddhist imagery and paintings that appear on hillside rocks and walls of houses, in hotels and restaurants, as well as on the many temples and monasteries we have already visited.  The integration of Buddhism into all aspects of Bhutanese life is evident – in striking contrast with the United States where our religious symbols and practices are not only more diverse but also typically more isolated from mainstream culture.

This afternoon in the capital city of Thimphu, we drove up to Kuensel Phodrang where one of the largest Buddha statues in the world is completing construction.  This 169-foot bronze statue of Buddha Dordenma overlooks the capital city – an incredibly beautiful and powerful image that was designed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Bhutanese monarchy and to fulfill the prophecy by yogi Sonam Zangpo that such a statue would be built to bestow peace, blessings and happiness on the whole world.

Is this a media message?  From a Western perspective and by our definition of “media,” certainly yes – it conveys messages through visual images, is mediated by technology, designed for a mass audience, may be interpreted differently by different people, etc.  But as Chris has already raised in his previous blog postings, the depth and complexity of Buddhist paintings, statues and other imagery may not be appropriate for media decoding – especially when raising the questions of authorship, purpose, and meaning.  On the other hand, as Chris has speculated, if we only spend class time analyzing popular culture, and do not include rich traditional Bhutanese media (Thangkas, festivals, masks, songs, etc.), then are we marginalizing traditional culture?

In talking with my colleagues here in Bhutan, they were relieved to find that I did not plan to try to lead a decoding of Thangka paintings or other Buddhist imagery.  I will briefly raise the issue of whether they can be considered “media,” but will follow that up with a discussion about making wise choices about what types of rich media documents to decode with your students – given your curriculum goals, the age and experience of your students, your own familiarity with the media content, and your cultural context.

The other thing that struck me was the everpresent images of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and his new queen, Jetsun Pema – especially in honor of their recent royal wedding – on the billboard welcoming people to Bhutan at the Paro airport, in hotels and restaurants, and throughout the city of Thimphu.  Are these images of a very attractive and clearly beloved couple fair game for media decoding?





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