Imitating a Buddha


In 2008 Ban Ki-moon, then still head of the UN, visited the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon (Yangon). While on his visit he was guided to a new image of the Buddha and had his picture taken with this image. Offerings were also undertaken. The solemnity was  somewhat destroyed for some Burmese observers who could clearly see that the new Buddha image was precisely modeled on Than Shwe, at the time the leader of the Burmese military regime. The image of the Buddha had Than Shwe’s face, not that of the Buddha. I am relying for this description on Aung Zaw in The Irrawaddy (25 December 2008).

Historically we may ask whether this is an isolated event.  One would imagine that this is not an isolated event and that other Buddhist rulers, emperors or kings have had Buddha images made in their likeness. Images of the Buddha would have been produced with the features of an historical person for political advantage. Could such a practice be considered blasphemous and is there anything in text or doctrine prohibiting such actions?

Than Shwe could of course have been attempting to appropriate various religious powers through the production of this image. The Burmese notions of yadaya could come into play. Such rituals are intended to avert misfortune and are an important part of Burmese religious practice. Whatever the reasons, the image of the Buddha with the features of a military leader open a number of different discussions.  Kings become Bodhisattvas and emperors Buddhas – they share in the sanctity of Buddhahood and are wheel-turning monarchs (cakravartin).


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