I was thinking today about a very moving piece of Buddhist art by Thai artist Montien Boonma. He made this alms-bowl sculpture when he found out he had a brain tumour in 1999 – he died shortly after, in 2000.
This work made a very strong impression on me, and keeps coming back to my mind. For me, it’s such a beautiful, deeply personal expression of the themes in Buddhism: suffering, impermance, generosity, transformation, not-self.
The bowl is lined with impressions of his own teeth. The handles that look like bones, or vertebrae, are made from the imprints of his hands gripping clay.
When he first exhibited this work, he invited friends and family to drink from the bowl (it was filled with whiskey and herbs – medicines for pain) with a ladle made in the mold of his own mouth.
The bowl is a symbol of giving and receiving, of humility and human dependency. Boonma makes himself into the bowl itself. His pain is expressed without hiding or prettifying - the first noble truth. And then that pain is transformed through offering. Giving from within his own body, down to the lasting remains – the bones and teeth. Though the image is grotesque, the act of sharing – nourishing and healing self and others – through generosity is sublime.
The bowl embodies the fragile, real dimension of human mortality, alongside the transcendent quality of love and giving. And while he is exploring the theme of mortality and impermanence, the bowl itself is heavy brass, and the generosity, truth, and devotion it represents will endure.
Boonma became fascinated with alms bowls and began to draw one every day as a meditation practice. He said of the alms bowl
When I think about the space in the bowl, I prefer to be inside this space which is separated from the outside world. I would like to place my mind inside the bowl.
In this piece, Boonma embodies the container/boundary of the bowl, on the edge of life and death, or world and emptiness
This work was on exhibition at the art gallery of NSW in 2016.