More on Iconography and Word VS. Image

In a recent article, I wrote about how the conflict in the Kashmir (as well as other global geopolitical flashpoints where Islam is at odds with the outside world) has as much to do with the power of word vs. image, and the juxtaposition of mediums, as it has to do with socio-cultural and religious tensions.

Here in Thailand, there is no shortages of mosques, while of course the religious landscape is dominated by Theravada Buddhism, which is quite the opposite in that it embraces iconography, including statues, painting, jewelry, etc.

I have never liked being forced to choose sides.

Perhaps it has to do with the way I was brought up, always on the road, always in transit, never part of any ideology or even any local society.

Regardless, I like to do a sort of mental exercise sometimes, which I call “If I had to choose”.

If I had to choose between Islam and Buddhism, I would choose Buddhism — this despite the fact that I am much more so a writer and author than I am any kind of visual artist.

Why?

Well, the simple answer would be that I have always felt more welcomed and at ease in a Theravada temple than I have in a Muslim temple.

I have lived in Malaysia, an Islamic dominated society, for enough time to know that I much prefer to live in Thailand, a society with so many images of Buddha in full lotus (the foundational yoga pose) that it is almost (but not entirely) redundant.

Hey, I enjoyed my life in Penang, Malaysia — and there is no denying the aesthetic appeal of the Islamic call to prayer sang twice a day through PA systems and echoing through the winding lanes of a richly historical city.

Additionally, I can not argue with the philosophy of Islam when it comes to the effects of media on human consciousness.

In Islamic theory, images and iconography are fodder for cults, while the word continually challenges the human intellect to reach for and achieve higher and higher levels of awareness.

Despite these factors, I have to side with the smiles and the gregariousness of Thai society.

In Georgetown and Kuala Lumpur, two cities I have spent considerable time in (and lived in in the case of Penang), there was a certain lack of generable agreeableness among the locals.

There was a sense of tension.

In Bangkok, or even more yet in other cities in Thailand, every interaction is an opportunity to put a smile on the face of whomever one is interacting with.

Sure, humor has the danger of trivializing the inherent drama and tragedy of the human condition — yet in my mind that does not circumvent the reality that if one has lost their humor in life, they have already failed.

Personally, I am not easily mesmerized and hypnotized by image.

Perhaps this is in part due to the cynicism and even bitterness I have accrued after years spent in the film industry and in Hollywood.

Nevertheless, I have to hand it to the Thais — they know how to embrace the absurdity of life, and that is really what I see as the benefit of humor in general — it keeps things light even in the face of dire circumstance.

The overarching argument here, however, has less to do with the juxtaposition of word vs. image and more to do with the value of religion in society in general.

And in that regard, I side with religion, always, over secular atheism.

I have traveled the world, and I am absolutely certain that societies with religious foundations, from Hinduism to Islam to Buddhism, are much more stable and content than societies like many Western nations, which suffer from constant upheaval and general cultural confusion.

Gabriel is a writer, actor, and musician from Los Angeles. Currently, he is based out of Bangkok, Thailand.