Wat Mahathat and the Buddha Head in a Banyan Tree

If you have spent any time in South East Asia – Laos, Vietnam, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia – you will be struck by the ubiquity of Buddhism and Buddhist statues, temples, and monks. It’s ingrained in the culture and in the landscape of these places. To the outsider, on the surface, it represents a beautiful culture and heritage of these people and places.  In central Thailand, about an hour drive north of Bangkok in Wat Mahathat, Ayutthaya, is the site of an ancient Buddhist temple. Originally erected in the 14th century, the temple was laid to ruins in 1767 by the Burmese army invasion.  Destroying the Buddhist temple and statues at Wat Mahathat, the Burmese invaders lopped off the heads of the Buddha statues as an act of desecration to the sacred place.  Over time, the temple at Wat Mahathat fell into further ruin and became over grown until its importance was ‘rediscovered’ by local authorities in the mid-20th century.  Over time, a particular Buddha head that was hacked off in the 1767 invasion became entwined with the roots of a Banyan tree, creating what is one of the most iconic photographs in Thailand. The Buddha head at Wat Mahathat.

Photo: Buddha head at Wat Mahathat, Thailand. © Dimaberkut | Dreamstime.com

While undoubtedly a cultural treasure and tourist destination – it is a designated Unesco World Heritage Site - when I first saw the Buddha head in a Banyan tree at Wat Mahathat, I saw something much deeper and symbolic. Outwardly, the Buddha head is smiling and looks to be at peace.  Yet despite his appearance, the reality is the Buddhist head is complexly trapped and strangled by the tree!  To me, this represents the true reality of Buddhism in the culture of these places, and it represents every other religious belief system which attempts to reach God, heaven, or a higher enlightenment outside of Jesus Christ and the Word of God.  Why? Because Buddhism and every other belief system relies on human effort and good works to out weigh the bad. For Buddhism this mean reaching a higher level of consciousness, removing all attachments in this world, and repaying ones vast Karmic debt - which in all likelihood will take multiple reincarnations to achieve until one reaches Nirvana, the highest level of enlightenment. Trying to reach God and eternal life through good works is not only impossible, but brings suffocating bondage. "Therefore no one," Paul says, "will be declared righteous in God's sight by the works of the law." [1] 

If this is the true reality of what other religions bring to humanity – strangulation, false hope, and suffocation in trying to reach God by human effort  – Christ offers a different way and a different hope, one that is not dependent upon one’s own effort and striving.  Christ offers the hope of life and freedom through His death on a cross and subsequent resurrection.  "This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe" Paul declares, "There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus." [2] Jesus said it this way, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” [3]   

I come from a background that felt just as suffocating as the Buddha head in a Banyan tree looks.  The environment I grew up in was one of an impossible to please father and significant spiritual and emotional abuse from him.  The natural outcome was that I saw my spiritual Father in the same light as my earthly father, and my salvation (or the retention of my salvation) based off of pleasing him and his long list of rules.  As a 13 year old, I constantly felt defeated and that at every wrong turn, I was losing my salvation and was condemned to hell. I was in and out of eternal life. In and out. In and out. I had a terrifying fear that the rapture was going to occur at any moment – especially if I was “out” at that particular moment.  To stay in God’s good graces, I felt I had to constantly be mumbling prayers.  If you would have known me then, you would have thought I was talking to myself like a crazy person! I got to the place where I felt like I was literally going crazy, and perhaps I would have gone out of my mind had the True and Living God not set me free through His Word and the truth of God's saving work through Jesus.  My kind and Godly mother began to show me the truth of who God was and what Scripture actually said about salvation and who God the Father was.  One verse I committed to memory and which was particularly liberating was Titus 3:5-6:

“Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior”
— Titus 3:5-6 (KJV)

We are saved because of Christ’s propitiation for us, not our own efforts.  The truth of God's Word through God's Spirit broke me free from the strangulation of lies from the enemy and failed good works that I almost died in (both spiritually and mentally, cf. Romans 7:24-25. I was liberated from bondage; I absolutely felt like the protagonist in The Pilgrim's Progress when the burden falls off his back at the foot of the cross and rolls into the grave to be seen again no more.

This is why Biblia Global and our partners work so hard to get God’s Word to His people in restricted countries. In these places the traditional religious systems offer burdensome requirements.  Once a person living in one of these South Asian countries comes to faith in Christ, how can they grow in the faith and know the truth and freedom that Christ brings unless they have God’s Word? One L tribe Christian Leader writes:

“God sent Jesus to this earth and Jesus it the way we can go to heaven. Without the Bible we don’t know Jesus as the way to God. So the Bible is everything for our lives. If we don’t read the Bible we don’t know what to do in life. And if we read the Bible then we learn how to live our life the right way.”
— Mrs. Gee Lee, L tribe Christian Leader

I couldn't say it better myself! God’s Word changes lives.  If I were to visually illustrate this, God's Word is like a precise wood saw and Christ is the person performing the cuts with the saw that breaks people out of the strangulating Banyan tree of cultural religious systems!  Yet there are still people groups and places where tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions of Christians don’t yet have Bibles.  This is why Biblia Global exists and what our donors and prayer partners contribute towards; bringing the tools to the front lines to cut the imprisoning vines and branches of sin, animistic folk traditions, and strangulating work based religious systems.  How will you help contribute to setting people free through God's Word where He has placed you? May your love of Christ and His Word continue to grow and grow,



[1] Romans 3:20a (NIV, 2011)

[2] Romans 3:22-24 (NIV, 2011)

[3] John 10:9-10 (ESV)