July             2008                             2551                      Number     84
The Forest Sangha is a worldwide Buddhist monastic
community in the Thai forest tradition of Ajahn Chah

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Prajna Paramita


Ajahn Vimalo

As there were too many photographs too include on this web page, please click the following link to see all of the images published with this article:

When I was a layman supporting the Sangha Sister Thanissara showed me a picture in a book and told me Luang Por Sumedho had wondered if I could copy the image in the photo. I think he knew I had the ability to copy anything that was put in front of me. It was an image of the Prajna Paramita, a famous masterpiece from Java, Indonesia. It was so long ago now that Luang Por can’t remember this.

I saw that the statue was housed in the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, Holland. I told one of my closest friends, who is also an artist, of my interest and we decided to go to Holland for a weekend.

The city of Leiden was just up my street in terms of my interests. Having once owned a windmill I’d be able to visit De Valk (‘The Falcon’) which is a large mill in the middle of town. And with my lifelong love of Egyptian art and history it also afforded me the chance to visit the famous Egyptian collection in Leiden’s National Museum of Antiquities.

It worked out that the original Prajna Paramita statue had been returned to Java, it being such an important piece of Buddhist art. What was in the museum in Leiden was their own plaster cast copy. Ah, I thought: even though it was an old cast maybe they would let us make another copy. They said no. I then said to myself, right oh! I will copy it – not thinking what I was taking on, for it is one of the most detailed pieces of art there is.

I was very lucky in that the deputy curator was a very kind lady who got permission for me to take many photos and measurements of their statue. I needed special permission because it was locked up in a room with lots of ancient gold jewellery. From the measurements I’d be able to work out a frame to make a copied image of my own. This was many years ago now but I have a clear memory because it was such a rewarding weekend in many ways.


Paul Hendrick (Aj. Vimalo) in the museum in Leiden, Holland, taking
measurements from their own original cast in the room full of gold

In the ensuing months I worked on my Prajna at home when I had time. I had even taken note of the many different sized beads she has on. I had not studied SE Asian art, so much of the jewellery style I had to guess from the photos as to how it would appear, and the hair down her back I made up because I hadn’t taken a photo of that.

Well, when I turned forty I parted from my family and travelled for eight months leaving the Prajna at Amaravati. After my travels I became an anagarika, which allowed me an hour or so now and then when I could continue work on the Prajna. But it was hard to do as an anagarika.

After 18 months as an anagarika I decided to take ordination in Thailand. So Prajna was duly embalmed and put in a cupboard for some 10 years. While I was away she was apparently taken from the embalmed state and unwrapped. I must admit that I was a bit annoyed when I heard this because within the wrapping were also all my photos and notes. Ajahn Sucitto then wrote with the idea of trying to get me back to finish her so she could go to Chithurst. By this time I was in Sri Lanka.

I would often see pictures of Prajna Paramita on book covers, and it was as if something was saying, ‘Now come on, time to go back and finish her.’ I had also heard that the nuns were very interested in it because Prajna is a female image.

I came back in 2000 thinking that along with everything else I would be able to finish her in a year or two. But in taking on all my new duties she seemed to get put aside from time to time. So I was surprised when one day I realized that she was in fact as finished as she ever would be, knowing that with the materials I had I couldn’t perfect her any more than I had.

I was concerned about the face. This was because I knew that if the look on the face didn’t communicate what I felt it should then it would not be worth much. Even though the original is a masterpiece I have always felt that the face is a bit too harsh. So at a certain point I worked on the face of my Prajna for two days solid. I kept looking at the original, along with a drawing I did of a Gandharan Greek style Buddha and a photo of a Pharaoh who had a beatific smile. After this effort I felt very happy with the look and I felt most of the nuns would as well, which they were.


buddha sculpture

buddha sculpture

Making the rubber mould. The process begins by applying coats of liquid rubber to the statue and
creating a hard plastic support mould which will act as a supportive casing for the rubber one

When it came to casting a mould from which to make copies, I looked around at which places might be able to do it best. As the figure is so detailed I knew the work would need to be very carefully executed, in particular to be able to include the hands. I had an offer from a teacher at the British Museum to do it for the cost of materials, over an undefined period of time as he was able to with his students. I had also enquired at one of the top museums in Germany – who are known to be the best at making reproductions – and they said they would love to do it, but though they wished to they couldn’t reduce the expensive price it would cost (over 20,000 euros plus shipping!) They were very kind though and offered to give me any advice I needed.

At the same time, I investigated the possibility of doing it myself. I felt that whoever did it might damage it, and if that happened I wanted it to be me! In the end that’s what I did. As it happened the original did get damaged, but the mould turned out perfectly and this has allowed me to make copies as planned. (Some people want me to repair the original. But I think it may end up as part of the foundations of a future building.)

All the suppliers of the materials I have needed have also been keenly helpful. When I sent them photos of the Prajna they all remarked on what a difficult job I have taken on. Even more so that I have never worked on this size mould before. They have all said that I can always go to them for advice. Two of them want to put pictures of my work and a possible article in their company newsletters.

As long as I have enough materials I’ll work for the rest of this year and then stop. People have been very generous so far, so that should be no problem. It has been a lot of work. Yet it’s been greatly rewarding.


buddha sculpture

Successful sandstone resin casts of Ajahn Vimalo’s Prajna Paramita



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