Near the end of the 12th century, the Khmer King Jayavarman VII built the Bayon Temple within the large Angkor Thom complex a bit north of the Angkor Wat. The ruin invites you to rebuild the missing eight or nine towers so you can study all 54 and their 216 faces of Buddha (some of which are likely portraits of their kingly patron). Four portraits grace each tower; each is different; all stare out over the landscape, protecting the site and shrewdly considering the mysteries of human personality. There may even be a deeper mystery since the magic number pertaining to human emotions is 108, not 216. Did Jayavarman understand a duality or duplicity even the Buddha didn’t plumb?
There are, on the Tibetan rosary, 108 beads, one for each of the supposed 108 names of the Buddha. Some argue that the number refers to the 108 human feelings, a number calculated by operations of multiplication: begin with the six senses–smell, taste, touch, sight, hearing, and consciousness. Multiply those six by the three ways those senses can be experienced: painfully, pleasantly, or neutrally. Then multiply that total by two: was the experience internal or external; and finally multiply that total by three to account for the past, present, or future. That gives you 108.
Jayavarman doubled that and went for 216.
Whatever the aesthetic and religious significance of Jayavarman’s intent–honoring the Buddha, of course; establishing himself as a chosen and favored figure–he could not account for a time when a future king, a Hindu, would add bas reliefs with Hindu themes and characters. Nor could the sacred nature of the site prevent stone carvers from introducing scenes from daily life–picking fruit, catching birds, passing out drunk at a 12th or 14th century watering hole.
It all endures. You can pick your way through the ruins, catalog the military, domestic, religious scenes, interpret each of Buddha’s expressions, and never feel as if the builders and carvers, Buddhists and Hindus, 12th century or later, missed a note. Remember Yeats ‘Lapis Lazuli?’ He sees a stone carving and describes the characters as wise old men who have seen civilizations live and die, have seen tragedies unfold, and have understood it all without dismay.
Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in lapis lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.
Every discoloration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.
It is like that under the placid countenance of the 192 remaining faces who understand that 24 are missing, that more will fall, and that, in 1000 more years. . . .