Visitors to the Bayon today may, to a limited extent, simulate the shifting spatial experiences of passing through the temple, though their subjective reactions will bear scant resemblance to those of Khmer nobles steeped in radically different traditions and expectations. Nonetheless, some significant visual effects and affects are clearly orchestrated by the temple's architecture. The fabled face towers, though visible from a distance when approaching the temple from any direction, are difficult to distinguish from their man-made mountain of masonry. They become lost from view upon entering the shadowed inner and outer galleries of the 2nd terrace and a fortiori along the enclosed eastern axis leading to the garbagriha or shrine beneath them. In contrast with Angkor Wat or the Baphuon, the stairways to the 3rd or upper terrace do not cascade down its edges in a powerful wave, rather they emerge through the platform into blinding sunlight, surrounded on all sides by an array of more than 125 nearly identical, inscrutably-smiling faces, larger than themselves, some at eye level, others rising from the 2nd galleries seeming to float, with still more far above them on the conic shikhara.
The multiplication of face towers on the Bayon’s 3rd terrace invites comparison with the aedicular expansion of architectural mandalas in the Hindu Vastu Shastra, as well as, Vajrayana mandala visualization as described in the sutras (outlined under “Vajrayana Mandala Visualization”)* For example, 1) the statue of Buddha sitting under Mukhalinda might act as the adept's yidam (Sans. > ishta devata cherished or favorite deity,) the manifestation of the adept’s particular tathagata Buddha nature or inclination. In keeping with Vajrayana practice, he would then 2) project four of his powers or attributes in the cardinal directions and 3) four of its defenses at the intercardinal points, surrounding himself in a mandala manifesting his Buddha nature, not dissimilar to the Panopticon of eight shrines around and above the central cella. 4) He would next elaborate or project from these, additional attributes axially and laterally, analogous to the axially projected medial and middle gopura towers and their lateral replications on the Bayon's 2nd and 3rd terraces, in figure 23A. 5) This process would then repeat itself forming a matrix or mandala of bodhisattvas or face towers. Thus, one cannot infer because the towers are more or less similar that they are portraits of Jayavarman VII or of any specific or single deity for that matter; Vajrayana’s extreme non-dualism (advaita) regards these as aspects of the same yidam, itself a manifestation of the adept’s tathagata or “Buddha nature,” in turn, a manifestation of a non-manifest, non-individuated “Buddha essence,” or Adi-Buddha. The ricocheting gazes between the visualizer and his visualizations seem to dramatize a Buddhist dialectic of simultaneous emanation and erasure of all perceptions and concepts as “dependently-originated,” that is, “ontic” or “mind-created being,” not “ontologically given,” uncreated and “self-arising,” and hence illusions, maya, of that “supreme fiction,” the adept’s own consciousness, continually instantiating mirror images of its own non-existence and emptiness.
Therefore on the Bayon’s 3rd terrace, the expected relationship between spectator and image, just enacted in the cella, would be reversed: instead of peering into an aedicule at a statue, unframed, over-sized faces project directly from the stone erasing the edifice and engulfing the spectator in their vision. This is all the more unnerving because their eyes aren’t starring at or through the spectator but are shut looking into themselves. Rarely can the spectatorial “gaze” have been refused by so many eyes at once nor with such ego-devastating indifference. The towers or visualized yidam have not just surrounded their spectators but placed them inside their own giant heads, making their view the viewers’ and their non-perception of them their dissolution. In the context of a Vajrayana rite or sadhana, the terrace might induce a feeling of transparency and the giddy frisson of the disappearance of the dualism between perceiver and perceived. This might approximate the lowest level of the arupadhatu (described in appendix I, “Buddist Cosmology,”) akasanantyayatana, “the sphere of infinite space,” an experience of “spaciousness without ego-reference, center, dimension or territoriality,” where the adept’s sense of place and point of view would not only be de-centered but disintegrated. What then do these faces see inside their heads, which might cause this dissolution and produce their “archaic smiles?” Could it be a void, the “emptiness of their own consciousness,” including even their consciousness of its emptiness, the realization that all their thoughts and feeling, their very selves, were maya or illusion, the ultimate joke played on themselves (and the bemused spectator) all their lives?
These megaliths might then paradoxically shock adepts into an “awareness of their own emptiness” or sunyata –– of the towers,' the visualized and the visualizers’ monumental non-existence. The initiate, steeped in the four preparatory Vajrayana practices, might be excused for feeling he had glimpsed – at least for that instant – the goal a Mahayana monk pursues over decades of meditation, yoga and renunciation with no certainty of success, simply by stepping onto the Bayon's 3rd terrace. They might feel they had transcended even spaciousness and achieved that most liminal of mental states, next to “extinguishing” consciousness altogether or nirvana, the empyrean of the arupadhatus, naivasamjnanasamjnayatana, enigmatically defined as “neither perceiving nor not perceiving.” Therefore, the goal of Vajrayana’s “Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma,” the "yana of effective means,” and ultimate revelation of Buddha’s teaching, the experience of “an unconditioned, non-conceptual space beyond space,” where, in the words of the Heart Sutra,“ form is emptiness, emptiness form,” might have found its improbable architectural expression on the Bayon’s 3rd terrace.
The identity of the face towers has occasioned endless scholarly lucubrations without much elucidation, to say nothing of a cacaphony of speculative tourist chatter. The usual candidates include: Shiva, the focus of the devaraja cult; Sakyamuni, Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha; Avalokitesvara, the Mahayana “bodhisattva of infinite compassion,” whom Jayavarman VII identified with his father; and, of course, that monarch himself. (Readers can decide for themselves if the face towers bear sufficient resemblance to his extant busts and statues, shown on page 36.) Recently, some scholars have advanced the claims of the primordial, Tantric Adi-Buddha, Vajradhara, “ruler of vajra beings,” or, perhaps, Vairocana, “adamantine radiance,” the center of the quincunx of five tathagata Buddhas; the same candidates for the mysterious "sixth Buddha" at Borobudur. In the Vajrayana practice of mandala visualization, the yidam and all its manifestations are emanations of the enlightened adepts' union with the dharmakhana, the non-manifest form of the three-fold “Buddha body,” the essence of Buddhahood, glossed by the present Dalai Lama as, “the space of emptiness, in which all phenomena, pure and impure, dissolve.” Thus, the face towers, as visualizations of “Buddha nature,” could not be a specific deity or individual but all of them perceived through the self-annihilating awareness of their essential emptiness, as mere species of sentient being, In which case, the faces on the towers would be the viewers’ own, disappearing and the Bayon with it.
*Throughout this discussion of the mental states Vajrayana initiates might attain on the Bayon’s 3rd terrace, the author has perforce relied on phrases from Reginald A. Ray’s surprisingly lucid, Secrets of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet (Shambala Publications, Boulder Co, 2001.) He cannot, however, claim to have experienced any of these states himself or had reason to believe they exist – either at that temple - or anywhere else.