Buddhism has been active in the territory now defined as Thailand for over a thousand years, and its presence has inevitably influenced all aspects of life, both spiritual and mundane.
Indeed, core aspects of Thailand’s artistic and architectural traditions have developed in service to Buddhist principles of daily conduct.
The objective of Buddhism is the liberation of the spirit from suffering. To attain this goal, Buddhists must observe the following: (1) the practice of the three precepts of perception, concentration and wisdom, (2) the display of compassion to others, and (3) the exercise of self-sufficiency.
The application of these precepts in daily life leads the practitioner towards the discovery of the four Noble Truths: suffering, cause of suffering, enlightenment, and the path to enlightenment.
A propitious environment can aid the follower in his or her spiritual development. Architecture can play a significant role in an individual’s journey towards the four Noble Truths.
One of the main symbols in Buddhist architecture is the sacred pillar representing wisdom. This element is ubiquitous at various scales, from houses to villages and cities. The pillar is situated at the centre of a stable and calm perimeter, ideal for meditation.
In addition, this space should be oriented properly to enhance cosmic harmony.
The four cardinal directions have unique significances. East represents the rising sun and references creation and birth. Its value is activated by a structure’s orientation towards a river or as host for an open entryway, to promote cosmic circulation.
South relates to compassion and grounds professional or economic activities, that is, rice fields in the city or the village, a workplace in the house. Additionally, work activities that do not harm others are a condition for a harmonious engagement with the environment.
West is where the sun sets and signifies death and the return to the Earth; the structure should face a forest or a garden in westerly directions.
North references development and should be oriented in the direction of schools or other institutions of learning. In a household, it is where the master bedroom should stand or where learned and revered ancestors reside.
The combination of these spatial guides – the sacred pillar representing wisdom, the peaceful and static perimeter representing meditative concentration, and the four cardinal directions embodying the four Noble Truths – forms a sacred mandala, a cosmic circular or Bhumi Cakrawan.
The centre of this sacred figure is the incarnation of unity around which the cosmic spheres organise themselves in concentric circles. Each sphere has a proportionate degree of happiness according to its proximity to the centre. The further from the centre, the more unhappy and sinful is the life.
In conclusion, sacred places in Buddhist cosmology are inherent in Thai architectural tradition. Architects and builders should keep in mind that Buddhist concepts could be embodied in structures.
If their construction principles are well informed, they can influence the spiritual development of others. Forms can adapt to the needs and constraints of daily life, but principles should remain.
Keeping Buddhist precepts in mind will allow Thai architecture to develop without losing its Buddhist grounding.
Wonchai Mongkolpradit, Faculty of Architecture member, Department of Architecture, Chulalongkorn University.