What forms will our Buddhist temples of the future take?

Economy October 30, 2015 01:00

By Pymporn Chaiyaporn,
Departme

Not many weeks ago, the announcement of the ban on the film "Abat" ("Transgression", in English), which narrates misdeeds committed by monks, stimulated responses among Thai Buddhists in surprising ways.



Some bitterly criticised the response and extended criticism to the agencies proposing the ban, while others signed a petition opposing the ban. Many followed the news cycle closely and engaged in intense debate privately, among family and friends.

The uproar culminated in the ban being lifted and, in a confusing turn of events, the general release of the film a week before it was originally scheduled.

This episode demonstrates Thai Buddhists’ deep cultural investment in films, which are such an embedded part of modern culture.

What other aspects of contemporary Thai life can we locate that are so fixed that they are non-negotiable, even influencing the practice of religion, such as we saw with the opposition to the banning of "Arbat"?

For instance, the evolution and diversification of temple architecture in Thailand has always been influenced by contextual culture and available technologies.

Have you ever noticed or wondered why Thai Buddhist temples are so varied in architectural style?

It’s unnecessary to go back to the Sukhothai period to start looking – temples constructed less than a hundred years ago offer plenty of examples.

Let us start with Rama IX Kanchanapisek Temple in Bangkok. This temple has a small, white main hall, which draws upon royal architectural influences popular in the reign of Rama III.

Key features of this structure include a triangular pediment of mortar and decorative stucco mouldings of flowers and leaves. The short eaves are unsupported by corbels, the structural wood pieces that jut from the wall to carry the weight of the roof or eaves.

This direction in temple architecture caught on and endured because the durability and long-lasting qualities of the materials made it less costly and less burdensome for temple caretakers to maintain.

Another strand of temple design takes advantage of aerial sightlines, or the perspective possible from a plane. We can’t fail to mention the temple of Wat Phra Dhammakaya, located in Amphoe Khlong Luang in Pathum Thani province.

The temple’s great size was designed to accommodate large numbers of worshippers. Within the temple are elements that look very modern, especially the Dhammakaya chedi, with its extremely contemporary appearance.

The chedi is composed of a unique concrete blend that has been tested extensively abroad for durability and longevity, qualities that are both practical and metaphoric. Phra Dhammakaya followers believe peace will be attained after 1,000 years, and the temple should stand to greet that era.

Moklaphalaram Garden (also known as the Flowing Stream Temple) in Amphoe Chayya, Surat Thani province, stands in the jungle. In the temple complex, there are buildings small and large, but all represent basic, simple forms inserted organically in nature.

Space for worship by both monks and laity, however, are uncontained by structures. Instead, they are situated outdoors in an earthen field punctuated by circular stone benches, giving the site the name of the "curved stone pavilion".

The field is partially sheltered by a canopy of trees. Users are exposed to and experience the elements, regardless of rain or sun.

If you have studied Buddhist history, you may recall that the Buddha attained enlightenment at the base of a tree on the banks of a river.

This ideal setting for enlightenment was framed over two thousand years ago. For our modern times, as well as for the future, what architectural or spatial forms will our temples take to both deepen our worship and aid us in the release from suffering, while also speaking to the way we live now?

Pymporn Chaiyaporn, Department of Architecture, Faculty of Architecture, Chulalongkorn University