On the edge of Chatuchak Park sits a state-of-the-art Buddhist centre filled with religious writings, talks, meditation classes and followers. Elizabeth Preger goes in search of enlightenment.
Always curious to know more about Thai culture, I woke up bright and early on a recent Sunday morning to visit the Buddhadasa Indapaňňo Archives (B.I.A.). Located in Chatuchak Park, the centre is an archive of some of the most revered Thai Buddhist writings, a space to meditate, and to maybe, just maybe, find Nirvana. Happily for me – and others like me – they hold a free monthly tour in English of its premises.
As we walk around the grounds, the four (yes four) guides take turns telling us about the history and meaning of the different structures and artworks. First stop is the garden, Suan Mokk. Its name translates to Garden of the Spotless Mind. Everything at B.I.A. is meant to be an opportunity to meditate and gain mindfulness. In the garden there are three concrete circles that nest in one another. Tall trees rise above, and the sound of birds trickles in over the guide’s talk.
Off to the side is a carved relief. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, the late revered monk whose writings the centre houses, traveled to India and photographed Buddhist sculptures he found there. Upon his return he commissioned local artists to create exact replicas. If the photos didn’t have enough detail, he would write to the British Museum and ask for more images. B.I.A. is full of these replicas; they serve as visuals for the Buddha’s teachings.
We bypass the main hall on the ground floor. The first Sunday of the month is when the traditional ‘Tak Bat’ ceremony takes place. People from all over Bangkok come to pay their respects to the monks and offer them food. The hall is filled with row upon row of people meditating. Opposite them is a raised platform with a single line of saffron clad monks sitting. Once the ceremony is complete the monks chant a prayer to the crowd and eat the offerings.
We head up to the second floor and ‘Taste of Nibbana.’ It’s an exhibition/meditation space meant to simulate Nirvana. As our guide Jitti explained, Nirvana is a feeling of coolness or a coming down. At the heart of the exhibition is a large round room. It has cool stone floors and the sound of chanting and bells plays faintly in the background. On the walls are sayings and words of inspiration. There are cushions at the edge of the space for people to sit and meditate on.
The longest pause on the tour is at a large painting: ‘The Wheel of Life.’ A fanged demon holds a wheel filled with images of the Buddha, landscapes, scenes from life and animals. As we sit and study the painting, small birds flit about: hiding in the buildings chinks and even coming to rest on top of the art. Sometimes an inexplicable cool breeze rushes past, offering a brief moment of respite from the heat. Later, Jitti told me of her first encounter with the painting. “I was sitting in front of the wheel of life and inside me, I’m crying. It’s like a small enlightenment…it was like some lights going up. I want to give that feeling to other people.”
Two small children join our group. Our guide gently teases them before leading us downstairs to partake in a templestyle lunch. The monks have received the food offering and everyone is now invited to partake. Large metal bowls are provided. You can fill them with an array of foods overflowing on two long tables. The choices are as varied as the street vendors surrounding the weekend market.
The third floor is filled with Ajahn Buddhadasa original manuscripts, reference materials he used, and a collection of audio files. We were not able to see the actual library because the material is too sensitive. The walls that surround it are made of thick concrete (so thick you lose cell phone service once inside) and the temperature and humidity carefully controlled. It’s a state-of-the-art repository.
Buddhadasa, who passed away at the age of 87 back in 1993, is best known for translating the original Pali Buddhist texts into Thai. Jitti remarks “in this way he is like Luther,” a religious reformer, whose mission was to give everyone access to the ideas and writings that so moved him. At first he was accused of being a heretic and even a communist for doing so. But the political winds changed, and he was recognised as a luminary teacher of Dhamma.
B.I.A. is not only there to preserve Buddhadasa’s legacy, but also to teach a new generation of monks and lay people. There’s a constant bustle at the centre, a ceaseless flow of meditation classes, tours and ceremonies. On the Sunday I visited there was an official ceremony to inaugurate a new photography exhibition by Tanya Panyarachun, and in mid-December they will lead a pilgrimage to meet with the Dalai Lama.
The Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives (BIA)
Vachirabenjatas Park (Suan Rot Fai), Nikom Rot Fai Sai 2 Rd | BTS Mo Chit/MRT Chatuchak Park | 02-936-2800 | on the first Sunday of each month between 9:30-11:30am | bia.or.th, www.facebook.com/buddhadasaarchives | 9am-6pm