A haven in Chatuchak preserves a famous monk’s literary legacy
Thailand’s most famous monk, and one of the 20th century’s most influential ascetic-philosophers, was born Nguam Panich in Chaiya, Surat Thani in 1906. He was ordained as a Buddhist monk at age 20, taking the name Phra Indapanno. He spent many years studying Pali Buddhist scriptures before retreating to the forest for six years of solitary meditation. Returning to ecclesiastical society, he was offered a high rank, but instead founded his own forest monastery, Wat Suanmokkhabalaram, in 1932 as an alternative to orthodox Thai monasteries. Here he developed an ecumenical philosophy that comprised Zen, Taoist, and Christian elements, as well as the traditional Theravada schemata. He also changed his name to Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (in Pali language Buddhadasa translates as “Servant of the Buddha”).
During Thailand’s turbulent 1970s, many Thai nationalists branded the monk a communist because of his sharp critiques of capitalism, which he saw as a catalyst for greed. Meanwhile religious scholar Donald K. Swearer compared Buddhadasa to the early Indian philosopher Nagarjuna for his reformist efforts. The great monk passed away in July 1993 after a long illness, but his legacy lives on in the 120-hectare monastery and adjacent international meditation centre he founded in Chaiya.
In 2010 a private foundation opened the Buddhasa Indapanno Archives, an ambitious facility in Bangkok’s Vachirabenjatas Park—more commonly called Railway Park (Suan Rot Fai in Thai) near the popular Chatuchak Weekend Market—to archive the monk’s prestigious literary legacy. The centre is sometimes referred to as “Suanmok Bangkok”.
In keeping with Buddhadasa’s penchant for Zen teachings, the archives feature clean and simple lines, alternating unpolished and polished concrete in grey and black. An artificial lake along one side of the building adds a cooling effect. When viewed from the building itself, one almost has the feeling that the structure “floats” on the pond. Breezes from the water are drawn into open-side pavilions and verandas attached to the archives.
The only exterior decorative features consist of large terracotta plaques which are facsimiles of didactic 2,000-year-old bas-reliefs found at the grand Buddhist stupas of Sanchi, Bharhut, and Amaravati in India. On the day we visited, a traditional Thai music ensemble performed outdoors in an amphitheatre in one of the pavilions. The curved wall along the back of the amphitheatre is also decorated with terracotta bas-relief plaques, along with an oversized copy of the famous Srivijaya Buddha figure from Chaiya, the original bronze sculpture of which can be seen at Bangkok’s National Museum.
Volunteers dressed in white stroll the grounds daily, available to answer questions and explain Buddhadasa’s natural approach to dhamma. Printed publications are available in the ground-floor Dhamma Books & Media. In addition to many titles by Ajahn Buddhadasa, the shop carries books by Ajahn Cha, Ajahn Pasanno, Thich Nhat Hanh, Ajahn Jayasaro, and Phra W Vajiramedhi. Most are in Thai language only, but there is a smattering of titles published in English, Spanish, French, and German.
On the 2nd floor are two meditation rooms with large windows that provide stunning views over the park. A veranda outside the meditation rooms is decorated with a collection of photographs and enlarged reproductions of verses composed and hand-written by Ajahn Buddhadasa. Other Buddhist art is also exhibited on the walls of this floor, including temporary exhibits.
The 3rd floor is occupied by meeting rooms, reading rooms and the main archives, where a comprehensive collection of Buddhadasa’s original writings—including letters, poetry and journals—are archived. In total, it is estimated that the archives include 20,000 items classified as text, along with 50,000 drawings, and 1,900 voice recordings. Also on this floor is a connected series of rooms containing large interactive exhibits. A pebbled walkway leads to the main room, which is dimly lit so that video projections—such one showing drops of water going in and out of a pond—may be more comfortably viewed. The floor is strewn with meditation cushions, and visitors are invited to sit down and quiet the mind while contemplating concepts of nibbana. A veranda accessed by automatic glass doors overlooks the lake, and is a good place for walking meditation. Sayings and poetry referencing nibbana decorate the walls.
Bulletin boards on the ground floor post upcoming activities and events. One of the most prominent regular events is the Sunday morning Dhamma in the Park series, consisting of dhamma talks by visiting monks, discussion sessions organized by the Buddhadasa Book Club, along with meditation, Tai Chi, and yoga workshops.
By Joe Cummings/CPA Media
Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives (BIA)
Kamphaeng Phet 1 Rd.
Railway Park, Chatuchak
Tel: 02 936 2800