The Buddhist Tipitaka is brought to life in a mixed-media explosion in Korat.
From afar, the most striking feature of Wat Ban Rai is the massive 520-tonne elephant head, extending from the roof and detailed with rich mosaic textures. The art inside has taken a deliberately unorthodox approach to expressing the contents of the Tipitaka, the imposing three-volume canon containing the 84,000 teachings of the Buddha.
“Luang Pho Koon always teaches that the simplest understanding of dhamma is the best,” says Kriengkrai Jaruthavee, vice-president of the temple committee at Wat Baan Rai, the home temple of Phra Thep Wittayakom, more commonly known as Luang Pho Koon.
“We’ve tried to fulfil his vision with the Dhamma Garden shrine, which brings together architecture, sculpture, mosaic, painting and other art media to outline the basic Buddhist teachings in purely visual terms.”
The abbot, who turned 90 years old last October, is arguably the most venerated living Buddhist master in Thailand. As a young monk, he is said to have travelled extensively through the forests of northeast Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, mastering Buddhist teachings and meditation, and acquiring weecha, a difficult-to-translate concept that implies deep spiritual powers.
Today the living spiritual legend is famous for using temple donations to build schools and clinics for the poor in Nakhon Ratchasima.
The circular, four-storey Dhamma Garden, also known as Wihan Thep Wittayakom, stands in the middle of a large pond, and is designed to guide visitors through the basic teaching of the Tipitaka. Kriengkrai personally oversaw every step in the shrine’s creation, watching progress through a telescope from 200 metres away, and conveying instructions to artists and workers by mobile phone.
“The Dhamma Garden is meant to expose people to a large number of these points through simple visual and audio input, without any memorisation,” Kriengkrai says.
Of all the art media featured in the shrine’s exterior, the mosaics are the most impressive. More than 20 million pieces of coloured ceramic, all custom-fashioned in sheets and fired at super-high kiln temperatures before being methodically broken into small pieces, were used throughout.
The basic construction as well as the intricate mosaic work was carried about by over 400 local villagers. When their work came to an end, many stayed on to serve as guides. Others will participate in the Art Village, an area now under construction where visitors will be able to see demonstrations of how Dhamma Garden art was created.
Tai, who had a sixth-grade education and no previous art experience when she was hired to work on the project, describes how she worked.
“Ajahn Sampan [head artist Samphan Sararak] would sketch patterns directly on the sculpture using Magic Marker to guide us with placing the ceramic pieces,” she says. “The patterns contained letters representing the different colours and sizes of the fragments. We chose the corresponding pieces from sacks of porcelain chip and placed them in a mixture of cement and glue.
“At first it was difficult, but once I picked up speed it was a pleasure to see the art take form.”
Sampan Sararak, from Nakhon Si Thammarat, served as the principal artist on the project, providing sketches for every phase of the project and supervising a team of up to 200 other artists who contributed sculpture, painting and electronic media.
Known outside of the Buddhist art world for his expertise in nude portraiture, Sampan has been deeply involved with Wat Ban Rai for three-and-a-half years. He created all the paintings seen in the Luang Pho Koon museum before being invited to work on the Dhamma Garden, which finally opened in November 2013, after nearly three years of construction and decoration, at a cost of 250 million baht in donations.
The shrine is reached via an elaborate naga bridge, symbolising a crossing from the temporal world into the world of dhamma. Four entrances at each of the shrine’s main cardinal points are surmounted by huge, colourful sculptures of Hindu-Buddhist deities. The main entrance to the east is dominated by Indra, the king of the gods, and is flanked by sculptures of his mount Airavata (Erawan in Thai), the three-headed elephant. Moving clockwise, the south portal is topped by Yama, the god of death, who decides which realm – heaven, hell, animal or human – one will be reborn into. Varuna, lord of the underwater world, is featured at the west entry, flanked by a pair of crocodiles. Finally the north belongs to the potbellied god of wealth, Kubera, and his elephant mount.
Twenty-eight ceramic-tiled pillars surround the circular exterior and support the massive roof. Each is painted by a different artist, and together the 28 pillars depict scenes from 537 of the Buddha’s previous lives.
The ground floor’s interior art, dedicated to the Sutta Pitaka (the discourses of the Buddha in the first book of the Tipitaka), is dominated by six wall paintings. The first panel, and at 36 square metres the largest, covers the Buddha’s final life from birth to renunciation, while the second follows the great master from renunciation to enlightenment. The Buddha’s travels and teachings provide the subject matter for the next three painted panels, and the sixth and final panel documents his passing into parinibbana.
A carpeted, wheelchair-accessible ramp winds along the inside circumference of the building to the second main level, dedicated to the Vinaya Pitaka, the book of the Buddhist canon concerned with discipline and practice. From here all the way to the roof, the Buddha is represented by images of a lotus flower rather than traditional images. According to Kriengkrai, this is because “the artists agreed the Buddha was too large to be contained by any of anthropomorphic art inside the building.”
The four sections of the Vinaya floor are divided between the four main schools of Buddhism, namely South and Southeast Asian Theravada, Chinese Mahayana, Japanese Zen and Tibetan Vajrayana, each made up of mixed media, videos and paintings. A separate lounge with a circular floor plan and soft lighting contains padded round platforms for meditation, accompanied by ambient music and video loops showing flowing water and other calming images.
The Abhidhamma Pitaka, considered the most profound third of the canon, is the subject of the third floor, with detailed samplings of the book’s teachings. It’s the final stop before ascending to the roof, where two bronze statues, a seven-metre-high Buddha in walking posture, along with a five-metre sculpture of Luang Pho Koon, are the focus. Peaceful views over Wat Ban Rai and surrounding Dan Khun Tot are an inspiring reward for the three-storey climb.
Wat Ban Rai
Tambon Kut Phiman, Amphoe Dan Khun Thot, Nakhon Ratchasima
04-421-3030 | 9am-5pm