A Royal wat and the origin of the Dhammakaya Movement, Wat Pak Nam remains one of the most revered temples in the city.
Photos by Joe Cummings
At the beginning of December 2018, I joined a small group of Thais and foreigners for a Sunday morning tour of Wat Paknam Phasicharoen. It was to be led by Pandit Bhikkhu, a British monk ordained in Thailand who has made Wat Paknam his home base for the past 22 years.
Pandit Bhikkhu is the founder of Little Bangkok Sangha, known as Little Bang for short, a loose community of Bangkok residents interested in Buddhism.
The group organises discussions and group meditation sessions led either by Pandit or, more often than not, by visiting dhamma teachers, including monastics and laypeople representing other Buddhist schools around Asia.
Although I’m not an active member, I’ve attended a few Little Bang events and admire Pandit’s up-to-date approach to mouldy old Thai Buddhism, exemplified by such slogans as “Turn off your Facebook, and check your own status.”
I’d long wanted to see Wat Paknam, one of the most powerful and influential monasteries in all of Thailand. Aside from Pandit, I knew one other temple resident, Scottish monk Phra Neil, a man in his70s who I’d met in Chiang Mai a few years ago, and who is one of the senior-most western-born monks in Thailand.
As it turned out, although I arrived at Wat Paknam on time, the rest of the group arrived 45 minutes later, having taken a detour for breakfast near the main temple gate. So I toured the monastery on my own, starting ahead of the group. I did manage a five-minute conversation with Pandit, who sadly will be moving to Singapore soon, which will probably signal the end of Little Bang.
An inscription near the main gate explained that Wat Paknam was founded during the Ayuthaya period but had since undergone four renovations. The first three came about during the reigns of King Taksin of the short-lived Thonburi kingdom, Rama III, and Rama V. In 1916, by which time the wat had fallen into disrepair again, Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro (1884–1959) took over as abbot. Famed for his proficiency in meditation, LuangPu Sodh transformed Wat Paknam from a decaying monastery with only thirteen monks into a powerhouse of education and meditation practice with five hundred resident monks and almost as many mae chee (nuns) by the time he passed away in 1959.
In 1970, one of Wat Paknam’s nuns, MaeChee Chandra, left the temple to establish Pathum Thani’s Wat Phra Dhammakaya, famed for it’s flying saucer-like stupa and for its strong affiliation with deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his followers after 2005. LuangPu Sodh’s successor as abbot at Wat Paknam, Somdet Chuang Varapuñño, was slated to become Supreme Patriarch of Thai Buddhism in 2015 before Thailand’s military government blocked the nomination, presumably to weaken the Thaksin political wing.
In 2012, Wat Paknam consecrated a newstupa called Phra Chedi Maharatchamongkhon, whose 12-sided shape was inspired by the 15th-century stupa at Wat Loka Moli in Chiang Mai. Standing 80 metres tall, the hollow stupa contains five floors.
The ground floor features a museum filled with old typewriters and hardwired telephones, vintage furniture, portraits of Luang Pu Sodh, and endless shelves of books, Buddha images, and amulets. Most visitors ignore the museum and instead take a lift directly to the fifth floor to view a vast glass stupa of intense emerald-green hue.
Dominating the centre of the hall, the stupa-within-a-stupa is surrounded by crystal lotus sculptures and topped with four niches holding small Buddha images of solid gold. Four huge pillars, carved and gilded in the most rococo manner, support the domed ceiling, which is adorned with murals of Buddha meditating beneath the mythic Bodhi tree surrounding a green cosmic sphere. Voices echo in the dome as visitors come and go, circumambulating the green stupa, kneeling at its base with murmured prayers, or just posing for cute selfies.