The age of Cathedral building is probably well and truly over in the west but in Thailand the desire to engage in temple construction shows no sign of abating. The landscape of Thailand is already covered with Wats, Shrines, and spirit houses. These of course include iconic Wats such as Wat Phra Kiew, Doi Suthep and Wat Tat Phanom.
But at the same time new constructions and renovations are going on all the time. Travel around the country and you will see new temples rising out of the ground and bamboo scaffolding around existing buildings. More often than not this will be happening in Thai Villages.
Virtually ever Thai village has a temple in its environs. The village temple holds an iconic place in Thai culture. The size and construction of these temples reflect both the economic status and the spiritual imperatives of each individual village. As such the Temple buildings can range from simple timber to quite grand constructions that can rival similar temples in Towns and Cities.
The decision to build and renovate temple buildings has much to do not only with economics and spiritual desire but also with Village politics. Thais place great store in earning merit which includes both the giving alms to members of the Sangha and the upkeep of their temples.
But sometimes the decision not only to build but how to build involves subtle “logger heading” between the Lay and the village monastic community. A Case in point is a village that I know called Ban Ta Ban in Isaan. The Achaan of the village temple is a former Phra Tudong (wandering ascetic) who recommended that a small meditation complex be built. The Financial movers and shakers in the village wanted an ordination hall. In the end they compromised and built both.
This reflects the enormous respect that Thais have for the spiritual leadership of the Sangha. Although it’s the Lay community that appears to initiate Temple projects – in the end it’s the monastic community that determines how the temple complex is used. The village of Ban Phutsa in Isaan where I spend much of my time during annual visits to Thailand once had an Abbot who was – how can I put it kindly, leant towards the grand. As such on his recommendation several quite expensive buildings were erected in the village temple complex. The new Abbot is more of a traditionalist and who places more store in Vipassana meditation and a market garden that he has established to feed some of the poorer people in the village. As such many of the grander buildings are rarely used.
Another aspect of the Thai character is the desire not only to contribute to the construction of new temples but to build one in its entirety. This does not appear to come from personal ego but instead is the ultimate in spiritual fulfillment. There are numerous projects of this nature all over the country. I am aware of two of these projects.
The first is a large temple being built outside of the City of Nakhonratchasima by a Thai “action hero” movie star. Apparently he does most of his own stunts, which has involved a few narrow escapes. As such he felt compelled to initiate his project as a way of giving thanks for the “good luck” that he has been endowed with.
The other project (which I have only visited once back in 2003) is Wat Pa Nam Yoi, which is located on a hill on the border of Roiet and Mukdahan provinces in Isaan. From the hill you have sweeping views over the Isaan landscape.
This project can only be called “huge”. It came about after the Abbott of a small village had a dream, which apparently told him that a new temple needed to be built on the hill,and who then initiated it. I have pasted two photos above that I took in 2003, but they don’t do justice to the staggering dimensions of this temple. It is being funded by donations from right across the country. The irony of it is that the Abbott is from the forest tradition of Thai Buddhism and lives simply in a hut in the forest outside the new temple.
As a Farang with an “Ikea Furniture” love of simplicity I am often perplexed by what drives Thais to so heavily invest in temple construction. I often believe that the literal billions of Baht spent in this manner would be better spent on eradicating poverty in the country.
On the other hand although I don’t quite understand I have in turn learned to appreciate both the desire and the spiritual fulfillment that Thais get from their involvement in building Temples.