On May 5, 2014 at 6:08 p.m. an earthquake of 6.3 magnitude struck about 27 kilometers south of the city of Chiang Rai, Thailand. A day later it was reported that Wat Rong Khun, one of Chiang Rai’s most famous landmarks, known to thousands of tourists as “the White Wat”, was irreparably damaged by the quake and aftershocks. (Find more pictures on the Internet under “Wat Rong Khun pictures”). I lament the loss of this artistic treasure and want to reflect on its meaning.
The incident poses two questions: “What’s a Wat?” and “Where’s the line between art and theology?”
“Wat” in Thai means “temple”. It refers particularly, but not exclusively, to a Buddhist temple, which includes everything in its compound. The main structure is a wihara or assembly hall. Larger temples gain status by having a chedi or stupa (an Indian term; “pagoda” in North Asia) and a bot (also known as ubosot) or ordination hall. Many temples have residences for monks, a bell or gong or drum tower, funeral facilities including a crematorium, a Tripitika building (library), and sculptures. Wat Rong Khun also has an art museum and the world’s most ornate toilet building.
Wat Rong Khun has been the life-work of a flamboyant artist and philanthropist, Chalermchai Kositpipat who converted his personal fortune into an iconic masterpiece over more than two decades. The kindest thing to say about Chalermchai’s temple, from a Buddhist perspective, is that it is unconventional. In fact, it defies tradition so flagrantly that it is not considered a temple at all by some conservatives. But, technically it is a temple. It is built on the site of an old temple that had fallen into disrepair. Chalermchai first thought of restoring it but then replaced it. Once a place has been consecrated as a temple it is always the place for a temple.
In the process of creating his remarkable temple Chalermchai developed and defined a unique style of decorative Thai Buddhist art. He managed that most difficult accomplishment, innovating to the very limits of convention without crossing the line. Wandering around Wat Rong Khun there is never any question that this is a Buddhist temple and it is Thai. Taking a second look one realizes that in almost all particulars this is like no other temple. Artistic elaborations and elongations are multiplied and stretched farther than anyone has dared for centuries. Typical Thai S lines ending in lotus-bud tips are far more complicated when Chalermchai renders them, and his creatures are more haunting and intimidating. This temple is the diametric opposite of Zen. It is ostentatious, pretentious, exaggerated and breath-taking. It is above all confrontational. At every turn a visitor has to deal with Chalermchai’s visions of life’s options and consequences. The temple is a shrine in honor of religious mythical mysticism teetering on madness not seen, perhaps since the high-gothic era in Europe or the Kamakura era in Japan. The goal of meditation in Wat Rong Khun is certainly not serenity, or at least not without facing harsh realities first.
To put it mildly, art and religion have a contentious history, yet they cannot do without one another. Most often art is considered as a naughty child, seldom appreciated when it is not mediocre but not enduring when it is. Real trouble comes when art rises very far above popular devotion. The masses will not put up with divinity out of place and unrecognizable. But how can they recognize the divine until artists show it to them?
Wat Rong Khun is controversial aside from its artistic eccentricities. In some ways, ways which are central to the whole temple project, Chalermchai is arrogant, defiant, unrepentant and stubborn. He will invent an artistic genre for Thai Buddhism whether the religious establishment likes it or not. He will override all criticism to do it. He will not pay attention to precedent and he will expropriate and exploit tradition by utilizing whatever he wants however he wants to. Despite the illusion of enthusiastic vitality and lively lines of visitors, Wat Rong Khun is essentially a lonely place. His temple is monochromatic and unitarian, starkly lacking generations of eclectic accumulation expressive of community and continuity. Other donors have constructed entire temples, but few without royal pedigrees have imposed their egos on their donations so ruthlessly and none so impressively. In the end, however, the most damaging controversy is not how Chalermchai elevates the artistic standard for Buddhist temples, but how he ratchets down the theological standard, descending deep into populist and superstitious levels that demean what the Buddha was undertaking.
There is, on the other hand, the possibility that the Wat Rong Khun project is a monument to the artistic legacy of Chalermchai Kositpipat rather than (or more than) to the Dharma of the Lord Buddha. This interpretation is reinforced by the museum and restroom. The museum is a repository for Chalermchai’s paintings, almost all of which express Buddhist principles imposed on contemporary imagery surrealistically, like Dali without the melting clocks. The wat is all white or silvery-white except the bathroom building, which is a rival of the other temple buildings in size but replete with excessive color, especially gold. Chalermchai says the temple is about spirit, but the restroom is about body. Not a few interpreters have concluded that there is a harsh criticism of traditional Buddhism implied in the fact that the building in Wat Rong Khun that most resembles other wats is the toilet. Chalermchai built it; he can interpret it however he wants. But I think his pretensions are protruding.
Overall, the main message of Wat Rong Khun, to my way of thinking, is that Buddhism is certainly not antiquated. There is an undeniable vitality in the creative expression of the temple as a whole and in the decorative elaborations. Wat Rong Khun is not Buddhism longing for a by-gone golden age. Like the cathedral in Barcelona, the temple in Chiang Rai insists on being contemporary. Meanwhile, Chiang Rai has grasped the significance of what Chalermchai has done, or at least the importance of the tour busses in the temple parking lot on their way into town. Street signs in Chiang Rai are “Rong-Khun-esque”. The temple is no longer the only silver-white one, either. A religion is alive as long as it inspires artistic innovation and reiteration.
Chalermchai says he is too old at 56 to rebuild the temple so he will let it be, as a memorial to what it was. But he has never been known for understatement. His anguish could be just another aftershock from which he will recover. I personally doubt that stunning Wat Rong Khun is beyond hope of repair.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.