by Karin Hallberg
It is Sunday and I am out with a couple of other residents and volunteers on an excursion. The first stop is Baan Si Dum, also known as the Black Temple (or Black House). Referring to it as a temple is actually inadequate, as it is more of an art exhibition than a religious building. Beneficially enough Jordan, who is in the process of writing a dissertation about Buddhism in Thai society, has decided to come with us today, making the trip far more interesting than would otherwise be the case. We walked around on the temple ground, where things such as elephant skulls and bones, the skin and head of dead snakes, and buffalo-horns are exhibited. Jordan explains that the designer of this house wanted to focus on death (among other things), as Buddhist philosophy emphasizes that death is an inevitable part of the human experience. We humans tend to spend time and energy trying to avoid it and pretend that it doesn’t exist, which makes us suffer profoundly when we sooner or later encounter it. Rather than avoiding the unavoidable, we should accept death as a part of life.
The wind is blowing in my hair as the songtaew [truck] zig-zags through the mid-day traffic, heading for the counterpart to what we just experienced, namely, the White Temple, Wat Rong Khun. Although its name contains the word Wat (temple in Thai), this is a place probably best known for its unique, religiously inspired artistic design rather than functioning as a fully operational temple in the classic sense. If the Black Temple emphazises death, the White Temple is about the cycle of life. When entering the temple one follows a white bridge surrounded by sculptures of hands reaching up from the underground, and Jordan explains that it symbolizes the souls who are stuck in the cycle of continuous suffering, wishing for a better reincarnation in the next life or a pathway out of the condition of suffering (symbolized by the bridge). Following the bridge we reach the temple shrine, where the designer of the temple has added distinctive, evolving mural paintings to the interior, from time to time adding some modern cultural symbols that he thinks relates to Buddhism. This can be anything from Spiderman and the Minions to the 9/11 crash of the Twin Towers, and the visitor is invited to make a personal interpretation how this relates to the Buddhist philosophy.
A perfect way to finish the day is to take the winding road up to one of the great waterfalls in the Chiang Rai jungle. Satisfied after some great Thai Red Curry as well as soul food and intellectual nourishment, we are prepared for yet another mindful week to come.