Thai Goes...To the Buddhist Temple from Hell
Thai Goes is an ongoing journal from my two-week Doctor of Ministry residency in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in January. The focus of the learning cohort was to experience and study the intersections of faith and global development.
Of course, it's not the Buddhist temple from hell. Actually, more like heaven.
Or at least derivative of heaven. That is, if you take the view that creativity is a gift from the gods, or the God, in the biblical vision the original maker of heaven and earth who has endowed each person with the ability to make stuff. As the Anglican theologian N.T. Wright says, "...the arts, the imagination, our capacity to create beauty ourselves, is not simply incidental to what it means to be human."
Indeed, what it means to be human is eccentrically if not loudly on display somewhere near Chiang Rai, the northernmost large city in Thailand. Somewhere between rice field #308 and #309 you will find the defining muse of Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. The temple is absolute spectacle sitting along the edges of the otherwise mundane: besides tourism, rice makes Thailand go round.
The White Temple reminded me of the spiritual writer Thomas Merton's vintage appraisal of art: "Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time." Naturally, the losing and the finding is the timeless dance. And sometimes the dance—the losing ourselves or the finding ourselves—is fraught with truly frightening steps.
For instance, when you're standing across the placid pond (see: first image above) and gazing in the direction of this temple-as-art-installation, it is hard to not go to another place, somewhere else, a place perhaps almost entirely elsewhere from wherever you are. In essence, from a distance you can afford to lose yourself in the comfortable beauty of pure white and sacred symbol.
But when you walk across the bridge (see: second image above), you are forced to confront the finding of yourself in the much darker imagery of a humanity apparently forever grasping at an escape. The Buddhist-envisioned cycle of rebirth is desperate to sink its hands into you. It's a terrifying scene—if you let it get to you, in a constructive way.
Once inside the temple, Andy Warhol would be proud: there is all manner of pop-culture references (from Star Wars iconography to Despicable Me characters), which, to be honest (and maybe this is the artist's intent), only exacerbates the need for a dramatic escape from this maddening human and cultural condition. Here, inside, I interpreted the artist as saying: The hallowed halls of ancient religion still may not be enough to escape our circumstance. To quote that famously pondered lyric from the annals of 1970s American rock-n-roll: "You can check in, but you can never leave."