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Contemporary Buddhist Architecture: From Reliquary to Theme Park

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter places the historical development of contemporary Buddhist architecture in its historical context. It examines the ways that architects, builders, and monastics have drawn on historical typologies like the stupa, the stambha, and the caitya hall in producing new spaces for the teaching, dissemination, and veneration of Buddhist thought and practices. Sites like Wat Phra Dhammakaya, the Erawan Museum, the Spiritual Theater at Suan Mokkh , the Water Temple, and the Water-Moon Monasteryhave sought to reconcile the reflective and pedagogical aspects of historic Buddhist architecture with the needs of contemporary lay communities, modern expectations of leisure time, and the development of new modes of sense perception within a globalized culture that privileges consumption over contemplation.

Keywords: Buddhist architecture, stupa, stambha, caitya, Wat Phra Dhammakaya, Erawan, Water-Moon Monastery

In the Dhammapada, the collection of statements attributed to the Sakyamuni Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama announces after his Awakening, “Oh architect, you are seen!” He calls out the architect not to celebrate him, but to admonish him, “You will not build this house again. For your rafters are broken and your ridgepole shattered. My mind has reached the unconditioned, I have achieved the destruction of craving” (Gray 1887, 17).1 The text suggests a metaphorical relationship between human existence and the building: the house is individualized existence, the house-builder is craving, the rafters are the passions, and the ridgepole is ignorance (Ashraf 2013). This relationship was already well established at the time of the historic Buddha. Indeed, there is nothing particularly Buddhist about the idea that architecture and its orders contain elaborate metaphors for the human body and its place in a cosmological understanding of the world (Rykwert 1999). However, the Buddha’s reprimand to the architect points to a recurrent contradiction in the history of the Buddhist built environment. Throughout the history of Buddhism, from the Awakening of the historic Buddha through the dissemination of his doctrinal teachings, their translocal appropriations and transformations throughout Asia, and then to their global transmission in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries, monastics, lay worshipers, and state patrons have built permanent structures to illuminate Buddhist doctrines of impermanence.

Conventional categories for analyzing the history of architecture have been inadequate in understanding the diverse influences, changes, and forms that the term “Buddhist architecture” encompasses. As a category of art historical analysis, “style” emerged in the nineteenth century and was deeply entwined with both the colonial project and the pseudo-science of race. Style became a way of reading the physiognomy of the building, as one might read the face of an ethnographic subject (Zerffi 1876, 25; Bayard 1900). This approach implied a strict reading of ornamental components with little concern for spatial arrangements, social appropriation, and the relationship of the building’s interior and exterior qualities. The history of style in Western architectural history has proved increasingly problematic as historians wrestle with how to categorize the complex exchange of forms, materials, labor, and ideas, as well as the multiplicity of building practices and forms that make up the (p. 437) built environment. The idea that any architecture, much less Buddhist architecture, might be narrated through a neat succession of stylistic chronology (antiquity, classical, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, revival, and the modern) is difficult to sustain primarily because of the multiplicity of approaches to Buddhist practice and the ways that its doctrine and ritual practices have been adapted regionally and locally. The periodization of Buddhist art and architecture has tended to follow regional dynastic or political taxonomies, such as Gupta and Wei, but these categories do not account for the ways that forms, ideas, and artisans circulated between regions during the same period. Nor do these taxonomies account for the complex webs of patronage, adaptation, and use that inform sites like Angkor Wat—built as a Vishnuite temple by a non-Buddhist king and later appropriated as a national symbol by a variety of twentieth-century regimes that ruled over largely Theravadan populations (Barnett 1990; Edwards 2007, 21).

The modern has proved a particularly vexing category for understanding Buddhist architecture. The dominant narrative of art history positions modernism as a style that emerged out of a series of avant-garde innovations that were linked to technological progress (Tafuri 1976, 84–86). Within architectural history, the modern has stood as the moment in which a global consciousness of building practice emerged in tandem with the professionalization and education of the architect. It also produced radical technological innovations in building and architectural approaches to form. These changes have until recently elided histories of Buddhist art and architecture, which is usually framed as static and eternal. The trajectory of this narrative, and its implications for art and architecture beyond the imagined boundaries of “the West,” can be gleaned from Sir Bannister Fletcher’s “Tree of Architecture” (Fletcher 1924, frontispiece). In Fletcher’s diagram, the historical dynamism of European classicism propels architecture to its apogee in the nineteenth-century revival and modern styles. Those traditions that hosted Buddhist reliquaries, monastic complexes, and shrines, such as India, China, and Japan, remained arrested in their development, as branches at the bottom of the tree. Southeast Asian architecture does not even merit a branch on the tree. The primarily Southeast Asian case studies in this chapter not only address this missing branch but, more important, suggest a different historical momentum in which the conventionally distinct categories of “tradition” and “modernity” interpenetrate one another.

Contemporary Buddhist Architecture: Global Comparisons

Art historical approaches rooted in the comparative method, such as Fletcher’s, come with their own biases. David Efurd persuasively points out the ways that early archaeologists and architectural historians failed to understand the architectural significance of caitya halls because they sought to compare them to early Christian basilica, rather than examining the complex geometrical relationship between the stupa and the caitya hall (Efurd 2013, 140). While caitya halls were early Buddhist rock-cut sanctuaries that generally accommodated communal assemblies and stupa forms, the basilica was an early Roman typology with a central nave and an apse at one or either end, used as congregational spaces by early Christian communities. The nuanced analysis of formal relationships that Efurd proposes requires a (p. 438) dual approach to scholarship. On the one hand, a historical understanding of local architecture within its own context is necessary to appreciate local truth claims and contributions to knowledge production. On the other hand, an understanding of where the local sits within larger historical and translocal exchanges is also crucial.

Recent scholarship suggests that the art historical category of the contemporary might be a useful frame through which to understand the historical dynamism of areas at the peripheries of an avant garde–driven history of art and architecture. While the contemporary is often used as a shorthand to describe the production of art and architecture within the last forty years, Reiko Tomii points to another meaning of the contemporary: occurring at the same time. Contemporaneity has the potential to generate an understanding of the multilateral directions of history and historical consciousness (Tomii 2004, 612). An embrace of multiplicity that exists in contemporaneity is not limited to understanding the present, but includes the post–World War II period and the modern age. This extends to the history of architecture as well. For example, the work of the Metabolists from post–World War II Japan is now increasingly re-examined as a worldwide phenomenon. Previously unrecognized or overlooked movements from non-Western backgrounds are more frequently incorporated into canonical narratives of twentieth-century architectural history. However, there is no single movement in architecture that has self-consciously framed itself as Buddhist.

What makes a work of contemporary architecture Buddhist might best be understood by examining the contemporaneity of building typologies that have been consistent throughout the history of Buddhism. There is no single building typology that can be isolated as a Buddhist type. Nor do building types associated with Buddhism have their origins solely in the period after the Buddha’s birth, Awakening, and mahaparinibbana. However, three building types have been important to the dissemination and diffusion of Buddhism in Asia: the stupa, cedi, or pagoda; the stambha or pillar; and the caitya or monastic hall (Figure 23.1). All three of these types predate Buddhism and have their roots in Vedic South Asia but emerge in the third century b.c.e. as the key building types that come to be identified with the teaching, veneration, and dissemination of Buddhist thought and practices.

The Mauryan king Asoka (Sanskrit: Ashoka; ca. 270–232 b.c.e.) rose to power during this period and converted to Buddhism approximately 218 years after the Buddha’s mahaparinibbana. By this time, the Buddha’s earthly remains had been cremated and the ashes were divided into eight parts. Ten monuments were created to house these eight parts plus the urn and the embers of the funeral pyre. These were called stupas. Along with other stupas that marked the major events in his career (his birth at Lumpini, his Enlightenment at Gaya, (p. 439) his first sermon at Sarnath, and his mahaparinibanna at Kushinagara), these were the first pilgrimage sites of Buddhism. During Asoka’s reign, stambha or pillars were erected next to these stupa. To assert his authority, Asoka had edicts carved on rocks throughout the kingdom that defined the order or dhamma of his state. Stupa formed the core of early caitya or rock-cut monastic sites, like the ones at Karli and Loma Rishii. It is generally understood that these forms were transformed radically in their circulation through the various Buddhist ecumenes. In each new location, they encountered diverse local approaches to construction, materials, and forms.

Contemporary Buddhist ArchitectureFrom Reliquary to Theme Park

Figure 23.1 From left to right, elevation of the Great Stupa (Sanchi, third century bce), plan of the caitya hall at Karli (50–70 ce), Asokan stambha (Sarnath, third century bce).

Source: Courtesy of Shuxiao Tao.

Because there is no dedicated treatise on the building of Buddhist architecture, the rituals of building and the metaphors and concepts of construction involved in the erection of stupa, pagodas, and assembly halls are drawn from regional precedents. There have been two great historical traditions of building in Asia, and Buddhist architecture has engaged with both of them. One is the Vedic tradition of the numerous treatises associated with vastushastra or the science of construction. The clearest crystallization of these treatises is the vastu-puruṣa-mandala, a diagram of the essence immanent within forms (Snodgrass 1985, 109). The second is the timber-framed bracketing tradition prevalent in the Sinitic ecumene (contemporary China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and Singapore). The earliest known treatise that outlines these traditions is the Yingzao Fashi, a technical treatise attributed to the official Li Jie in the twelfth century c.e. (Feng 2012). These two ideological approaches to building were radically transformed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Industrialization, colonization, and the integration of Asia into the world capitalist economy during this period yielded a diverse variety of approaches to building structure and architectural form. As in industrializing Europe, steel-reinforced concrete allowed architects to build cheaply, quickly, and, for the most part, solidly. It allowed for more monumental forms to be built that relied on unskilled labor rather than specialized craftsmen. Steel framing allowed for the creation of large interior spaces, allowing unprecedented numbers of people to congregate under one roof.

In turn, the increasing numbers of both monastics and laity that contemporary Buddhist sites can accommodate has produced new demands on the program, or needs that must be fulfilled, of Buddhist architectural types. Buddhist sites have historically addressed a complex set of crosshatched needs and ambitions. This set of programming needs accounts for the multiple constituencies that engage with religious sites, their different expectations of the site, and their interrelatedness. The multiple programs of contemporary Buddhist sites also reflect diverse ways of thinking about Buddhism. For instance, the monastic program of a wat (monastic complex) intersects with the pedagogic and ritual programs of the same site, but is not identical. These crosshatched programs have historically produced a combination of community center, market fair, and ritual space. Building on these historical tendencies, contemporary Buddhist sites are concerned with reconciling two programs: an older, monumental program that is concerned with the dissemination of liturgical doctrine through symbolism, and a leisure program that is concerned with the needs of its lay community (Anderson 2013; McDaniel 2016). While earlier sites may have been attentive to both of these concerns, contemporary Buddhist architecture has had to contend with reconciling the reflective and pedagogical aspects of the architecture with the needs of contemporary lay communities, modern expectations of leisure time, the development of new modes of sense perception, and the situation of all of these within a neoliberal globalized culture that privileges consumption over contemplation. While some contemporary Buddhist sites play on (p. 440) spectacle and the uses of religion to organize masses of people, others have opened up avenues into a different kind of pedagogy that cultivates critical thinking. These two approaches are not mutually exclusive and are sometimes sustained within the same site.

The Stupa

As with all of the types associated with Buddhism, the stupa draws on Vedic precedents and existed before the historic Buddha. The word stupa has been translated literally as “a tuft of hair” in the form of an egret bun, according to one mantra. The word may have originally designated the points of thatch that feathered back toward the post at the center of the roof (Renou 1998, 151). In fact, the stupa might be understood best as the axis that the post itself marks. It is the volume that develops symmetrically around the axis that rises vertically through its center. All of its other components are developments, embellishments, and adornments of the meanings contained within the axis. The geometry of the stupa form develops outward from the center in the cardinal directions and is determined by referring to the movements of the sun (Snodgrass 1985, 12–13, 24). The various components of the stupa, its railing (vedika), portals at the cardinal points (torana), and the circumambulation path (pradaksina) around the mound (anda) bring the bodies of worshipers in orbit with both the relics interred within the form and the temporal rhythms of the cosmos itself. After Asoka adopted Buddhism, he disinterred the remains of the Buddha from the original ten stupas and redistributed them throughout the empire. The Great Stupa at Sanchi dates back to this period. The form is thought to have been transmitted to Sri Lanka through the missions sent by Asoka in the third century b.c.e. (Mahavamsa 1990, 104). The dome and terrace forms of the stupa that developed in Southeast Asia are considered to have descended from these early forms. The tower forms that developed in East Asia are thought to have been transmitted through Central Asia along the Silk Road. While these latter forms are often referred to as a separate type, the pagoda, the term bears no relation in derivation or meaning to any word in Buddhist vocabularies (Snodgrass 1985, 221 fn). The original dome form of the stupa was a solid mass, but later forms came to accommodate interior spaces, particularly in the twentieth century.

In Thailand, the stupa or cedi of Wat Phra Sri Mahathat (Phraphrom Bhichitr, Bang Khen, 1940) is an excellent example of how modern building technologies and approaches to architectural form have supported propagandistic as well as ritual programming. The Fine Arts Department of the Thai government wanted the monastic complex to reflect the country’s new national identity after the 1932 political change that transformed Thailand into a constitutional monarchy. Initially, they wanted to call the project Wat Prachatiptai, or Democracy Wat. After the government sent a special mission to India to request Buddha relics for the new wat, the government changed the name of the new complex to Wat Phra Sri Mahathat in order to reflect the wat’s status as a repository for Buddha relics. However, this did not detract from its original purpose as a national monument that would bring together monks from the royalist Thammayut and the more populist Mahanikai schools.

Drawing on a Beaux-Arts approach to monumentality, Phraphrom Bhichitr set the stupa on the central axis of the wat’s plan as an anchor that provides the overall composition with a comprehensive order (Figure 23.2). Drawing on the structural possibilities created by steel-reinforced concrete, Phraphrom designed the stupa as a monument that could be entered (p. 441) by commoners. He duplicated the pradaksina ambulatory path on the interior, designing a stupa within a stupa: the Buddha-relic stupa is housed within a larger volume. Drawing on the program of the Panthéon (Jean-Louis Soufflot, Paris, 1790), which served as a mausoleum for national heroes after the French Revolution, Phraphrom designed the walls of the larger volume to house the remains of the military and civilian leaders of the People’s Party that had overthrown the absolute monarchy (and their wives; National Archives of Thailand 1941, 58–62). While the remains of royalty had usually been interred in their own stupa that surrounded the Buddha-relic stupa, placing the bodies of commoners within such close proximity with Buddha relics was a particularly radical gesture.

Contemporary Buddhist ArchitectureFrom Reliquary to Theme Park

Figure 23.2 Map of Wat Phra Dhammakaya (Pathum Thani, 1977) (left); Aerial view of Wat Phra Sri Mahathat (Phraphrom Bhichitr, Bang Khen, 1940) by William J. Hunt.

Source: Courtesy of the National Archives of Thailand and Google Earth.

Although the stupa was intended to enshrine democratic ideals and to open up the sacred precincts of the form to common citizens of the constitutional state, it also enshrined the idea of the nation. Worshipers who enter the stupa today are confronted with a plaque as they kneel before the Buddha reliquary. The plaque bears the appropriate mantra to recite, which ends with a sharing of merit among the nation, the Buddhist religion, and the monarchy.2 The sacralization of the nation and its leaders is consistent with the forms of mass politics that emerged in the mid-twentieth century. The stupa of Wat Phra Sri Mahathat is a form in which the relationship between the human body and the cosmological order is mediated by the state.

This approach to Buddhist architecture was echoed in the late-twentieth-century stupa with Wat Phra Dhammakaya (Patum Thani, 1977) (Figure 23.2). The monastic complex was built for the Dhammakaya movement, a controversial school founded by the monk Phra (p. 442) Dhammachayo (Phrathepyanmahamuni) (see Brooke Schedneck, Chapter 21, “Buddhist International Organizations,” and Rachelle M. Scott, Chapter 10, “Contemporary Thai Buddhism,” both in this volume, for more information on the Dhammakaya). The plan of the monastic complex, considered to be the largest monastic community in Thailand, echoes the axial composition of Wat Phra Sri Mahathat. The multimillion US dollar stupa functions in a similar way as both the repository of Buddha relics and as an axial anchor.3 However, the stupa’s monumental program, as a site of public gathering, is amplified. The stupa is 32.40 meters high and is composed of three sections dedicated in order of ascendance to the sangha, the dhamma, and the Buddha. The upper portions of the exterior are covered with 300,000 golden Buddha images. Inside are another 700,000, each carved with the name of a donor. The orderly, radial composition of the Buddha images on the structure’s exterior are mirrored by seating for monks that descends down the façade of the stupa. During ritual spectacles, the structure serves as the focal point for gatherings of several hundred thousand worshipers. Although the form of the stupa has been likened to a flying saucer, during these mass rituals the stupa operates in a more terrestrial manner, projecting its geometric order throughout the carefully choreographed crowd.

The Stambha

Pillars were erected by medieval rulers on the South Asian subcontinent to memorialize their architectural patronage, donations to temples, or military victories. These pillars were both axis mundi, linking the celestial and geographic worlds, and markers of a “community of discourse,” symbols of religious as well as dynastic realms. They were deployed and re-deployed by successive regimes and incorporated into not only Buddhist sites of worship but Islamic mosques as well (Flood 2009). Their importance to Buddhist architecture emerges in the third century b.c.e., when Asoka ordered fourteen edicts carved on numerous rock faces in public areas throughout his empire. Officials were directed to read these edicts during festivals. These edicts were written primarily in Brahmi, although several have been found that were presented in Greek and Aramaic as well, attesting to the cosmopolitanism of parts of his empire.

Seven additional edicts that broadcast Buddhist virtues and behaviors were carved into pillars. Many of these pillars already existed; others were created by Asoka and carved from tan sandstone, quarried from Chunar near the Asokan capital of Pataliptura. They were erected in locations that were significant to the life and teachings of the historic Buddha. These standards (dhvaja) recorded Asoka’s use of Buddhism to legitimize his rule and unify the realm. Others proclaimed the benefits of proper behavior and the possibility of rebirth in nirvana. These were intended for a lay audience and contrast with the scholarly texts produced in monastic environments (Leidy 2008, 12). The look of these standards owes much to the Achaeminid craftsmen who were patronized by the Mauryan court during this period. However, they were different from Greek orders and their place in the architectural history of Europe and the Mediterreanean littoral. They were not part of a larger building system, but were used in a purely monumental way. They served a pedagogical and propagandistic function, not only in their inscriptions, but in their composition, which, like the Greek columns, were intended to proclaim a cosmological, social, and physical order through a built metaphor.

(p. 443) In the Sanskrit classic Vikramacarita or Simhasanadvatrimsika (Thirty Two Stories of the Throne), a gold pillar supports a gold throne, which rises from the center of a lake on a high mountain summit (Edgerton 1926; Cumberlege 1948). The righteous ruler or cakravartin Vikramaditya (“Sun of Heroism”) sits on the throne and rises with it toward the sun and then descends with it to enter the subterranean world, where a glittering golden sacrificial post or yupa stands on a golden altar. Next to the post is Prabha (“Splendor”), the mother of the world and the beloved of the sun. The stambha is the vehicle that connects the righteous ruler to both the earth and the sun, symbolically tying male and female principles together. When the sun rises, so too does the king, seated on his throne, and pierces the surface of the lake. The cakravartin and his throne rise and set according to the rhythm of the sun (Snodgrass 1985, 26). The general similarity between the human body and Hindu and early Buddhist temples in South Asia is underscored by the temple plan, which is based on the symbolism of a person’s head and body and seven cakras. The inner sanctum of the temple is the garbagṛha or “womb chamber,” and it lies beneath the stambha. Some scholars have noted that within the complex, the stambha symbolically corresponds to the genitalia; as an isolated unit it also corresponds to the sushumna nadi, or the spinal cord channel that runs through the body’s seven cakras (Janaki 1988, 20–21).

The stambha, as both a monument and a metaphor for the human body and its relationship to a larger social, political, and cosmological order, is echoed in contemporary Buddhist architecture in more ornate guises. The Erawan Museum (Lek Wiriyaphant, Phakphian Wiriyaphant, Charun Mathanom, and Suanee Nophasawangwong, Samut Prakan, 1992–2004) draws on these layered metaphors in its design. The central focus of the museum grounds is a 43.6-meter tall building in the form of Erawan, the three-headed elephant that was the mythological mount of the deity Indra (for more information on Erawan, see Jessica Patterson’s Chapter 24, “Contemporary Buddhism and Iconography,” in this volume). Although not an orthodox Buddhist image, the figure of Erawan and those of other Vedic deities have long been a part of the Thai Buddhist repertoire (McDaniel 2011, 154). Made of steel-reinforced concrete, the structure is composed of three parts: the 29-meter high elephant form that houses the level known as chan sawan or “the heavens”; beneath that is a 14.6-meter high rotunda that represents the world; and the ground level beneath that is known as chan bandan or “the netherworld” (Wanchai et al. 2006). Intended as a model of the cosmos, the structure is highly decorated both inside and out with imagery that supports the impure and cosmopolitan genealogies of Buddhist art and architecture.

The eight entrances to the rotunda are adorned with thewada, or celestial beings representing the cardinal and ordinal directions that the entrances face. Other celestial creatures, drawn from the Thai cosmological text Traiphum phra ruang (Three Worlds of Phra Ruang) adorn the interior of the rotunda. A gilded sea serpent (pla anon from the Traiphum) coils around the stairs that circle precariously up to the mezzanine. The symbolism of the serpent, which resides under the world and causes earthquakes when it moves from side to side, reinforces the structural novelty of the site. The roof of the rotunda is a stained glass map of the world that filters in the light from outside (Figure 23.3). The modern projection of the world as a map and the pre-modern conception of the serpent engage one another in the space of the rotunda. Mediating the two is an alcove shrine to the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara on the mezzanine. Climbing to the interior of the elephant’s belly is a barrel-vaulted chapel with a mural of the constellations projected on the ceiling. As with the stained-glass ceiling of the rotunda, the chapel mural produces a disorienting effect. Having ascended several narrow (p. 444) staircases to get to the highest level of the structure, one has the feeling of being suspended in mid-air. Several Buddha images, collected by the museum’s founder, Lek Wiriyaphant, are arranged along the edges of the chapel. The main Buddha image in the apse stands in front of a model of Mount Sumen, the celestial mountain at the center of the three worlds of the Traiphum. Two views of the universe—one driven by scientific methods of observation and projection, the other rooted in the cosmologies of the Traiphum—are mediated here by Buddhist iconography.

Contemporary Buddhist ArchitectureFrom Reliquary to Theme Park

Figure 23.3 Interior of the Erawan Museum (1992–2004).

Source: Courtesy of Lawrence Chua.

The cosmopolitan quality of the stambha is reflected in the supporting pillars of the rotunda. Each are simultaneously dedicated to four religious traditions—Buddhism (primarily Chinese), Daoism, Hinduism, and Christianity—and to the four Buddhist virtues—metta (loving-kindness), karuna (compassion), upekkha (equanimity), and mudita (rejoicing with others’ success). Highly worked metal friezes of Old Testament narratives and the Mahabharata cover the pillars. The mix of different formal approaches within the museum reflects the global provenance of the artisans and the materials that they used: the ceiling murals in the chapel were painted by the German artist Jacob Schwarzkopf; the copper cladding was imported from Japan and worked on by the Thai sculptor Rakchat Srichanjan; the ceramic work is an effort by Samruai Amoot to engage Khmer, Chinese, European, and local designs. Like the stambha produced during the Mauryan period by Achaemenid craftsmen, the Erawan Museum is a transregional structure that has been integrated into local (p. 445) belief systems. An altar is situated just outside the gate to the museum in front of the massive structure. From here, local worshipers can venerate the Erawan monument without paying an entrance fee. The ritual atmosphere is much livelier than inside the chapel in the belly of the elephant, but there is none of the giddy thrill of being fully aligned with the axis mundi.

The Caitya Hall

Caitya refers to a sacred object or location. The Sanskrit compound caityagṛha refers to a building or room that accommodates or occupies a caitya, which is usually contained within a stupa (Efurd 2013, 141). A caitya hall, however, accommodates assemblies and communal rituals and shelters larger-scale stupa. Although these terms have been historically conflated in architectural scholarship since the British colonial period, they are distinct. As a form that is projected outward from the stupa and excavated from rock caves, the caitya hall created architectural space for the veneration, deposition, and housing of relics in early Buddhism (Efurd 2013, 153). Apsidal caitya halls like the one at Bhaje (third to second century b.c.e.) reflect the importance of the ambulatory path around the stupa and suggest that these sites were carved out of living rock in order to engage the bodies of worshipers with the landscape. These two features of the early caitya hall—the stupa and the ambulatory path—suggest two tendencies that would come to define the development of Buddhist monastic architecture. On the one hand, these sites formed around a monumental object of veneration. On the other hand, they also emphasized the syncretic relationship of the built and natural environments.

Although the early caitya hall’s significance as a site of contemplative engagement gave way to monastic complexes and assembly halls with more ritualistic programming, several Buddhist monastic complexes in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have sought to restore some of these earlier relationships between site and landscape. The monastic complex Suan Mokkh in Chaiya, Thailand, founded in 1932 by the monk Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, articulates several new spaces for contemplative engagement that decouple Buddhism from its associations with accepted state and royal rituals and practices and bring it into closer harmony with the early landscapes in which it was practiced. Suan Mokkh rejected the modern tendency toward monumentality in Buddhist architecture while embracing modern techniques of building and representation. Its primary congregational sites (such as the uposatha) were outdoor spaces, with little, if any, figurative symbolism. Buddhadasa’s interest in pre-modern representations of sunnata, or “emptiness,” found fertile ground in the modernist deployment of abstraction. Three structures built during the 1960s and 1970s at Suan Mokkh are not easily identifiable as ecclesiastical typologies, but are important for understanding a new tendency in Buddhist architecture toward creating non-hierarchical sites for the teaching of Buddhist doctrine through aesthetic experience and leisure practices.

The Spiritual Theater, the Big Boat, and the Dhamma Boat are engaged in a critical form of modernity that draws on formal approaches to built and to natural spaces that are derived from Buddhist architecture’s trans-locative past. Rather than displace nature, these three concrete structures sought to create places where “nature’s law and our duty within it” could be further understood (Swearer 1982, 483). The most active of these structures is the Spiritual Theater, or Rong Mohorosop, intended as a lecture hall and theater for the teaching of Buddhist doctrine through visual and audio materials (Figure 23.4). The term rong (p. 446) mohorosop has referred historically to buildings for popular entertainment, like a cinema or a music hall. In naming one of the largest buildings at Suan Mokkh this way, Buddhadasa sought to both popularize and “purify” the teaching of Buddhist doctrine, but also to create a space for the physical experience of Buddhist teachings, and not just through doctrinal pontification. “Anything fun and not boring we call mohorosop,” he said. “Sitting preaching in a pulpit is totally boring both to the people listening and the person preaching. But using art to show and tell is not boring. Therefore, we use nature and pictures to help create an interest in the dhamma” (Suan Mokkh 1982). This relationship between nature and images can be seen in the way that images are deployed inside the hall, where every surface is covered with copies of artwork in a seemingly random and organic manner. The murals are diverse in style and content and have been described by Buddhadasa variously as caricatures, proverbs, heart-to-heart images, and, most frequently, as pritsnatham or “dhamma puzzles.” In contrast to the busy quality of the murals, the hall is dominated by a panel with a recessed empty circle, a symbolic gesture toward the core concept of “emptiness” at the heart of not only Buddhadasa’s approach to Buddhist doctrine but to art and architecture as well.

Contemporary Buddhist ArchitectureFrom Reliquary to Theme Park

Figure 23.4 Spiritual Theater, Suan Mokkh (Chaiya, ca. 1962–1972).

Source: Courtesy of the Buddhadasa Indappano Archives.

The building is composed of a large rectangular mass that sits on a smaller rectangular base. The lower rectangle forms a gallery, while the upper is punctuated by bold geometric protrusions, recessed grid panels, a large mosaic mural, and round decorative bas-relief friezes on the upper band. Protruding from the front of the building is a tiered portico, on top of which sits a lattice, crowned by a dhamma wheel. A large mosaic mural in a pseudo-Egyptian motif, Jaek duang ta tham, or “Distributing the Dhamma Eye,” dominates the southern façade of the building. Designed by the Thai monk Kovit Khemanantha, then a (p. 447) monk at Suan Mokkh, it depicts a large seated figure giving out symbolic eyes to a congregation. According to Kovit, Buddhadasa asked that the mural be made to look “Egyptian,” suggesting that Buddhadasa sought a transregional aesthetic language to communicate ideas about Buddhist doctrine that transgressed its nationalist iterations (Kovit 2007; Olson and Olson 2015, 177). While this mural underscores the importance of the visual in teaching dhammic principles, there is also much more to the architecture of the structure than can be gleaned from a cursory visual examination of the façade.

Although the fundamental geometry of the structure points to an embrace of modern architecture’s universal characteristics (free design of floor plan, free design of façade, flat-roofed cubic volumes, pilotis, concrete), closer examination reveals that the building is also attentive to regional conditions. This is the result of amendments that were made to the original design of the building.4 In the original plan there was no portico or porch, and the main entrance was composed of a cantilevered plane that bisected the building’s eastern façade horizontally. Buddhadasa claimed that this original plan had several problems, including an interior that was too narrow. The original stone cladding turned out to be too expensive, so this was changed to historic bas-relief Buddha images that were less expensive (Phrapracha, 1985, 250). Most important, Buddhadasa added two other entrances to the building. Today, the original entrance is seldom used as such, although the interior lip of the entrance ramp is used as a teaching stage by monks. This modification democratized the viewing space of the Rong Mohorosop by allowing for multiple viewing perspectives and approaches. There is no single viewpoint from which to look at the murals, and there is no single image that is privileged in the hall.

Adjacent to the Spiritual Theater is a cistern in the form of a boat that catches rainwater from the roof of the theater. The Thamwaraniwa, or Dhamma Boat, appears out of the lush tropical landscape as a puzzle. Why is there a boat so far from the coast? The symbolism of the structure draws on the recurring image of the boat in illustrated Thai Buddhist manuscripts as a metaphor for the human body. It brings together several historical references from at least three different Buddhist traditions into an infrastructural building. The building quotes the Mahastupa at Sanchi, the rock gardens at Ryoan-ji, and the uposotha hall at Wat Yannawa, in the form of a Chinese junk. This eclectic approach to form underscores the ways that Suan Mokkh emphasizes the tendency to integrate the built and natural environments in both a practical and pedagogical way. The cistern, which provides water for the monastic complex, also plays a role in teaching dhamma as a set of engaging puzzles that are themselves spaces of contemplation.

A more streamlined approach to this method of instruction can be seen in the Buddhadassa Indapanno Archives, or Suan Mokkh Bangkok (Arsom Silp, landscape architects: XSiTE, Bangkok, 2009–2010). The rectangular masses of the concrete complex—described as a “spiritual fitness” center—appear to rise out of a pond on pilotis. These distinctly modern forms are carefully integrated into the landscape without appearing obtrusive, obvious, or false. While the symbolism of the lotus rising out of the water is exploited frequently in Buddhist architecture, rarely does it achieve this level of accomplishment.

A contemporary architect who draws on the symbolism of the lotus in a similarly non-symbolic way is the Japanese architect Tadao Ando. His Water Temple (Hyogo, 1990–1991) is the headquarters of the Ninnanji Shingon. Located on a hill on an island in the Sea of Japan with views of Osaka Bay, the temple is actually the main liturgical hall, or viharn, of the Ninnanji Shingon and is a typological descendant of the caitya hall. Rather than use the (p. 448) massive roof that is usually associated with this kind of temple, or a direct representation of the lotus as a building rising from the pond, the architect created a 40 x 30 meter pond that must be crossed in order to reach the space. As with the location of the stupa in early caitya halls, Ando emphasized the circulation path that brought visitors into visual contact with the Bay of Osaka down the hill and then submerged them into the pond. Stairs provide access to the square hall of the Mizumido. Compositionally, the Water Temple is a square room contained within another circular one. Four meter-high pillars are distributed to the Japanese measurement of one ken (1.8 meters) and support the roof of the temple pool. Two walls enclose part of the building perimeter, creating a corridor for visitors to pass through. Having traversed the corridor, visitors can see the pool, the horizon of the bay, and the wide sea beyond it. The shadowy, reddish interior of the sanctuary contrasts with the brightness of the exterior.

Ando draws on a number of modernist historical references, particularly Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut cathedral (Ronchamps, 1954) but the effect of the building underscores the tendency in Buddhist architecture to produce exceptional ways of looking at the world. “When architectural ideas are based solely on logic, what follows is order, controlled buildings which ignore the human presence,” Ando said. “A sense of humanity can’t be felt in such spaces. The presence of nature—water, wind, light, open sky—is what humanizes space. That’s the reason I try to design projects in which water, wind and light exist in harmony with the stones” (Zabalbeascoa and Marcos 1998, 58–59). At the Water Temple, Ando avoided the monumental qualities of most religious architecture by constructing a landscape through the design of a building. The result is a form of architecture that mediates the dialogue between the human body and its surroundings.

A similar but more didactic approach can be seen in Taiwan at Kris Yao’s Water-Moon Monastery, or new Nang Chun Monastery (Beitou, Taiwan, 2012). The monastery was founded in 1975 by the Ch’an monk Venerable Dongchu, who conceived of it as a place where meditation practice was integrated with farming. Located on a plain, facing the Keelung River and nestled against Mount Datun, the monastery grew until it required new buildings to accommodate its activities. When asked by the architect what he imagined the new monastery to look like, Dongchu’s successor, Venerable Shang Yen enigmatically responded “Kong zhong hua, shui zhong yue [It’s a flower in space, a moon in water]” (Wu 2014). The abbot’s response refers to the concept of sunnata by pointing to the fact that the image of the moon reflected in the water is not the real moon, but an image formed by the mind. Like Ando and Arsom Silp, Yao deployed familiar modernist geometries on the site while keeping some of the monastery’s original buildings intact. The entrance to the site is marked by two walls of different lengths. Circling around these walls, one approaches the main courtyard, with an 80-meter long lotus pond as its main focus. A covered corridor and circulation route flank the pond. The circulation axis is purposely elongated to produce a slower ambulatory rhythm.

The Grand Hall sits by the pond and is linked via double-height corridors to the meditation hall, dining hall, and monk’s quarters. The oversized colonnades of the Grand Hall support a concrete envelope that seems to wrap around a hovering wooden “box.” On the west side of the Grand Hall, the large wooden wall is carved with the characters of the Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra, or Heart Sutra. Outside the long corridor, the characters of the Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra, or Diamond Sutra, are cast in the prefabricated GRC panels. By deploying the best-known sutras in the Mahayana tradition on the walls (p. 449) of the Grand Hall, Yao creates a literal approach that serves a propagandistic function. However, the panels also function as brise-soleil, or sunshades, and have come to serve as a mnemonic device for the monks and nuns who practice walking meditation in its shadows.


Contemporary Buddhist architecture serves multiple programs: leisure, ritual, and pedagogical. While on the one hand, sites like the stupa at Wat Phra Dhammakaya draw on Buddhist architecture’s history of ritual space and engage with contemporary techniques of spectacle as a way organizing masses of people, sites like Ando’s Water Temple draw on Buddhist approaches to contemplative learning to emphasize the syncretic relationship of the built and natural environments. At their most accomplished, contemporary Buddhist sites make use of architectural techniques to interact with the human sensorium and produce new ways of understanding the place of man in a larger universal and historical continuum. The physically decentering effects of the ascending levels of the Erawan Museum, for instance, are an embellishment on pre-modern building rituals that seek to situate the human body in relationship to the axis mundi. Designed by professional architects who are not necessarily Buddhist and sometimes positioned outside the historically sacred precincts of the temple or monastic complex, contemporary Buddhist architecture resists conventional art historical categorization as a formal style. However, in drawing on Buddhist teachings, no matter how obliquely or literally, it gives practicing architects and historians a platform from which to understand the ways that architecture interacts with a world in transformation. The diverse approaches to Buddhist architecture also offer religionists a way to think of Buddhism as not simply a collection of liturgical doctrines and their formal representations, but a complex set of practices and an ever-changing global religion.


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                                                                              (1.) The Pali term gahakaraka has been alternately translated as “house builder,” “house maker,” and “maker of a tabernacle.” Gray has translated it as “architect” (Kazi Ashraf 2013, 177).

                                                                              (2.) Like most such mantras, this one begins in Pali but then switches to central Thai. It ends with:

                                                                              กรรมใดๆที่ล่วงเกินต่อพระพุทธ พระธรรม พระอริยสงฆ์ และสรรพสัตว์ทั้งหลายในอดีตชาติก็ตาม ปัจจุบันชาติก็ตาม กราบขออโหสิกรรมทั้งหมดทั้งสิ้น

                                                                              ขออุทิศกุศลผลบุญให้แด่ท่านผู้มีพระคุณ ญาติพี่น้อง เจ้ากรรมนายเวร ตลอดจนท่านที่ขวนขวายในกิจที่ชอบ ในการดำรงรักษาไว้ซึ่งประเทศชาติ พระพุทธศาสนา และองค์พระมหากษัตรีย์

                                                                              ทั้งที่เป็นมนุษย์และอมนุษย์ ขอให้ท่านทั้งหลายดังกล่าวนามมานั้น จงมีแต่ความสุขๆ ทั่วหน้ากันทุกท่านเทอญ

                                                                              Kam dai dai thi suang koen kho phra phut phra tham phra ariyasong lae sap sat tang lai nai adid chat ko tam pajuban chat ko tam

                                                                              Krap kho ahosikam tang mot tang sin

                                                                              Kho utit kuson phon bun hai khae than phu mi phra khun yat phi nong jao kam nai wen talot jon than thi khuan khuai nai kit thi chop nai kan damrong raksa wai seung prathet chat phra phutasasana lae ong phra mahakasatri

                                                                              Tang thi pen manut lae amanut kho hai than tang lai dang klao nam ma nan jong me tae khwam sukh sukh thua na kan thuk than thoen

                                                                              “Any bad karma that I have committed against the Buddha, the Dharma, the sangha, and all beings, whether it be in my previous lives or in my present life, I respectfully ask for your complete forgiveness.

                                                                              I would like to bestow the merits from my good deeds upon those who have helped and protected me: to my relatives, to those I have wronged in the past, and to people who have diligently done good works to uphold and safeguard the nation, Buddhism, and the monarchy.

                                                                              To all human and non-human beings, may each of you whom I have named (here), be happy and prosper.”

                                                                              (3.) Figures for the cost of the cedi differ widely. This figure is from an Op-Ed piece by a former Dhammakaya monk, Mettanando Bhikkhu (September 27, 2006). The monk Phra Phrahomkhunphon (P. A. Payutto) reported the cost as 40 billion to 70 billion baht (2008, 401).

                                                                              (4.) Although there is no architect of record, Colonel Sali Palakun of the Military Communications Department was instrumental in not only publicizing and raising funds for the construction of the building, but also helped find a craftsman to help with the design of the space.