Buddha’s birthday – Vesakha Puja – is being observed by most Theravada Buddhists this month, commemorating the birth, enlightenment and death (the passing into Nirvana) of Buddha.
In Thailand, Buddha images, large, small, or ruined, are sacred objects: for me some of the most beautiful images are those which are the most ‘damaged’: and I see that in people too. Just as the beautiful lotus grows from muddy waters, so too can we.
During various travels in Thailand I wanted to know more about Buddhism, meditation and dharma, and have twice spent ten days in a silent retreat at Wat Suan Mokkhabalarama – started by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (1906-1993) one of Thailand’s most revered monks. His back-to-basics philosophy still draws Thais from all over the country to study Theravada Buddhism and Vipasana (insight) meditation at this temple. My teachers and kalyana-mita (a good friend to novice’s, a teacher or mentor) were the Venerable Ajahn Poh; Tan See Telapalo and nun, Maechee Pairor. Suan Mokkh, a forest Wat, has no Buddha images at their International Dharma Centre.
In Thailand, the reverence of ancient and broken Buddha images is extended to the making of Buddha images: on another trip I wanted to find where and who makes those images. Despite asking Monks, tourist guides, local hotel staff, and even the staff at the New Zealand Embassy, no-one could tell me where to find such a place or person.
As with all spiritual and life journeys the path to find such an artisan was not smooth. I followed many leads and explored many dead ends, finally – when I had given up all hope of discovering the artists – a Swiss tourist told me that six months earlier his cyclist sister had found such a place. The next day, after a journey of some hours on a motorbike, train, and then cycle-rickshaw, I found Sgt. Major Thawee and his Buranathai Buddha Image Foundry in Pitsanulok. He doesn’t speak English – my Thai is minimal.
Staying at a hostel one block away I spent a week watching the process (lost wax) from early morning until they stopped at dusk. After two days it felt the workers realised I was serious and respectful about watching and recording their work and they greeted me daily without laughing at me photographing things that seemed so normal to them. We chatted to each other despite each of us having very little idea what the other was talking about.
On December 24, 2006 at 7:43am – an “auspicious date and time” I was told – the bronze was poured for a Buddha which is for a temple in the forest near Chiang-kham, Phayao Province some 330-ks north of Pitsanulok. Phra Pairoj, the head monk from that temple and many of the locals who had contributed financially to the creating of this Buddha were there for the culmination of the work, and the blessings during the pouring of the bronze – finishing with a shared meal. As with many events I’ve attended in Thailand, I was the only ‘farang’ (foreigner) there.