Monday, April 27, 2009

Wat Rong Khun - A Man's Devotion and Obsession

Two years ago during our tour of the Chiang Rai area, we visited a place called Wat Rong Khun outside of Chiang Rai. In addition to enjoying the physical beauty of the Wat which is under construction, we also got to meet and speak with the the creator, Khun Chalermchai Khositpipat.

Khun Chalermchai Khositpipat is a famous Thai artist. I am not well versed in art or art history, but his painting style reminds me a great deal of Salvador Dali. However, Khun Chalermchai deals almost exclusively with Buddhist themed works. I use the term "almost exclusively" because I know that he has done at least one painting of the King of Thailand.

Khun Khositpipat style, in my opinion, utilizes very bright colors, intricate composition, and sharp details. There is a certain degree of surrealism in his work but not to the extent of Dali.

Chalermchai was born in the village of Rong Khun in 1955. He attended college in Thailand and graduated with a degree in Thai painting. In 1977 he won the National Arts Contest. From 1980 to 1996 he traveled the world painting and exhibiting his works. In 1997, he ceased painting for patrons or art markets and returned to his home village of Rong Khun.

He returned to his village to commence his mission to contribute to his country, his religion, and the people of the world. His contribution was to be a Buddhist work of art that would be considered as one of the world's greatest works of art. The greatness of the work would reflect upon the greatness of Thailand. These are pretty much his own words. Like many artists, either great or marginal, he is somewhat eccentric which is part of his charm.

His inspirations for the building of the Wat complex were nationalism, religion, and royalty. The artist is very proud of his nation and views his art as a contribution to the Thai heritage. Buddhist religion is a passion for Khun Chalermchai. His current lifestyle and attitudes are much opposed to those of his earlier years. Like many reformed people, be they recovering alcoholics, born again Christians, or other types of "saved" individuals, he has a desire or perhaps a need to bear witness to his redemption. Creating this work of art is undoubtedly a great testament to his redemption and salvation.

In 1998 he started construction of Wat Rong Khun. He no longer sells his works and has used his personal fortune to finance the creation of his offering to Buddha and the Thai nation. He is often seen at the construction site motivating and inspiring the workers. The day that we visited the Wat we inadvertently became involved with him.

We saw a man dressed in blue farmer's jacket and a dark pith helmet walking around very animatedly with a couple of Europeans. After awhile they came to where we were standing. Being curious, I listened in and determined that he was the artist behind the place and was being interviewed by a German magazine. They were interviewing him in English and had asked him a question that he did not understand and they could not rephrase so that he could better understand. I interjected and gave him some English words and phrases to better understand "passion, passionate". He ended up graciously posing for some photos by us.

I listened to his interview and was fascinated by his vision and goal. He indicated that he was tired of living. He did not mean that he wanted to die now but that he was tired of the Buddhist concept of reincarnation where by he was continually being born, dying, and being reborn until he reaches the point of enlightenment when it will stop. As part of he progress towards achieving enlightenment, he was earning merit in this life by building this exquisite Buddhist Temple.

Typical of Thai Buddhist temples, the concept motivating the design and construction of Wat Rong Khun is to depict Heaven on Earth. What is striking about Wat Rong Khun is its brilliant white color and reflective surfaces. The white color symbolizes the purity of Buddha while the reflective glass mirrors represent Buddha's wisdom spreading truths and shining all around the world as well as the six types of rays that emanate from Buddha's body.

To enter the Ubosot, consecrated assembly hall, you must cross a bridge. This is also symbolic. The bridge symbolizes the crossing of a circle of life upward to heaven, then upward to world of Rupa Brahma, and further upwards to two more higher levels until finally entering the hall - Nirvana.

There are large monster statues that represent the 16 types of passion (passion is not a good thing in Buddhism).

There will be 9 buildings each with their own distinctive architectural style when the complex is completed. Although each building will be different they will all have Buddhist meanings. Included in his grand plan is to build the most beautiful toilet in the world. Khun Khositpipat estimates that it will take 90 years to complete the project. Although he will be gone before the project's completion, he is leaving plans and instructions to ensure it is finished according to his vision. Part of his involvement in supervising the daily construction is to train local artisians, architects, and designers. These people and the ones who follow them will continue his work to completion.
Our visit to Wat Rong Khun was very interesting as well as entertaining. It is always good to have the opportunity to meet and speak with people with such interesting personalities.

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