Theravada goes to China

A magnificent Buddhist house of worship opens in Luoyang, Henan province, after 20 years in the making

When the first Thai temple of the Theravada doctrine opened in China, the story emerged of the unique way it was conceived and built and, more significantly, who was behind it.

Buddhist monks and disciples line the entrance to the main ubosoth , or ordination hall, at Wat Hame Assavaram, the first Thai temple of the Theravada doctrine to open in China. It occupies a space inside the Baima Si Temple, also known as the White Horse Temple, in central Henan province. PHOTOS BY NAUVARAT SUKSAMRAN

First, Wat Hame Assavaram is a temple within a temple. It occupies a space inside the Baima Si Temple, which in English has the catchy name White Horse Temple.

Wat Hame Assavaram also adheres to the conservative Theravada sect of Buddhism while Bai Si Temple _ the first Buddhist temple in China _ observes the new-school Mahayana tradition.

The two temples in Luoyang, the country's long-time capital city in Henan province, recently welcomed the man who made Wat Hame Assavaram possible and after whom the temple was named.

Thai criminal fugitive Vatana Asavahame presided over the burying of the luk nimit sacred stone orb in the temple's grounds on July 20. Where the orb is dropped designates the perimeter of the main chapel.

It was the first time Vatana has appeared in the media spotlight in four years since fleeing a 10-year jail term imposed on him by the Supreme Court in the Klong Dan water treatment facility case in Samut Prakan in 2008.

He said despite his circumstances, he has found solace in making merit.

Vatana's connection with the Baima Si Temple goes back more than 20 years to when he was deputy interior minister.

Vatana Asavahame guides Phra Promsitthi, second right, assistant abbot of Wat Srakesa in Bangkok, and Baima Si Temple’s present abbot, the venerable Yen Ler, left, to the newly built chapel.

During a visit to China at the time, he felt there should be a Thai temple in the country. He discovered a suitable location at the Baima Si Temple, which he grew attached to since his Chinese ancestral surname and Asavahame mean horse.

He knew then that he was going to build an architecturally authentic Thai temple at the Baima Si Temple site. However, the early structure erected for worship showed no physical semblance of a functional temple.

Distance hindered progress of the temple plan, which at times had to be put on hold as Vatana was too busy with work to fly to China to follow up on the construction.

It wasn't until two years ago while he was in exile that he started to think seriously about resuming the project and getting it finished.

He raised 200 million baht, most of which is believed to have come from his own pocket, to finance the construction.

The fruit of his labour is a meticulously-built principal chapel or ubosoth steeped in bona fide Thai architecture, standing imposingly on a seven-rai compound inside the Baima Si Temple.

The temple is equipped with a belfry, a Buddhist scripture pavilion and living quarters for the monks.

Vatana recalled one of his early visits to the Baima Si Temple and saw the Hame Assavaram project in disarray.

His first thought was the old chapel housing the principal Buddha image _ a replica of Phra Buddha Chinnarat, the most revered Buddha statue in Phitsanulok _ had to be rebuilt to make it look more Thai in appearance.

``Also to me, the Phra Buddha Chinnarat image had a rather grim face. The chapel itself was more Chinese than Thai to people's eyes,'' Vatana said.

A Buddha image, a replica of Phra Buddha Chinnarat, the most revered Buddha statue in Phitsanulok, is enshrined in the chapel.

He harboured a strong wish to commission a new chapel which would look and feel every bit a Thai temple.

He immediately consulted the Baima Si Temple executive committee and Luoyang city's ecclesiastical organisation on how to turn his vision into reality.

``I told myself I will construct this temple with my heart,'' he said.

The blueprint of the chapel was spread out for the Chinese authorities to see and give feedback about. Some of them suggested it should replicate the exterior of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok or a Thai palace.

``We rolled out all of the temple's construction plans for their inspection. The plans had been approved by the Thai Fine Arts Department and the National Office of Buddhism,'' he said.

But he insisted the facade of the chapel must be stylised to reflect Thai-ness.

The whole process of the temple's construction was supervised by Pra Thep Sitthikosol, abbot of Wat Plabprachai, who had been through many monastic construction tasks in the past.

``I went to China three times a month to monitor the project,'' the monk said.

``Over the two-year construction period, I was in close consultation with Vatana and heard his opinions,'' he added.

The work proceeded well with consistent cooperation from the Baima Si Temple's present abbot, the venerable Yen Ler.

``We had invited abbot Yen Ler to several international Buddhist conferences in Thailand. We also brought him to meet with Somdej Kiew,'' Phra Thep Sitthikosol said, referring to Somdej Phra Puthajarn, the widely respected abbot of Wat Srakesa in Bangkok.

To ensure the new chapel displayed the true integrity of Thai art, a team of architects, engineers and artisans regularly went to China to carry out the project.

However, extreme weather hampered the construction progress. The temperature at the temple site would drop to minus 40C in winter and soar to almost 40C in summer.

Meanwhile, all of the temple's components, such as roof tiles, wooden panels and frames, had to be imported from Thailand and delivered by ship or airplane.

Once the chapel was finished, the next task was to figure out how to keep and maintain the temple.

Phra Thep Sitthikosol said Wat Hame Assavaram plans to set up 10 funds, worth one million baht each, in order to pay for the temple's routine expenses, absorb the costs of maintenance and organise religious ceremonies.

``The paintings of the Lord Buddha's life drawn by Thai artists will be displayed here to propagate a religious cause and strengthen bilateral ties with China,'' Phra Thep Sitthikosol said.

At the July 20 orb burying ceremony, more than 100 senior monks from all parts of Thailand attended the religious event. Somdej Kiew appeared on a video link at the event.

He said Vatana's deed in building the temple in China would be a blessing to his life.

Vatana speaks to a monk prior to the orb-burying ceremony.

Thai dignitaries clad in white attend a ceremony to bury a sacred luk nimit stone orb at Wat Hame Assavaram on July 20.

About the author

Writer: Nauvarat Suksamran
Position: Reporter