Of all the sacred spaces I have encountered around the world, Wat Phutthaisawan in Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Siam, is a particularly special one for me. It has a matchless atmosphere of tranquillity and peace. Visit it if you can.
When we were there in Thailand, we use to drive up from Bangkok, perhaps an hour’s journey, and park at the entrance to the ancient city ruins strung out along the river. Here it is possible to get past the street traders and their stalls and enter one of the largest, most garish – and therefore most popular with tourists – temples in Ayutthaya. Here, however, you can learn the history of the city and of its 350 or so temples, all in different states of modernity, restoration or ruin. Here, too, it’s best to leave the crowds, ignore the big tourist sightseeing boats and hire a motorised canoe, with pilot. Pile in, and off you go.
Along the great loop of the river the canoe drives noisily along through the humid afternoon, but the breeze from the speeding of the boat is refreshing. Time to get out the camera. The idea is to continue in this way until you spot a temple you all like the look of, and signal the pilot to hove to. And then a scramble over the side of the boat and up the bank to the green heat of the temple compound.
At Wat Phutthaisawan, the range of buildings straight ahead is clearly modern and houses the monks of today. The older buildings, dating back to the fourteenth century CE, are over to the left. Entering them, we come first to the dark ubusot, or ordination hall, with a single very large statue of the Buddha. When we were there last the hall was dusty and unused, but this seems to reinforce the profound silence in this old abbey.
Beyond the hall there is a cloister, shaded by a pillared wooden canopy all the way round the four sides of the court. Underneath this, and along the walls, in the gloom of the cool air, are rows and rows of gilded Buddha images, their eternally smiling faces still but somehow also, intruigingly full of life.
Stay there and rest for a moment and their paradoxes multiply. Unmoving, they seem to beckon us forward. Silent, they speak to us. They are serene; they invite us to join with them and be so too. It’s almost as if they know what we do not.
In the words of Lao Tsu,
Empty yourself of everything.
Let the mind become still.
The ten thousand things rise and fall while the Self watches their return.
They grow and flourish and then return to the source.
Returning to the source is stillness, which is nature.
From the Tao Te Ching, ch 16; trans. Gia-Fu and English. Vintage Books 1989
Be sure to carry the stillness with you as you all return to the water’s edge and get back in the boat. Its engine roars into life and pulling away, the boat dances out across the water. Gradually the temple buildings disappear as the boat rounds the bend, but look, there are other interesting ruins to see; but still, still…