From the outside, Wat Bowonniwet did not arouse my curiosity, though I knew that it was one of the most important temples of the Chakri Dynasty. The main building of this temple houses Phra Phuthachinasee, which for several hundred years sat beside Phra Phutta Chinaraj - arguably Thailand's most beautiful Buddha statue - in Phitsanulok before it was shipped to Bangkok during the Ratanakosin period. King Bhumibol stayed at this temple after his ordination at Wat Phrakaew. At Wat Borwonniwet, the King searched for the history of, and drew spiritual inspiration from, his great grandfather, King Mongkut, who was an abbot at this temple and became the "Philosopher King".
It wasn't until two months ago that I ventured into Wat Bowonniwet for the first time in my life. Around my neck I was wearing a silver coin, inscribed with "Royal Monkhood BE 2499". The front of this sacred coin showed His Majesty the King during his monkhood. The back of the coin showed the Golden Pagoda, which symbolically houses relics of the Lord Buddha.
What I particularly liked about the Royal Monkhood coin was that it showed our King in a monk's robe. The combination of kingship and monkhood in the tradition of the Lord Budda was almost surreal.
In Thailand, the King holds the highest status. We pay respect to him with reverence. But if we enter the monkhood, the King will pay respect to us. In this respect, the hierarchy in Thai society comes full circle in almost perfect symmetry.
Imagine the status of the King as residing in a triangle. The King can have the highest status at the apex, can have flat status at one angle and finally can have low status at the bottom angle. In Buddhism, this is called "trairat". When this triangle is turned around, the King's status is flexible - on top (when he attends official ceremonies and signs royal endorsements), on the flat ground (in his normal life) and on the bottom (when he visits his people in the rural areas).
In the triangle, every angle can be at the top, depending on how you turn it. It does not matter.
Your life can also be viewed as this triangular trairat model. When you were born, you were at one angle of the triangle. At 50 years old (my age), you have moved to the next angle. Now you try to maintain a balance in your life until you reach 70 years old, at the top angle. Once you reach 70 and remain at the top angle, you are returning to the original angle of your birth. Your life comes full circle - birth, ageing, sickness and death - in an eternal recurrence until you finally arrive at a realisation of your consciousness and attain nirvana. Then and only then can you transcend this triangle or break away from the cycle of life.
After praying to the Buddha statue in the main chapel of Wat Bowonniwet, I walked outside and came to temporary shop beside the chapel. There was a big poster advertising the Royal Monkhood coin, the silver one similar to the one that I was wearing. I was stunned, for in the poster I saw the King - who is the "Power of the Land", as his "Bhumibol" name literally implies - in a sitting posture floating from Heaven to Earth as a Buddha-to-be.
I took a hard look at the coin around my neck. Then I turned to its reverse side to look at the Golden Pagoda. I quickly walked to the back of the main chapel. There stood the Golden Pagoda, which represented Suvarnabhumi.
I found a little secret of Wat Bowonniwet by design.
This at once reminded me of Phra Ruang Thongkham, or the "Golden Phra Ruang" at Wat Mahannop, which is built mostly in the Sukhothai style. Wat Mahannop is, in a straight line, about two kilometres away from Wat Bowonniwet. All of a sudden, the statue of Phra Ruang Thonkham resurfaced in my mind to tell me a story of the past, the present and the future.
Since the statue was made of gold, its past pointed to the richness of the Golden Land of Suvarnabhumi and the social harmony of a utopia-like state. The statue told me about the state of the present, which is characterised by ignorance. Most people do not recognise the gold inside Phra Ruang Thongkham, hence the decline of Buddhism, the widespread incidence of greed and evil, and the lack of social harmony in Thai society.
The statue finally provided me with a vision of the future, when the Thai people become enlightened, will see the gold inside Phra Ruang Thongkham and will embrace the golden age of Suvarnabhumi again.
Suvarnabhumi: the Golden Land, with fish in the rivers and rice in the fields. That remote notion of utopia then seemed to be not too far away.