Discover a convenient escape hidden away from the chaos of the rest of Bangkokby Chris Mayya
Who was not captivated by “The Secret Garden,” an English children’s literature classic. In that novel, Frances Hodson Burnett portrays the transformational effect in the life of the protagonist–a 10-year-old girl–and those around her, brought about by her visits to a hidden garden. Similarly, Suan Mokkh Bangkok is a secret garden, which most visitors to the city never discover despite its easy accessibility.
The Garden of Liberation, as Suan Mokkh is literally translated, is located in the northern part of Bangkok, nestled close to offices, shopping malls, and public transportation. It is a mere building, but nevertheless, it has the atmosphere of a garden, thanks to the three adjoining parks, including the Railway Park (Suan Rot Fai), which seamlessly connects to Suan Mokkh through a man-made lake.
Established five years ago, Suan Mokkh Bangkok is connected with the better-known Suan Mokkh Hermitage in the Chaiya district in Southern Thailand, founded by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, a monk who settled there in 1932. He drew a great deal of attention, both through his revolutionary work and his broadminded spiritual inclination. The Buddhadasa Indappano Archives (BIA), a private foundation responsible for Suan Mokkh Bangkok, seeks to preserve his legacy.
Originally set up as an archival center for Buddhadasa’s works, it has grown into a hub for Dhamma (Teachings of Buddha) activities for Thais and foreigners alike. Here’s a list of what to see and do during your visit to Suan Mokkh:
First thing to do is to sit down for a moment by the open gallery facing the lake on the ground floor and soak in the park’s ambience. The Suan Mokkh experience is subtle compared with trips to temples such as Wat Arun or Wat Phra Kaew. You almost need a Zen-like mind to be able to appreciate it.
What does Zen have to do with Thai Buddhism? Besides the architectural style of the building itself, the Zen Ox Herding Pictures just outside the main building area are adaptations of Zen themes. These figurines on terracotta plaques narrate an allegoric parable of a common man’s spiritual journey.
Another set of terracotta plaques with Buddha’s life story is exhibited in an open area inside the building. A noticeable trait among this set of plaques is their ingenuity in conveying the life, deeds, and teaching of Buddha without depicting the life-image of Buddha. Such a radical approach but that was a distinguishing trait of the founder and it forms the basis for “dhamma edutainment,” teaching spirituality through enjoyable art forms.
On the second floor is the Patticcasamuppada Garden. If by now you haven’t run into one of the portraits of a fanged demon-like creature that are spread all over Suan Mokkh, then be prepared to encounter it here. This painting was commissioned by Buddhadasa to convey Buddha’s teaching on “dependent origination.” In fact this is one picture that says more than a thousand words! A mini-garden is also on this floor with 12 stones and eight trees, which are a symbolic tribute to these teachings. (For the serious seeker, the whole place is laden with pictograms and symbolism of esoteric Buddhism).
You are now ready for the ultimate experience of this “Liberation Park.” The “Taste of Nibbana” exhibition room has an air-conditioned section. With the help of audio-visuals, it treats you to the ambience of cooling and calmness. The aesthetics of the interiors, the tranquil multimedia effect, and the sight of people meditating, resting, doing walking meditation, or merely gazing out at the vast expanse of the lake and parks— can beat any Hollywood movie’s attempts at depicting serene heavenly realms. Pick up a brochure and contemplate the mindfulness practice or take a few moments to reflect over the various messages inscribed on the walls here. The founder’s promise is worth reflecting upon, “Nibbana is not far away. It is in life’s every moment.”
The large meditation hall next door is where Dhamma activities take place regularly. With its open-minded and all-embracing approach, Suan Mokhh BIA, is the desired location for many groups of different Buddhist traditions and yoga practitioners. This room with large open windows overlooking the lake bustles with talks, meditations, and activities during the weekends.
The top floor is mostly for offices and archiving of the founder’s works. Since the main building was originally an archival center, this area has Buddhadasa’s manuscripts and recorded talks, being preserved with utmost diligence. A small reading room in the corner displays some of Buddhadasa’s books and the reference materials used by him.
The Bookstore, at the bottom floor, has a section of Buddhadasa’s books in several foreign languages. Since the whole Suan Mokkh experience is free of charge, it may be worth taking home a book to learn more about, and from, the man whose words and spirit have propelled a revolutionary movement in Thai Buddhism.
At a time when temples in Bangkok are becoming more and more commercial with mere outward displays of art, culture, and rituals, Suan Mokkh BIA stands apart as an authentic brand of spirituality. Undoubtedly a visit here can be an escape from the chaos of modern city’s demands, if not from the Bangkok’s stifling summer heat, into the calm and cool environs of nature. Well beyond these intentions, you may also discover a renewed enthusiasm to explore further on what the founder refers to as “the heart of Buddhism.”
The BIA website in English (www.bia.or.th) provides only basic information at this stage. There is a map that is partly in English. For updates, visit www.facebook.com/suanmokkhbangkok
How to get there:
An ideal means to get to this tranquil little oasis is to take a relaxing stroll across the parks. The shade of the trees and lakes around makes the heat bearable even during summer. It is not uncommon at times to see the long water monitor lizards. The BTS Morchit station or the Chatuchak MRT station gets you to Chatuchak Park where you can begin the journey on foot. Cut across the dividing road between the parks to go over to Rot Fai Park. Here you will see several joggers and bikers. From there you can see the tall PTT building and the Ministry of Energy buildings which are right behind BIA.
If you prefer a more expedient and comfortable option, then you can hop onto a taxi or a motorbike on Vibhavadhi Rangsit Road outside Morchit BTS station. The Phahonyothin MRT is also within walking distance provided you have the right directions.