Wat Srinagarindravararam Buddhist temple
|Type of Building:||Wat, Buddhist monastery with temple (ubosoth)|
|Area:||570 m2 (land 3401 m2)|
|Building height:||25.7 m tower (mondop)|
|Cost:||Approximately CHF 5 million|
|Objections:||Requirements from the building commission regarding parking spaces|
|Owners:||Somdetyas Foundation for Wat Srinagararindravararam|
|Architect:||Günter Hildebrand (1st and 2nd stage of construction) Marcel Meier (3rd stage of construction)|
|Laying of the first stone:||1993 (start of construction: 1995)|
|Construction period:||Approximately 2 years|
|Inauguration:||28th June 2003|
|Religious tradition:||Theravada Buddhism|
|Conception through to inauguration:||approximately 14 years|
Gretzenbach, Staldenacker. As the bus from Schönenwerd continues on to the village centre, we walk down to the lower village, Wissbächli, passing the restaurant Frohsinn on the left. After about 50 m we come across a small commercial zone «Im Grund», the centre for the 2500 inhabitants of this village between Olten and Aarau. Our eyes are not drawn to the commercial buildings, however, but to a richly decorated building complex with the silhouette of a towering multi-layered roof. The four layers of the steep gabled roofs are decorated with golden flame-like spikes, and the ornate roof culminates in the centre with a towering gilded spire. In contrast to this rural idyll, a long gravelled parking lot stands in front of the tree-lined meadow. In the distance – what a contrast! – a huge, plain concrete tower rises up behind the building: the cooling tower of the Gösgen nuclear plant, flanked by power lines and dispatching plumes of vapour into the sky. At the entrance to the building, unfamiliar Thai letters are written in gold upon glass, with a translation below into Roman script – «Wat Srinagarindravararam Buddhist centre».
The Vereinigung Wat Thai (Thai Wat Association) was established on 18th November 1984, with the primary aim of inviting Thai priests to Switzerland. In the spring of 1988 Phra Phuttiwongsamuni visited with Dr. Phramaha Thongsoon Rongthong Suriyajoto (now abbot of the monastery under the name Dr. Phrathep Kittimoli) in order to examine whether it would be desirable for Thai monks to visit for prolonged periods, and whether to establish a centre for Thai Buddhism. Abbot Phrathep Kittimoli is adamant, however, that «this does not mean that it was our own wish to come to Switzerland, rather that we were invited by the Thai Wat Association». And so a pilot project began in Bassersdorf, a small town northeast of Zurich. A house was rented for two monks, but this soon became too small for the growing project, and the association began to look for land on which to build a larger wat (monastery). This was eventually found in Gretzenbach.
Construction took place in two stages. The land was bought and the surrounding wall built in 1992-1993. In the second stage (1994-1995) a residential building was created by architect Günther Hildebrand, as well as a a bell tower, a sala (open pavilion) and two shrines («King Rama V Pavilion» and «China Pavilion»).
The third stage saw the building of the ubosoth, the main religious building of the wat, under the architectural direction of Marcel Niedermeier. Planning permission was granted in 2000, containing conditions regarding parking spaces. Until the association had acquired additional land for this purpose, visitors to the temple could use local public parking spaces.
The ubosoth was designed in the traditional Thai style with a tower gilded in gold leaf, the mondop. The temple area was decorated with wall and ceiling paintings by well-known Thai artists. A multi-purpose hall was established in the basement.
The traditional Thai-style ubosoth (main ceremony room) is the core of a wat. The mondop which stands on top of the ubosoth is known as the «king’s palace».
A decisive factor in the realization of the temple was the support of the Thai royal family. Somdet Phra Srinagarindra, the mother of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej supported the construction of the temple with personal funds in excess of one million Swiss francs. For this, the Buddhist temple is dedicated to her memory and named after her. The ubosoth was inaugruated on 28th June 2003 by Galayani Princess Vadhana, sister of the king, who had also donated a substantial sum towards the Wat. The two-day celebrations were attended by 50 Thai monks and about 7000 guests. The ubosoth is the first newly-built Thai Buddhist temple in Europe.
Phrathep Kittimoli, whose original name is Dr. Phramaha Thongsoon Rongthong Suriyajoto, was abbot from 1988 to 1995 in the provisional monastery in Bassersdorf. He has led the Wat in Gretzenbach since 1996. He is also Chairman of the board of trustees for the «Somdetyas Stiftung für das Wat Srinagarindravararam». Together with Abbot Phraphuttiwongsamuni, Phrathep Kittimoli was responsible for clarification about the need for a Thai monastery in Switzerland, and for the subsequent planning and implementation at Wat Srinagarindravararam.
Phrathep Kittimoli describes the neighbors as «very friendly and very helpful». Indeed, some of them have already come to the temple, in order to learn to meditate with him. There have never been problems such as damage to the property. According to the monestary, the temple has had a steady flow of visitors, which increased after the walls and ceilings were painted. Many «Swiss visitors» have also come to learn about Buddhism and the meaning of the wat. Amongst the tasks of the monestary are giving religious support to Swiss Theravada Buddhists, and performing ceremonies such as marriages, death ceremonies and initiations.
An indication of the adaptability of the Buddhist community in Gretzenbach can be found in the paintings in the ubosoth: In the midst of the traditional-style Buddhist paintings is also an Alphorn player and a child, both in Bernese costume.
Siddhartha Gautama, who later became known as «Buddha», is generally believed to have lived in the 5th or 6th century B.C.E., in the northern peninsula of India. Recent research however, suggests that this may in fact be the 4th or 5th century B.C.E. Buddha understood his teachings as «teaching the middle way»: Insight and enlightenment are to come from neither a lifestyle of pleasure and debauchery, nor one of self-torture and asceticism. One should avoid both of these extremes, and concentrate on leading an unselfish and careful life. The Buddha adopted the Indian doctrine of reincarnation and karma from the Brahmanic tradition of his time. According to this doctrine, both natural and supernatural acts are subject to the same causal law (Sanskrit, «Karma»; Pali, «Kamma»). This means that both this and the next life are conditioned by good or evil deeds, and man is caught in a «cycle of birth» (samsara).
The basic conception that all that has been is transient means that there is no everlasting happiness or consistent self. Buddhist teachings, therefore, attempt to overcome the dissatisfaction (dukkha) which comes from these «misguided ideas».
«Southern Buddhism» was the result of the first split within Buddhism and spread primarily in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. This movement describes itself as «Theravada», or «teachings of the elders». Its adherents claim to pass on the teachings as they have learnt them from the Buddha. Mahayana Buddhism («the great vehicle»), which came about in the first century C.E., includes most Buddhists, and today is common in China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan. The form of Tibetan Buddhism known as Vajrayana Buddhism, is found in Tibet, the Himalayas, and Central Asia.
Buddhism imagines Buddha as the «doctor», Buddhist doctrine as the «cure», with which to overcome suffering. The members of the Buddhist community (sangha) are the «carers» or «nurses». They apply the «cure» and preserve the teachings. For Theravidians, the ideal is monasticism and «Arhat», a dispasisonate saint who has achieved enlightenment within their lifetime, while in Mahayana, entrance into Nirvana should be postponed in order to lead others to enlightenment as a bodhisattva.
Western monasteries attempt to follow the traditions of Asian monasteries as far as possible. However, this does not prohibit innovation. For instance, the alms-walk typical in Thai Buddhism is rarely performed in this country, as the path would be too long, and the practice is, as yet, unusually in the cultural environment. Instead, in Grenzenbach, the laity come to the monastery to fill the monks’ bowls with food.
Two basic forms of Buddhist practice can be distinguished in the west: Buddhists from Asian countries to visit the monasteries and temples for prayer, to learn from the monks and to make donations. Converted (western) Buddhists, however, emphasize the study of texts and the practice of meditation.
There are about 400 million Buddhists worldwide, of which around 1.5 million live in Europe. It should be noted, however, that an affiliation with Buddhism does not necessarily exclude simultaneously belonging to another religion. For instance, about 70% of Japanese see themselves as both observers of Shinto and Buddhist. About 25,000 Buddhists currently live in Switzerland, of which the vast majority are of foreign origin, many of whom have become citizens. It is notable that two thirds of Swiss Buddhists are women and the proportion of 20-39 year olds is higher than average. For many of the 10,000 Thais in Switzerland, the wat in Gretzenbach is a religious and cultural home from home.
With the Buddhist Sunday school, the temple aims to «make a contribution to the education and upbringing of the Buddhist community in Switzerland». In addition to Buddhist philosophy and religion, the monks and lay helpers also teach Thai culture and language to children and adults. Courses in fruit carving and Thai boxing are also offered. The wat also offers a two-week summer novitiate to boys and young men, most of whom are from Thai or Thai-Swiss families.
Text: Edwin Egeter
Photos: Edwin Egeter
«Cupola – Temple – Minaret» is a Project by the Centre for Research on Religions, Lucerne
Last updated: 27h August 2015
© 2012 Department for the Study of Religion, University of Lucerne