Demented Disneyland: Benedict Anderson and the Fate of Rural Hell

September 17, 2012

Benedict Anderson, The Fate of Rural Hell: Asceticism and Desire in Buddhist Thailand, London, New York & Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2012

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

Could Christianity benefit from a Theme Park of Hell? Grimacing statues of naked humanity suffering endless torments might be instructive to sinners. Graphic scenes of eternal punishments might prove a source of sanguinary “justice” to the powerless who are sinned against with impunity in this earthly realm: paedophile priests defenestrated by a mass of tiny hands from the third floor of a model Vatican; murderers hung from hooks; gluttons skewered through pot bellies; adulterers cleft in two; corrupt investment bankers and insider traders scorched by rivers of molten gold; lying politicians pierced through their tongues and strung up together like kebabs in congress; the intrusive paparazzi and their gossip-hungry consumers blinded either by traditional red hot pokers or the modern flash of redeye-reducing phone cameras with everlasting batteries.

Recalcitrant sinners, moral waiverers, the nervous and timid might take lessons from the concrete or plastic representations of the damned in Christianity’s Theme Park of Hell: lessons to mend their ways, or to think wholesome thoughts. But can such depictions of suffering shock and awe the modern citizens of the Western world? Can people familiar with violent movies, explicit video games, and images on the nightly news of massacres in American cinema complexes, on picturesque Norwegian islands, or in bombarded villages from Syria to Sudan, feel actual dread and disturbance when confronted by plastic art? Are our contemporaries likely to act selflessly, compassionately, and with a sense of acceptance and proportion on the basis of a plastic – or even digital – display of the fruits of sin and a breach of the Ten Commandments? Are they any more likely to be “good” than our ancestors from the Middle Ages who were brought up on fiery sermons and graphic pictorial images of hell’s torments displayed on the walls of mediaeval churches? The Crusades, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the Inquisition, and various witch-hunts do not speak unequivocally of the civilising effects of religious advertising.

Do violent images simply attract the prurient or curious? Would a Christian Theme Park of Hell merely become another pornographic franchise? In any case, can graphic depictions of pain inspire wholesome thoughts? Is the very concept of hell contrary to justice, divine or otherwise?

When Benedict Anderson first visited Thailand’s remote temple complex of Wat Phai Rong Wua in 1975 he was confronted by a Buddhist conception of Narokphum (hell) as realised in concrete by the efforts of venerable monk Luang Phor Khom (1902-1990). In various visits since 1975 Anderson and his colleagues have observed the growth, decline and renovation of the wat (temple) and its unique Narokphum.

The indefatigable abbot Luang Phor Khom not only built a large wat complex in a rural location inaccessible at the time by major roads, he constructed the world’s largest metal-cast Buddha (having travelled to Nara in Japan to run a comparison). Within the wat he built both a personal museum and a public Narokphum to emphasise the ferocious punishment of evildoers in the afterlife. Luang Phor Khom required considerable finance to achieve his aim of building and expanding his temple and its hell, and despite his obsession with sin and punishment the abbott was willing to achieve his ends through means that were not always within the karmic rules. Donations were important, if not always transparently sourced or fully accounted for, in financing his many projects, and he personally made thousands of amulets which were sold to the faithful to ward off bad luck or danger and to bring a steady income to the wat. The punters bought these amulets in great numbers after World War II in the belief that they would not be harmed by the guns and bullets left over from the Japanese and Allied forces. These arms were now in the hands of local bandits and ordinary villagers, and contributed to a very violent and unpredictable society. One thing that was predictable: the amulets did not stop bullets, accidents, or disease. Luang Phor Khom knew that his trade in amulets was not morally acceptable and promised to stop producing and selling amulets when the wat was complete.

The wat is an intriguing and unusual blend of the regional and the international, with statues and buildings of various cultural and religious traditions. Centred on Theravada Buddhism, the wat includes Mahayana Buddhist shrines and statues, as well as Brahmanic Hindu shrines and images, and some emblems of Confucianism, Taoism, Islam and Christianity. The 38 photographic images included in this fascinating book include scenes of a Mahayana Buddha sitting among various Hinayana Buddhas, an Islamic-inspired camel standing by a gate, a Japanese-style Hinayana Buddha in a standing position, a replica Hindu temple, and a building in the form of the head of the Hindu deity Hanuman photographed from a distance through a pillared gate inscribed with Chinese characters.

While the wat has a certain international ambition “which includes a demand for world recognition and offers a reciprocal recognition of the world,” the Narokphum is fundamentally regional in inspiration and representation. The Narokphum is populated by statues of praed (hungry ghosts) based on Thai iconography from centuries-old illustrations of hell, fashioned by the thoughts and instruction of Luang Phor Khom who steered the project relentlessly until his death in 1990. The praed are exclusively Thai. Most of the praed statues are naked and exposed, emphasising the degradation and suffering of the sinners. Male genitalia is often swollen.

Helpfully, each statue of the praed is labelled with the relevant crime or sin. These are very wide ranging, including traditional murder, theft, adultery, and disrespect to monks, to the more modern manifestations of embezzling public funds, smoking marijuana, or becoming a crack addict. Apart from the last few mentioned – specifically drugs – the vast bulk of the sins are traditional, based on rules for a stable rural order.

Interestingly, there is no hierarchy of crime and punishment in this Narokphum that is equivalent to the circles of hell, or the distinction between mortal and venial sins, characteristic of certain Christian doctrines. The murderers and kidnappers in Narokphum are punished alongside, and tortured just as severely, as the man who became a drunkard in old age, the woman who flirted with monks, a lazy man, the woman who liked to stay up late for her man, the hypocrite, the banana thief, anyone who liked to meet lovers on the wat’s premises or steal wood from the wat, the woman who had two abortions, anyone who ate before the monks, and children who refused to humbly greet their parents. As Benedict Anderson notes: “The wife who forces her husband to cook rice at home is tortured just as horribly as the murderer.” Parents and school teachers would bring children to Narokphum to learn these lessons.

On the basis of extensive evidence from Narokphum, it seems advisable that anyone with the power to influence their next reincarnation should do all they can to avoid returning to life as a small animal. If that eventuality is not possible, small creatures should stay well clear of the wat. The temple complex seems to attract many violent and undesirable characters. A surprising number of praed are condemned for having killed or tortured mice, frogs, turtles, ducks or fish in the wat.

Benedict Anderson initially conjectured that “market forces” and “consumer demand” could provide the reason why Narokphum was so “higgledy-piggedly” in its arrangements: statues were “commissioned” by locals intending to teach a moral lesson, perhaps a parent worrying that her son might become a drug addict, or a mother distressed by her boy-crazy daughter and wanting to scare her off from pre-marital sex and an abortion. But he soon realised that he was wrong, because every statue was personally ordered by Luang Phor Khom. Benedict Anderson goes on to provide a brief biography of this extraordinary monk and the history of his temple, his giant Buddha, and his hell. Luang Phor Khom was both driven and tireless, the fifth son of local farmers who studied hard and devoted his life to Buddhism, serving as a monk for 68 years. He was the undisputed master of Wat Phai Rong Wua, and after his death a nephew became abbott. Luang Phor Khom’s wat served the local people, but it also attracted the Thai elite – including a series of Prime Ministers – and it became a focus for certain tourists and scholars such as Benedict Anderson, who was first stunned by the “sheer scale of the wat” and then felt that he had “wandered into a sort of religious Disneyland.”

Although the Narokphum is essentially regional in origin, even here developments both intrinsic and extrinsic have led to transformations in tradition. As statues became bigger, and the sculptor’s use of concrete more assured, gradual changes appeared with the praed and especially with the agents of King Yama, the torturers known as phayayom, who served to punish the praed, stabbing them with spears or hitting them with clubs. Toward the end of his life Luang Phor Khom saw the need to respond iconographically to the large size and artistic presence of certain key praed in his collection. He therefore instructed his most talented sculptor, Suchart, to produce some imposing phayayom. (Suchart joined the wat as a 13 year old temple boy. He is still serving the wat today as an ordained monk after decades of sculpting just for room and board and then for the most meagre of wages dispensed by his master. His marriage failed and he has an enduring fondness for alcohol, but he is kept on in the wat, perhaps out of respect for his long service to Luang Phor Khom.)

The desire to produce large and aggressive phayayom to intimidate the praed explains why some of the statues of the torturershave been transformed from the simple “country-boy” model of the past to the massive, muscle-bound “gym-rat” style of today, a representation influenced by “he-man” figures like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Western and Indian movies seen by Suchart or other Narokphum sculptors. The world has come to the religious Disneyland of Wat Phai Rong Wua, but Disneyland has also come to Luang Phor Khom’s wat.

Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism remains a required text in many university courses around the world nearly three decades since its first publication in 1983. While The Fate of Rural Hell will not achieve the status of his earlier, more sweeping work, the colourful and exciting way in which Benedict Anderson has returned to the topic of Narokphum since 1975, and his honest and challenging reconsideration of Thai asceticism and desire with his students, colleagues, and local informants, stands as testament to his engaged scholarship and his commitment to profound regional understanding and internationalism. He conjectures a certain homoerotic impulse on the part of Luang Phor Khom, a particular “rejected desire” that placed a life-sized statue of Michelangelo’s David in the abbott’s private museum next to a human skeleton in a glass cabinet. This same rejected desire “drove the creation of a sculpted Narokphum where…skeletal forms are juxtaposed to substantial male genitals.” The Fate of Rural Hell is a story of modern Thailand and the story of Luang Phor Khom. Benedict Anderson is a brilliant guide through history, desire, and the hells we build and imagine.

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