For ages, Buddhist temples have used artwork to tell stories. Temple murals often illustrate important events in the life of the Buddha, stories of his previous births, or key events in the history of the temple and famous monks who have lived there. Wat Phrathat Doi Saket is an ancient temple that carries on this tradition with a modern twist. The main assembly hall features recent paintings that express Buddhist ideas imaginatively with a mix of traditional and conventional themes.
One of the largest paintings is directly above the front entrance, facing the temple’s main Buddha image. This painting—shown above—depicts the victory of the Buddha over Mara’s army. Mara is a bit like the Buddhist version of the devil. However, unlike the Christian Satan, Mara is not out to take your soul and imprison you in Hell for eternity. Rather, he is simply satisfied with keeping you tempted and distracted enough from the spiritual life that you never achieve enlightenment and keep on traveling through an endless cycle of rebirths.
Mara is the personification of our attachments. In the lower right corner of the painting, we see the real Maras that challenged Prince Siddhartha before he could become the Buddha—his loved ones and the trappings of life in the palace.
But he doesn’t battle Mara’s army completely alone. In his corner, the Buddha has the Goddess of the Earth as his witness to all the merit and spiritual perfections he has accumulated over countless lifetimes, which make him worthy of Buddhahood. She wrings out her hair, and the Earth’s water floods over Mara’s army and washes them away.
The victory over Mara is a traditional theme in Buddhist artwork. But other paintings at Wat Phrathat Doi Saket are very unique and serve as visual reminders of the power of the meditative experience.
One more traditional theme depicts the birth of the Buddha. According to the legend, he took seven steps immediately after being born, and lotus blossoms miraculously appeared where he placed each foot down. Then, pointing to the heavens with one hand and the Earth with the other, he declared that throughout the Earth and heavenly realms there was none who were his equal.
Aside from the paintings in the assembly hall, there is much more to see at Wat Phrathat Doi Saket. For starters, there’s a giant seated Buddha statue, which I’d guess to be about 8-10 meters tall. Nearby, you’ll find a Chinese-style pavilion containing a shrine to Guan-Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. As the East Asian version of Avalokiteshvara, Guan-Yin is technically part of the Mahayana pantheon and doesn’t play any official role in traditional Theravada Buddhist practice. Yet, the influence of China upon Southeast Asia is so strong that you’ll find Guan-Yin at many Thai temples, where she’s worshiped just as much for good luck as she is for striving to accumulate virtue.
The temple’s chedi, or stupa, glistens in the sunlight with both gold and silver. It is actually composed of a building that you can enter with the dome mounted on top. Inside, you’ll find a passageway to circumambulate the sacred relics kept here. On one side, sits a row of famous monks. I recognized a few of the lifelike statues right away. The one on the far left is Phra Somdej Toh. He was a highly revered monk who stayed at Wat Rakhang in Thonburi. Phra Somdej Toh is well-known for composing a katha, or lyrical prayer, known as the Chinabunchorn. This particular prayer is recited daily by many who attest to its powerful effects. Phra Somdej Toh is also famous for subduing the troubled spirit of the ghost Mae Nak.
On the grounds of Wat Phrathat Doi Saket you’ll also see a row of illustrated signs displaying Thai idioms. One of the more humorous ones literally translates as, “Not letting dogs eat your feces,” which is another way of describing somebody who is overly stingy.
Wat Phrathat Doi Saket is really easy to get to. From the center of Chiang Mai, head out to the northeast on Hwy 118. This is the main road that intersects the Super Highway right by the Arcade Bus Station and the new Central Festival shopping center. Just drive straight for about 15 km until you see the sign to turn right for Doi Saket. Keep following this road right through the middle of the little town and you’ll see an intimidating Naga staircase leading up to the temple. If you don’t feel up to the climb, have no fear as the road continues to the right and winds up to the top of the hill. There’s even a cute little coffee shop near the parking area if you need a refreshment.