Serenity now

Story by CHOMPOO TRAKULLERTSATHIEN Photos by SOMKID CHAIJITVANIT, Bangkok Post, March 14, 2005

An 'eco-spiritual theme park' in Lamphun, inspired by the teachings of the Buddha, provides a tranquil, meditative space to all those who pass through its grounds

Bangkok, Thailand -- If you get lost in unfamiliar territory you can usually seek help from a map or guidebook. But when we lose our way in life, to what or whom can we turn? Is there a road map of life or a version of Lonely Planet, perhaps, that tells you where to obtain peace of mind or how to find happiness?

<< Walkey's towering `Fountain of Wisdom' empties into a circular basin representing the Sea of Suffering.

For some, answers can be found in the tranquil grounds of Dhamma Park, an "eco-spiritual theme park" located on a verdant 24-hectare plot in Lamphun's Pa Sang district. Intended as a contemporary centre for the development of spirituality and the arts, it is the brainchild of Venetia Walkey, a sculptor, peace activist and practising Buddhist. The park is run by the Dhamma Park Foundation which was set up three years ago and is now an official partner in an Unesco programme to build a culture of peace and "peace education" around the globe.

<< Venetia Walkey, a Buddhist sculptor and peace activist from the UK, believes that artists can play a dynamic role in bringing about spiritual reintegration around the globe. A few years back she established an `eco-spiritual theme park' up North in a bid to promote social well-being through Buddhism and the arts.

"Buddhism is all about ecology. It can be applied to many fields, including holistic medicine, alternative education and a culture of peace," says Walkey, who established the foundation and currently serves as director of the park's impressive art gallery.

A graduate of Guildford College and Medway College of Art in her native England, Walkey has lived and worked in Thailand since 1970. During that time, she got the chance to hone her skills as a sculptor by working with Prof Kien Yimsiri, the respected artist. In the process she became captivated by the Buddha's teachings and philosophy and decided to try her hand at expressing these concepts through art.

"I'm greatly inspired by Buddhist philosophy, which is simple and understandable. I incorporate it into art forms. I'm also interested in social issues and in what's going on in the community. I'm happy to deliver that commentary through my sculpture."

For Walkey, dhamma _ the Buddha's teachings _ are not something to be simply absorbed in a passive manner.

One of Walkey's earlier sculptures, depicting Buddhist  >>
monks, which is housed in a smaller private gallery in the park.

"People can have fun with dhamma," she insists. "[Vietnamese Buddhist monk] Thich Nhat Hanh once said that 'the way of the Buddha is a skilful way of enjoying yourself'. I totally agree. We can integrate the Buddha's teachings into our daily lives to attain an inner peace."

When that "peace within" has been achieved, global peace will become possible, she adds.

At Dhamma Park, Walkey has integrated Buddhism with the arts, sciences and an appreciation of nature, presenting these themes in an instructive but easy-to-digest way, sometimes driving home her point with the use of subtle humour. The park has become a refuge for people seeking peace of mind, adults and youngsters alike, and has been honoured with Appreciation Awards from "We the Peoples", a United Nations-designated "Peace Messenger" initiative, and Pathways to Peace, an international peace-building and educational organisation with UN consultative status.

"Eco-spiritual tourism is a somewhat new concept ... it can be adapted to any culture or country, though. People around the world are looking for something more than material pleasure. I do believe that Dhamma Park can be a place of healing for them. It offers another dimension to tourism, deep down to the spiritual level," says Walkey, who was one of the recipients of an Outstanding Women in Buddhism award on International Women's Day last year.

While the park is divided into many zones, all focus on the same "quest for truth", a reflection on the meaning and purpose of life. Scores of bronze sculptures in assorted shapes and forms adorn its grounds and normally the task of deciphering for visitors the meaning of the more abstract pieces falls to Walkey herself.

<< Inside the main art gallery.

One of the highlights of a tour is the Bridge of the Noble Eightfold Path, a white concrete structure, its inner walls inscribed with text, which is meant to remind us that we can avoid suffering by following the "eight rightful paths" that the Buddha prescribed.

At the heart of the park is a magnificent art gallery constructed in a contemporary style. On its roof sits a sculpture in the shape of a compass _ a symbol of guidance. Inside stands the eight-metre-high Fountain of Wisdom which empties into a circular basin representing the Sea of Suffering. Beneath the surface of the water is a cross, a reference both to the four elements of nature (earth, air, fire and water) and to stages on the wheel of dhamma (rebirth, suffering, old age and death).

"This fountain represents the journey from ignorance to enlightenment," Walkey explains. "The Four Principal Virtues are inscribed on it, too: loving kindness and deep spiritual friendship; generosity; sympathetic and spiritual joy; and equanimity. The fountain helps eliminate our suffering so that we can gain wisdom and become fully awakened people."

In contrast, the smaller Fountain of Ignorance is adorned by three abstract sculptures of the human form. These are meant to represent three progressively more stupid individuals, empty-headed people lacking in wisdom and compassion who are blind to goodness, truth and beauty.

Then there's a fascinating piece entitled The Karma Formations. Its message? That we can all be architects and design the course of our lives, choosing to do good or bad things, to make wise or unwise decisions. Walkey strongly believes that the practice of meditation can help control the restless or easily distracted mind.

Another of her sculptures, Becoming, satirises modern-day lifestyles and the fact that we live under a constant shadow cast by the mass media.

"We are completely influenced by the media," Walkey states. "Endless advertising bombards family life, rendering negative images [which promote] materialistic values and consumerism. Television becomes a channel for those who want to escape from reality. Besides, it's [a form of] mindless relaxation; its former function as an educational aid has been utterly changed. It seems that nowadays on television we are watching the end of our civilisation."

Dhamma Park in Lamphun can be a pathway >>
to achieving inner peace.

Also on display in the gallery is a real masterpiece, Walkey's depiction of the Buddha's Paticcasamuppada or Dependent Origination of Suffering _ the 24 cause-and-effect links which serve to perpetuate human suffering. It's an ambitious undertaking and so far she's only managed to complete about half of it.

"These links serve as a survival kit for all of us, that is, [a means to achieve] freedom from suffering. The Buddha showed us the way and it's up to each individual to chose which way he or she wants to go: to suffer; or to see the suffering and free oneself from it."

But it's not all about suffering and death; for, embedded in the park's very "soul" is a decidedly more light-hearted element.

"While people struggle to achieve their goals they often overlook the importance of a good sense of humour," says Walkey. "It can be a valuable source, capable of delivering an environmental and spiritual education to the public in a captivating, entertaining and understandable way. So I add a touch of humour to my works of religious art to make them more attractive and accessible to people of all ages."

Walkey believes that art can serve a social function by educating people and delivering useful messages in order to make the world a better place.

"We can all play a tremendous role by [first] establishing an inner peace and then world peace. We need to make the journey from ignorance to enlightenment for [the sake of] our true happiness."


Dhamma Park is open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays (from 9am to 5pm) and on
weekdays by special appointment. For more details, email, phone 05-352-1609 or write to: Venetia Walkey, 109/2 Pasang Noi Moo 1, Tambon Bann Pan, Muang district, Lamphun.