Thailand,  Laos

Making the Meaning of Life Concrete

I have to steal this headline. It is just too good. “Making the Meaning of Life Concrete”. Credit goes to critical journalist and historian Roger Warner, who reported in 1990 about the Laotian artist and mystic Boun Leua Sourirat. Leua as he appears to be called dedicated his life to create larger than life sculptures illustrating his spiritual insights by using concrete!

As a young man he supposedly stepped into a hole while walking alone through the woods and ended up in a cave where he met the hermit Keoku. He stayed with the eremite for several years, and in the course developed his very own mysticism which integrated Hinduism and Buddhism in a particular way.

Starting 1958 he began materialising his visions within his first “Buddha Park” near Vientiane, the capital of Laos. It’s a 200 statue affair with cryptic symbolism and some very expressive productions.

When the communists took over in 1975 Leua was forced to flee into neighbouring Thailand. Near Nong Khai, just across the Mekong, he continued his work, creating another garden with concrete representations of Buddha, his disciples, an array of Hindu gods and goddesses, animals and various allegorical scenes. In my perception his later work appears somewhat tamer, less obscure compared to the pieces in Laos. Instead he displays quite a bit of humour in some of his figures.

The “newer” park is called “Sala Keoku” and still definitely worth a visit if you happen to pass by Non Khai. The highlight in the Thai park is the 3D depiction of the wheel or cycle of life. It illustrates the stages of human life from being born, going through a host of relationships during childhood, adolescence, adulthood until old age and death. (Interestingly Leua incorporates adultery in his succession as a given.) Possible career choices are shown as well – a business woman next to a soldier and a king.

Fundamental aspects of life according to Buddhist teaching are integrated as well: six senses, four elements and a visualisation of human suffering through birth, old age, sickness and death as described in Buddha’s First Noble Truth. The only way out of the eternal cycle of birth, death and rebirth is to follow the Buddha, is what the whole installation shows.

Leua himself didn’t make it out of the park though. Since his death in 1996 his mummified body is kept in a glass coffin in the main building. It’s not his time yet, explained the local palmist to me when I asked why the master was kept like this. Either way Leua’s devotees do a good job keeping his heritage alive.

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