What a relief to reach the cave entrance again and to be greeted by the sight of the pond and the greenery. I maintain that where plants will not grow, human beings also have no business. We may not be photosynthetic but we require sunlight just like our plant friends do, after all. And just look at the pics, for heaven’s sake, what a delight to the eye the vicinity of the cave entrance is. The pond is lovely, the buildings around it are beautiful and unobtrusive in the landscape as buildings rightly should be, and for mindfulness or devotion there is a Buddha looking out over the pond as a touchpoint for the real purpose of everything you see in the surroundings. While the modeling of the face may not be as successful as one might wish –it can easily prompt comparisons with a headshot of Walter Matthau if one hails from the American cultural ambit as I do — the posture of composure in the Buddha’s bhumisparsha mudra, that of “touching the Earth” as a call to serve as witness to his Enlightenment, provides all the prompting one really needs for mindfulness of deeper dimensions in that handsome and serene setting.
For me, the entrance to the caves serves best as exactly what it is — an entrance. No need to go inside, really, just enjoy the entrance as an entrance. The architecture of the structure, nested in Lanna style and thus harmonious with the architectural conventions used in the temple buildings themselves, is quite enough all by itself as an object of contemplation. One need not avail oneself of its function to appreciate it. Only one thing would induce me through curiosity to closer approach: the fantastical figure beside the entryway, which to my mind looks like it should be in a Royal Ballet production of the “Nutcracker” rather than standing guard over the entrance to a cave. When it comes to caves, it seems to me that protection needs to be done more against what comes out of them than what goes in. It’s all a matter of perspective, however, as is the case with most things. My failure to appreciate adequately the fierceness of our handsome guardian deity doubtless stems from my inability to take the demonic very seriously in any context save the economic and the political, where it’s only too easy to espy devils afoot in numbers too great to count.
There are other temples strung like jewels up the side of the mountain, some of which are accessible by a short hike up stairways that would not, I think, daunt any but the very faint of heart. Since our time was short — travel by motorbike being a more lengthy affair than zipping about in a car — we took no time to go up and instead headed out. This visit is the only one I’ve made to Chiang Dao, but the impression of the place has remained strong with me over the years. The temple buildings are lovely, it’s true, but as examples of northern Thai temple architecture they’re not paragons of any sort; one can find more grandiose examples in Chiang Mai, studded with dozens of stunning temples as it is. What I carried away from the temple complex in Chiang Dao was an abiding sense of repose and the harmony of an environment in which the architecture and the natural setting synergize to form an ensemble which impresses the senses as such. I can’t think of the blue and white vihara porch without thinking of the sunlight on the water of the pond. I can’t remember the beautifully ornate gables of the ubosot without having in mind simultaneously the handsome bulk of Doi Chiang Dao jutting up behind the building. I doubt that any architect placed things with a studied intent to make sure the buildings and the natural setting would work together in the way they do. I think it’s a happy accident, but it’s real, it works powerfully, and that’s what really matters in the final accounting.
With our time at the temple complex at an end, back we climbed onto the motorbike for the return to Chiang Mai. Here are some pics of the countryside along the route: