Like many of today’s digital creatives, Ekkachai Arinthamo brings a trained eye to striking photos and videos of people and places he shares online. Simple, arresting images show a bright orange sunset contrasted by the black shadow of a standing man, or an old book read by two boys, one of whom peeks shyly at the camera.
The man is a monk. The boys are novices. The places are remote temples here and overseas. But what sets Ekkachai apart from other Instagram erudites are, in fact, the yellow robes he’s worn over 20 years as an ordained monk.
As younger generations lose interest in organized religion, Ekkachai has devoted his talents to updating the image of Thai Buddhism to be more accessible and relevant. It’s a mission he’s kept at over a decade despite disapproval from some who think it’s an improper pursuit for someone wearing the robes.
If we only stay in the middle of the road, we’ll never know what people want from the religion or how they think of it.
For his project “Dhamma on Lens,” Ekkachai not only portrays his idea of Buddhism’s beauty through the lens of his camera but applies it to designing buildings, interiors and graphics for no cost.
He also runs his own self-built website and organizes workshops to teach younger, like-minded monks that there are more ways to promote the religion than preaching and writing.
“I’m doing this project as an example for the new generation of monks who want to work in this field. I want to open a learning space for them,” he said. “I also want people to see that monks can also express their thoughts on the religion in another way that’s not just preaching.”
Along the way, he’s picked up a sizable online following of those impressed or curious to see a monk trafficking in cool design work. This has drawn scorn from purists who object to seeing one using a camera, computer or smartphone, something that’s been an obstacle to his mission.
“There’s this belief that monks are supposed to only study dharma and go straight to nirvana. They think this is not a monk’s duty,” he said.
But it’s not enough to stop him.
“It’s like walking down a road, but I don’t like staying in the middle. I like to run along the edge of it,” he said. “Beyond the edge is the world of ordinary folks. I’m in a position very close to them, so I have to be very careful. … If we only stay in the middle of the road, we’ll never know what people want from the religion or how they think of it.”
‘Tranquility and Simplicity’
To understand the impact of his work, one need only visit his temple.
Hidden deep in a small alley behind old shops and houses in the capital’s Phasi Charoen district, Wat Nak Prok looks more welcoming than the typical temple. There are fewer imposing walls, leaving it open to the surrounding community. Here is where Ekkachai has lived since he was 18, and there’s evidence everywhere of his influence.
Entering via a small bridge to an open court to see the temple’s spare design contrasts the usual tendency to overstate and embellish in every way imaginable. Welcoming visitors is an eye-catching logo alongside a minimalist portrait of the abbot near the front shrine hall. Across the way sits a modern-looking office building, with design-savvy posters promoting special events here and there.
Exploring inside, prayer rooms are more natural wood and bare concrete than the usual gilded and gaudy ornamentation. Most of these came from Ekkachai’s efforts to make the temple more approachable, even for those who don’t identify as Buddhist.
He notes the principles of good design and Buddhism are in harmony.
“Temples, Buddhism, should reflect tranquility and simplicity,” he said. “Even if you’re not a Buddhist, we all have that natural state inside us. So I apply that to communicate with people.”
He came to this thinking while growing up under the monastery’s roof.
Temples still lack architectural designs that conform to the needs of their local communities. What can temples do to make people want to stay for hours, like they do in malls and hotels, without having to hear preaching or meditate?
Like other boys, Ekkachai, now 32, ordained as a novice when he was 12 at his local temple in Maha Sarakham province. Unlike most, he heard the calling and decided he could do more good wearing the robes. And this path, however unlikely, eventually led him to the art world.
“During a school break, my teacher sent me to take short courses in typing, computers and painting for temple fair posters,” he said. “But I was slow in typing, so I dropped it after a while and focused on painting instead.”
He discovered a fondness and talent for it. After moving to Wat Nak Prok, he was entrusted by his superiors with running the temple’s media affairs. Anyone who’s seen temple promotional materials knows they’re also heavy on ornamentation and excess.
Ekkachai felt the usual approach was outdated and created “too much of an eyesore.”
He said he wants to move away from the traditional imagery of Thai monks and temples, where every color and image imaginable is garishly thrown together with little thought.
“I saw that artwork done by temples was very different from work in other fields,” he said. “The older generation is being replaced by the younger. We need to modernize things, otherwise young people won’t be able to understand us.”
He then sought help from professionals, cultivating digital media skills to keep up with the trends on the outside, as he started to recognize how the power of visual media could be harnessed in favor of the religion.
Next he picked up photography.
“When I started doing graphic design, I saw that the photos I had to use didn’t fit the concepts I had in my mind,” he said, adding that they were “too stiff and formal.”
He said he started shooting for the first time seven years ago in a summer novice program, and found the result illuminating.
“The first time I took a photo, it looked very ordinary, so I tilted the angle a bit. Once I tilted it, it was like a life-changing moment,” he said with a big smile. “I could see many different perspectives. Then I started to realize the importance of photography even more.”
Most of the photos show unguarded moments of monks and novices interacting with each other and normal folks, or simply surrounded by nature. One shows a group of novices playing joyfully with a buffalo as tall as they are in a forest. Another shows a smudged stray dog running along the feet of two monks.
Ekkachai regularly shares these photos online, as he believes that showing religious practitioners in their most natural states would help promote Thai Buddhism better at home and abroad.
“Photography can communicate better globally if we do it well. The spoken language is limited to only Thai people,” he said. “I tried thinking about what people worldwide see when they think of Buddhism. They’d see the Mahayana, the Dalai Lama. … Why not Thailand? Is it because there’s no nice, natural photos [of us]?”
“If there are more photos of monks’ regular lives, we’d be able to communicate with folks better,” he said.
Resistance to Change
As society evolves, Ekkachai sees temple life becoming less important to people, and an institution in need of a new strategy to bring people in.
“Now society starts to wonder if monks and temples are still relevant to them,” he said. “Our role now is to support those who experience failure in the secular world. There are two types of people coming to temples: Those who suffer and those who see the suffering.”
That’s where his concepts of “natural, simple and tranquil” come into play with architectural design. He helped redesign not only Wat Nak Prok’s structures, but also its use of open space to create a serene environment that will attract people.
“Temples still lack architectural designs that conform to the needs of their local communities,” he said. “What can temples do to make people want to stay for hours, like they do in malls and hotels, without having to hear preaching or meditate?”
Ekkachai believes people yearn for escape from chaotic city life, and temples should offer that peaceful corner of the neighborhood where they can find respite.
Although he’s experienced a fair amount of negativity, namely abuse hurled at him online and conflict with traditionalist senior monks, he hopes the rigid notion of what a monk must be will evolve, and people, including monks themselves, will become more open to his way of thinking.
“It’s still not a 100-percent success, because there are conflicts between those who come to learn with me and their administrators who don’t see the value of this,” he said. “I want to show them that it has an indirect impact. Some have very good intentions coming to learn, but their ideas are then turned down by the puu yai.”
He says his project has also helped hone his inner thinking in being a better monk.
“This work is quite challenging to your ego. When I first started taking photos, I thought they were really beautiful. I put my name on them, boldly, because I wanted people to know. But then I’ve come to feel shame for doing that,” he said. “And when I started organizing workshops, it helped me learn to become more compassionate. It melted away my sense of possessiveness and self-pride.”
Ekkachai says he isn’t trying to change the religion, just its “shell” facing the public.
“If we make a nice shell, it can attract more people to the core of the religion,” he said. “It doesn’t matter in what way you’re doing it, as long as we’re aiming for the same goal with good intentions.”