Fulbright spotlight: Studying Buddhism through architecture

Just three weeks after Anthony Irwin arrived in Bangkok, Thailand, the Thai Army staged a coup to overthrow the elected government under Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Irwin recalls seeing soldiers and tanks beginning to crowd the streets.

He had just graduated from State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz and decided to take time off. He had come to Bangkok, where his brother had recently moved, with the intention of living there for a year.

Soon after landing in Bangkok, Irwin traveled to Chiang Rai, a town in northern Thailand.

“I was just planning on going on vacation; I had bought a round-trip plane ticket,” he says. “But I really didn’t like Bangkok, and not just because of the coup, that wasn’t the only reason why. I ended up staying in Chiang Rai and finding a job there.”

In Chiang Rai, Irwin began to recognize Buddhism as more than a religion—but as a way of life.

After a year of living in Thailand, Irwin returned to the United States to pursue his master’s degree in southeast Asian studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In August, he will return to Chiang Rai on a Fulbright scholarship to work on his PhD dissertation.

Anthony Irwin at a Buddhist temple in Thailand. Photo: Andrew Dicks
Anthony Irwin at the residence of the Chiang Rai artist Ajarn Thawan Dachanee. Photo: Andrew Dicks

“I was living in Chiang Rai for a year trying to figure out what to do with my life, and I was always interested in religion,” he explains. “Living there, seeing how Buddhism was really like a living religion that people practiced on a daily basis, I started to get into it. There are Buddha statues all over the place, temples all over the place. People wear amulets.”

Irwin took a particular interest in the Buddhist temples in Chiang Rai and all across Thailand. For his Fulbright-supported work, he intends to investigate the myth and reality of building and renovating these temples.

Thailand has a rich history of Buddhist temples, with about 40,000 temples throughout the country and 34,000 of them in use. These temples are constantly renovated and built upon.

“When I was there, I realized all these different temples were involved in different construction projects. They are all building new buildings. I think it is really the confluence of forces that go into constructing a new building, and a Buddhist temple reveals a lot,” he says.

Irwin, who grew up in Jewish family in Rochester, New York, describes his interest in Buddhism as academic, not as a practitioner.

“Studying religion academically is like how sign language interpreters study sign language. They know sign language but they are not deaf,” he says. “Not that being religious is like being deaf.”

So what attracted his interest in Buddhist temples? Irwin credits his experience working on one of the oldest temples in Thailand.

“Where I really got involved was this one temple. The people who were actually doing the construction, the workers, talk about what they’re doing is like religious practice,” he explains. “So even though they are getting paid for it – they are construction workers – they kept saying to me ‘you helping with building this building is really good for you.’ So it is really good for my spiritual self to do this work.”

In his dissertation, Irwin plans to make the case that the construction of these temples is the worldly manifestation of creating religion. He believes that although there are scriptures and prayers, the actual physical construction is what creates religion.

— by Jeff Cartwright

More about the Fulbright programs is available through the UW–Madison International Fellowships Office at http://fellowships.international.wisc.edu/.