Temple offers oasis of enlightenment
There is a quiet corner of Switzerland where people are immune from the materialistic frenzy that Christmas has become.
While elsewhere turkeys are being basted and presents wrapped, a group of monks sit meditating amid the peaceful surroundings of the biggest Buddhist centre in Europe.
This is Wat Srinagarindravararam, home to five Thai monks and their abbot, the reverend Dr Thongsoon Rongthong.
The brightly decorated roof of the new temple, which is due to be opened in June 2003, can be seen for miles around, shining like an exotic jewel amid the grim industrial landscape surrounding the Gösgener nuclear power station.
The village of Gretzenbach in canton Solothurn is a place where ancient and modern exist. Not far from the station's steam-belching cooling tower lies the Wat Thai centre, home of the ancient Buddhist faith in Switzerland and site of the new temple.
Twenty-five golden Buddhas perched on the red and green temple roof glimmer in the winter sunshine. Beneath their watchful eyes, yellow pansies sit in neat rows in a garden edged with gazebo shrines. A round pond teems with goldfish.
The centre is affiliated to the famous Marble Temple in Bangkok and caters for the needs of the estimated nine thousand Thais living in Switzerland, as well as a growing number of western Buddhists.
A recent survey carried out by the Swiss Church Alliance's Institute for Social Ethics indicated that more than 26% of Swiss people feel drawn to the Buddhist faith.
The Wat Thai centre, opened in 1996, and the new temple cost SFr9 million ($6.23 million) to build, SFr2 million of which were raised in Thailand by the King's sister, Princess Galyani Vadhana.
She will preside over the temple's inauguration ceremony in June next year. Although the outside is now complete, much work still has to be done on the interior.
Abbot Rongthong plans to fly over a group of Thai craftsmen to complete the artwork.
In Thailand, it is common for couples with marital or other family problems to seek guidance from a monk. In the same way, many Thais living in Switzerland visit Wat Srinagarindravararam for spiritual guidance, counselling and inspiration.
"If their children are in a bad way and have lost control of their souls, their parents bring them to the monks to seek help," explains Rongthong.
"Sometimes we admit them into the temple for training and then they leave in good shape. We also help people who are sick. Often Thai people who feel lonely living in Switzerland come to us for comfort."
People also come to have their horoscopes read. Astrology plays an important role in the Thai calendar, and the stars are always consulted to find auspicious days for important events.
There are comfortable guest rooms for people seeking a retreat from the stresses of the outside world, and lessons for those who wish to learn how to meditate (Mondays and Thursdays).
The abbot has had to increase the number of meditation classes for advanced students, due to high demand. These now take place on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Wat Srinagarindravararam is also a cultural hub. The new hall beneath the temple can be divided into temporary rooms, where the Thai language is taught.
This year, there were eleven major gatherings at the centre, most of them religious, attracting hundreds of visitors from Switzerland and neighbouring countries.
New Year feast
Christmas is not celebrated at the Wat Thai centre but there will be a large feast to mark the New Year, with traditional dishes served from a large, modern kitchen.
At Sunday school, students learn the tenets of Therevada Buddhism, the oldest and least popular of the three main schools of Buddhist philosophy.
The Zen and Tibetan strands have won greater international recognition, thanks partly to the support of famous personalities such as the Hollywood star Richard Gere, a Tibetan Buddhist, and the Dutch Zen student, novelist Janwillem van de Wetering.
Therevada Buddhism is the strictest form of the religion and the monks have to adhere to 227 rules. They are forbidden, for instance, to kill any living creature, or to touch any female, be it woman or child.
Peace and tranquility
But the comparatively strict nature of the regime does not seem to dampen the atmosphere in any way.
The sound of laughter rings along the corridors; a smiling novice prunes a rose bush in the gardens, another stands and watches workmen removing scaffolding from the outside of the new temple.
In a computer-filled office, another two monks are typing furiously. But they are only too happy to interrupt their work to discuss their favourite subject: soccer.
It turns out that one of them is a big fan of Chelsea football club in London - but then Wat Srinagarindravararam is full of surprises.
swissinfo, Julie Hunt
Wat Srinagarindravararam is the biggest centre of Buddhist learning in Europe.
The temple, costing SFr4.5 million, will be inaugurated in June 2003.
Five monks live in the centre, along with their abbot.
About nine thousand Thais live in Switzerland.
They use the Buddhist centre for worship, counselling, socialising and teaching their children the Thai language.
A group of buddhists have made their home in the middle of a Swiss industrial estate.
The five monks of the Thai Wat centre in Gretzenbach welcome visitors from all over the country to their quiet prayer hall.
It's a colourful piece of Thailand in the heart of Switzerland, a welcome retreat from the everyday stresses of the modern world.
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