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  • Phra Dr. Anil Dhammasakiyo (Sakya)

    1

    A Modern Trend of Studyof Buddhism in Thailand:

    King Mongkut andDhammayutikanikya

    byPhra Dr. Anil Dhammasakiyo (Sakya)

    asakya@gmail.com

  • A Modern Trend of Study of Buddhism in Thailand

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    A Modern Trend of Study ofBuddhism in Thailand:

    King Mongkut and Dhammayutikanikya1

    AbstractThis paper will examine King Mongkuts attempt to develop aninterpretation of Buddhism consistent with Western science andlearning. This attempt is marked by the beginning of a fundamentalepistemological shift in doctrinal Thai Buddhism. The theoreticalshift, which continues to have significant religious implicationstoday, involves the rejection of the layered or hierarchical notionof truth which underlay traditional Buddhist teachings and replacedit with the notion of a single, universal, and all encompassingtruth.

    Although Theravada Buddhism has been the national religionof Thailand since the Sukhothai period in the thirteenth century,the popular understanding of traditional Theravada Buddhism wasoften clouded by a mythological and popular overlay mixed withmagical beliefs, superstition and a mixture of Brahmanistic rites.These aspects of Thai Buddhism became problematic for manyBuddhists when they were exposed to Western science, ideologyand authentic Buddhism. King Mongkut found that these practicesconjoined with delusion were far away from the true teachings of

    1 This paper was presented at the international conference on Exploring

    Theravada Studies: Intellectual Trends and the Future of a Field of Study, August12-14, 2004, organised by the Asia Research Institute at National University ofSingapore. I am grateful for valuable comments made by Louis Gabaude andPeter Skilling.

  • Phra Dr. Anil Dhammasakiyo (Sakya)

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    Buddha. He referred to this kind of belief as ci""akappik orci""akappikanikya meaning the type of Buddhismtraditionally inherited without openness, without light and withno further explanation given.

    King Mongkut viewed authentic Buddhism as the uniqueprinciple of a single, universal and all encompassing truth.Rejecting the superstitious beliefs that had attached themselvesto Buddhism in the course of centuries, he preached Buddhism inits pure form based on the Pli Canon instead of the Commentaries.He showed that Buddhism, if properly understood, containsnothing that is contrary to common sense or in conflict withscience and that it is primarily a moral system thoroughly suitedto modern needs. Commenting on King Mongkuts critique,American Presbyterian missionary Jasse Caswell observed thatKing Mongkut totally demythologized Buddhism such that itrejected everything in religion which claims a supernaturalorigin2. Reformation made by King Mongkut resulted in theimprovement of monastic discipline to bring it closer to the vinaya,and he also deconstructed and reinterpreted many traditional ThaiBuddhist teachings. This trend of practice formed the nucleus ofa new, stricter group of Thai Buddhism named Dhammayutika orDhammayutikanikya, meaning those adhering to the accuratedoctrine.

    King Mongkuts legacy continues to have significant religiousimplication to the present day. Following King Mongkutsemphasis on returning to the original teaching of the BuddhaPrince-patriarch Vajiranyanavarosa, his son and the founder ofthe Thai Buddhist education system repeatedly stated that he hopedothers would make further explorations in the direct study of thePli Canon as a source for spiritual guidance, and that the

    2Bradley 1966:39

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    commentaries be accepted only when they are in line with theCanon. Referencing such implications today, many scholars writethat popularizing the notion of advancing knowledge in Buddhism,rather than simply elaborating on inherited tradition is thenecessary condition for the twentieth century scholarlycontributions of Prince-patriarch Vajiranyanavororas, PhraBrahamagunabhorn (P.A. Payutto) and innovative doctrinalinterpretations of Phra Dhammakosacharya (BuddhadasaBhikkhu) (see Thanissaro 1997; Swearer 1999:202).

    In addition, King Mongkuts emphasis on meditation set upa strong tradition of deep meditation practice, this led to theestablishment of the Thai forest tradition, later led by renownedmeditation masters like Venerable Phra Ajarn Mun. This trendinitiated by King Mongkut of exploring Theravada Buddhism wasconsidered a daring innovation in Thailand. It led to the formationof a group of progressive Buddhist monks who are alwaysseeking to learn and who dare to do new things to uphold thecorrectness and purity of Buddhism. This also led to themodernization of the Thai Buddhist education system includingthe establishment of the present Buddhist universities.

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    Introduction :Thai Buddhism and King Mongkut3

    Buddhism both Theravda and Mahyna Buddhism enteredThailand from many directions and in many different periods.There were, however, Buddhism that Thai people havecontinuously adhered to from the Sukhothai period to the presentday is Theravda Buddhism received both directly and indirectlyfrom Sri Lanka. Therefore, in this paper the term TheravdaBuddhism means the Sri Lankan style of Theravda Buddhismin general and the Theravda Buddhism of the Ratanakosin period(1782present) of Thailand in particular. The framework for thisstudy is the modernization of Theravda Buddhism led by KingMongkut (1804-1868) and its implication to present ThaiBuddhism. King Mongkut authored over 100 articles, both inPli and Thai. His Pli works alone numbered 35, the highestquantity of Pli literature ever written by any scholar in theRatanakosin period.

    Buddhism in Thailand has influenced society and vice versa.During the period of King Rama III (1824-1851), there wereperiods of great change in studying Thai Buddhism in whichPrince-monk Mongkut (who later became King Mongkut from1851-1868) introduced the modern trend of study of Buddhism inThailand. Dissatisfied with the old practices of Buddhism, thePrince-monk launched a reform programme to make ThaiBuddhism as close as possible to the Pli tipi"aka of TheravdaBuddhism. This involved a reform of monastic discipline, changes

    3 I am very grateful to Associate Professor Suchao Ploychum who tirelesslyprovided me with all original books, information and ideas.

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    in details of rituals, and most importantly a redefinition of thePli tipi"aka or Pli Canon.

    In addition to the many and varied biographies of KingMongkut, there are many books and articles written about KingMongkut from a political perspective. King Mongkutsreformation of Thai Buddhism with the establishment of a newgroup of monks under the label of Dhammayut became a juicydebate among scholars. Some hold the view that he introduced aschism into Thai Buddhism (see Tambiah 1976:256; 1988:159-60; Tiyavanich 1997:5). Some hold the view that his emphasis onmodern science and rationality diminishes the supramundane valueof Buddhism and make it more profane than sacred (see Visalo2003: chp. 1). Some even claim that his tenure of monkhood inthe monastery was in fact the time he was preparing his career forpolitical successor. These misrepresentations are too complex todiscuss in this paper. Hence, I have limited myself only to KingMongkuts exploration of Theravda studies. However, I believethis paper will also shed some light on those misrepresentations,directly or indirectly.

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    Study of Buddhism in Thailand

    An important aspect of Buddhism is education, therefore,Buddhism is sometimes known as the religion of learning. Ifone converses with any monk in Thailand, he is likely to tell youthat in the past the wat played an important educational role. Withthe continuing impact of Western civilization, modernization andurbanization, the role of monks and novices on Thai educationand society has diminished. Some educated monks will say that itis time that the sangha recaptured its former role; but they willalso concede that the traditional monastic education is outmodedin many ways and needs to be restructured. Similarly, recentresearch on monastic education in Thailand indicates that theteaching of Buddhism at both the grassroot and higher levels isnot efficient. Research shows that it is not leading to theachievement of its goals because the objectives of monasticeducation are obscure, qualified teachers of Buddhism are fewand monastic education does not get continuous financial andadministrative support from the sangha and the government.Research also shows that the role of the wat on education andsociety is diminishing. The administration of wats is outmodedand cannot respond to the needs of modern society. This hasresulted in the inefficiency of the sangha to propagate Buddhism.The wat becomes a place for monks to live and perform religiousrituals or even worse it merely serves as a museum and touristdestination. Therefore, there is need for great change andimprovement in the monastic education in Thailand.4

    4 College of Religious Studies, Mahidol University. Nam Thong Sikkhlai. Asouvenir publication of the College of Religious Studies. 2004:37. This is the

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    In the past, there were no centrally designed syllabi for allmonasteries to follow.5 The nature of traditional monasticeducation was clearly determined by perceived traditional needs.The subjects were not necessarily religious alone, but reflectedinstead whatever academic abilities the teacher had such asmathematics or poetry, for example.6 There were no fixedcurriculum or textbooks for teachers to follow and plan theirteaching a

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