Friday, June 5, 2009

Wat Bovornnives

Buddhist realism

How King Mongkut shook up the monkhood and set out stricter rules.

One of the things that disturbed King Nangklao (1824-1851) was the sight of Dhammayuktinikaya monks wearing yellow robes in the Mon fashion.

So just before he died, he asked Wachirayan Bhikku, then Abbot of Wat Borwonnivet, to promise him that he would not force all the Maha Nikaya monks to wear the yellow robe.

Wachirayan Bhikku readily concurred.

After he ascended the throne as King Mongkut, he kept his word.

He went as far as not to show any particular favour to the Dhammayuktinikaya sect he had founded as a reaction to the decline of Buddhism at the time.

Dhammayuktinikaya would become an important sect rivalling Maha Nikaya under the overall umbrella of Theravada Buddhism.

Yet Dhammayuktinikaya would prosper in its unique way to influence not only the interpretation of the Buddha's teaching but also art and architecture.

Realism would be the flowing theme in the Dhammayuktinikaya.

Since the Buddhist doctrine was first written down 400 years after the death of the Lord Buddha, King Mongkut felt there could be some flaws in the interpretation of the Buddha's teaching.

He sought to create a new Buddhism.

He was also unhappy with the general decline of Buddhism at the time, with monks reciting prayers without understanding the real meaning and with numerous monks showing a lax attitude toward the vinaya (regulations or procedures covering monks).

The Dhammayuktinikaya sect pursued strict discipline.

The monks followed the vinaya thoroughly, and practised and studied Buddhism seriously.

When they read Pali, they had to pronounce the language correctly.

The way the monks were ordained was revised.

Realism would be the underlying theme.

During his reign, King Mongkut (1851-1868) commissioned the renovation of at least 50 temples in the Kingdom.

He also sent Dhammayuktinikaya monks to stay in most of them.

King Rama IV also had more temples built such as Wat Ratchapradit in the east of the Royal Palace to accommodate members of the royal family who would like to make merit in the fashion of the Dhammayuktinikaya sect.

Wat Sommanatwihan Ratchaworawihan, Wat Pathum-wanaram Rajaworavihara and Wat Makutkasattriyaram were also royal-sponsored temples.

At a seminar last week to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of King Mongkut, organised by Thai Khadi Research Institute, scholars said realism prevailed in the Dhammayuktinikaya's art and architecture.

The temple renovations and building during King Mongkut's time had prayer hall, cloisters and stupas built together as a group and some had two rings of boundary stones (Sima).

The Maha Sima, placed in the temple walls and the Khantha Sima, also surrounded the prayer hall.

According to Naengnoi Suksri, National Researcher of 1995, this layout was to accommodate monks to precisely and strictly do routine activities as stated in the vinaya.

These examples can also be seen at Somma-natwihan Ratchaworawihan and Ayutthaya's Wat Senasana.

Pitchaya Sumjinda, a lecturer at Chiang Mai University's Fine Arts Faculty, said the Buddha images of Dhammayuktinikaya also reflected its realistic approach.

The Buddha images mostly resemble human forms, with no Ketumala (the enlarged portion of skull on a Buddha image representing one of the 32 traits of a Great Man) and showed the wrinkled robes to reflect the realism.

Phra Nirantrarai Buddha image was another example of this artistic tradition.

Silpakorn University Fine Arts Faculty lecturer Suttha Leenuwattiwong said Dhammayuktinikaya also cast its influence on traditional mural painting.

A few blocks away from the world's famous Khao San Road stands Wat Bowonniwet. This temple holds a precious secret of our future. Not until recently have I come to know the secret of Suvarnabhumi, the Golden Land. The revelation came to me almost like an accident. I would rather prefer to call it a design.
For many years I had been, as an idle onlooker, passing by Wat Bowonniwet at Banglamphoo, which locates at one of the oldest quarters of Old Bangkok. For unknown reasons, I never had an urge to go inside.

Wat Bowonniwet
My favourite temples had been Wat Suthat, and Wat Pho and Wat Mahan Annop. At Wat Suthat I prayed to the Phra Srisakayamuni, the main Buddha statue, and asked for a blessing for my wisdom. At Wat Pho, I appreciated the supreme serenity of the Reclining Buddha, whose size was sheer staggering but who also appeared to be not of this world. At Wat Mahan Annop, I sought beauty in golden Phra Ruang, who was our Great Teacher.
Buddha statues in Thailand yield different sentimentalities and efficacies. You pray to Phra Kaewmorakot or the Emerald Buddha for power and blessing because it is the supreme Buddha statue of the land. You feel a tornado swirling around the Emerald Buddha every time you approach the statue. The electrical charge is so intense.

You pray for Phra Phuttha Chinaraj in Pitsanulok for triumph over your enemies. As beauty as Phra Phutta Chinnaraj is, the statue also symbolises victory. King Naresuan and his brother King Ekathosarot prayed before this Buddha statue every time before they went to war. This Buddha statue is modelled in the form of the Buddha's Subduing of the Mara.

The Golden Phra Ruang of Sukhothai period at Wat Mahannop.
Personally, I feel more religious affinity with Phra Ruang Thongkham, Golden Phra Ruang, at Wat Mahannop on Dinso Road. Phra Ruang Thongkham, which is less well known, appears to me as a Great Teacher.
From the outside, Wat Bowonniwet did not inspire my curiousity, though I had known that it was one of the most important temples of the Chakri Dynasty. The main building of this temple also houses Phra Phuthachinasee, which for several hundred years sat beside Phra Phutta Chinaraj, arguably Thailand's most beautiful Buddha statue, in Pitsanulok before it was shipped down to Bangkok during the Ratanakosin period.
King Mongkut, the great-grandfather of King Bhumibol, served as an abbot at Wat Bowonniwet during the reign of King Nangklao (Rama III). This temple was not far away from the Grand Palace so that his half brother, King Nangklao, could keep an eye on him. King Nangklao did not trust Prince Mongkut, the monk, who broke ranks from the Maha Nikaya Buddhism to set up a more disciplined sect of Thammayut Nikaya.
When King Nangklao passed away, the nobilities, dominated by the Bunnags, sent soldiers to surround Wat Bowonniwet to give protection to the abbot and asked him, then 46 years old, to leave the monkhood to become the next king.

The Supreme Patriarch is also presently residing at Wat Borwonniwet. He is one of the greatest preachers of our time. His Thai language is beautiful, very touching and illuminating.
King Bhumibol also took a brief time off his throne to stay at this temple after his ordination at Wat Phrakaew. At Wat Borwonniwet, the King searched for the past of and drew the spiritual inspiration from his Great Grandfather, who was a Philosopher King.
Somdet Phra Yansangworn, now the Supreme Patriarach, served as a mentor for King Bhumibol when he entered the monkhood. They both had high respect for each other.
It was not until two months ago that I ventured into Wat Bowonniwet for the first time of my life. I had been visiting the Banglamphoo area probably a hundred times before but had never ventured into Wat Bowonniet. Probably, the timing was not right for me then.
On my neck I was wearing a silver coin, modelled as Royal Monkhood B.E. 2499. In the front of this sacred coin was His Majesty the King in his monkhood. The back of the coin showed the Golden Stupa, which symbolically kept the relics of the Lord Buddha.

I had been using a magnifier to scrutinise the Royal Monkhood coin for some time to enjoy its aesthetics. I have been a collector of Buddha amulets for the past 20 years. What I particularly liked about the Royal Moonkhood coin was that it showed our king in a monk's yellow robe. A combination of Kingship and monkhood in the tradition of the Lord Budda was almost surreal.

In Thailand, the King holds the highest status. We pay respect to him with reverence. But if we were to enter monkhood, the King would pay respect to us. In this respect, the hierarchy in Thai society comes full circle in almost perfect symmetry and harmony.

Imagine the status of the King as residing in a triangle. The King can have the highest status in the high angle, can have a flat status in one angle and finally can have a low status at the the bottom angle of the triangle. In Buddhism, this is called Trairat. When this triangle is turn around, the King's status is flexible -- on top (when he attends official ceremony and signs important royal endorsements), on the flat ground (when he lives his normal life) on bottom (when he visits and mingle with his people in the rural areas).
In the triangle, every angle can always stay at the top, depending on how you turn it around. It does not matter.

Trirat, a triangle of life
Your life can also be looked upon this triangle model of Trairat. Using the triangle picture below as a guide. When you were born, you were at the left angle of this triangle. You continue your life until you reach 50 years old (my age), which puts you right at the right angle. Now you try to maintain a balance of your life until you reach 70 years old at the top of the angle. Once you reach 70 years old and stay at the top of the angle, you are returning to the original angle of the triangle of your birth. Your life comes full circle -- birth, aging, getting sick and death -- in an eternal recurrence until you finally arrive at a breakthrough of your consciousness and attain nirvana. Then and only then can you transcend this triangle or break away from the cycle of life.

After praying to the Buddha statue in the main chapel of the Wat Bowonniwet, I walked outside and came to temporary shop beside the chapel. There was a big poster advertising the Royal Monkhood Coin, the silver one similar to the one that I was wearing on my neck. I was stunned. For in the poster, I saw the King, who is the Power of the Land as his Bhumibol name literally implies, in his sitting posture floating from Heaven to Earth as a Buddha-to-be.
I took a hard look at the coin on my neck again. Then I turned to its back to take a look at the Golden Pagoda. I quickly walked to the back of the main chapel. There stood the Golden Pagoda, which represented Suvarnabhumi, the Golden Land.
I found a little secret of Wat Bowonniwet by design.
This at once reminded me of Phra Ruang Thongkham, or the Golden Phra Ruang at Wat Mahannop, built mostly with gold in the Sukhothai tradition. Wat Mahannop is, in a straight line, about two kilometres away from Wat Bowonniwet.

All of a sudden, the statue of Phra ruang Thonkham resurfaced in my mine to tell me a story of the past, the present and the future.
Since the statue was built with gold, its past pointed to the richness of Golden Land of Suvarnabhumi and the social harmony of a Utopia-like state. The statue told me about the state of the present, characterised by ignorance. Most people do not recognise the gold inside Phra Ruang Thongkham, hence the decline of Buddhism, the widespread incidence of greeds and evil forces and the lack of social harmony in the Thai society. The statue finally provided me with a vision of the future when the Thai people were enlightened to see the gold inside Phra Ruang Thongkham and set off to embrace the Golden Age of Suvarnabhumi again.
Suvarnabhumi, the Golden Land, where there was fish in the water and rice in the field. That faraway notion of Utopia seemed to be not too far away.

King who reinforced Siam’s status as a nation
Published on October 18, 2004
The circumstances under which Varirayana Bhikkhu abruptly left the monkhood during the
summer of 1851 to take over the reign of Siam as King Mongkut were quite extraordinary,
representing one of the most intriguing episodes in the history of early Rattanakosin.
At 47, he was already a middle-aged man, having been ordained a monk for 27 years. He
did not seem to have any political base to support his claim to the vacant throne left open by
the demise of his half-brother, King Nangkhlao (1824-1851). It was true that Prince
Mongkut was a genuine Celestial Prince, who was born of royal parents on both sides. But,
as earlier Siamese history had shown, the status of Celestial Prince did not guarantee him an
automatic right to the throne. It was the Accession Council, which was made up of the
nobility, which decided the selection of a monarch by taking into account the political
circumstances and power-broking of the time. Recent studies have sought to reinterpret the
special circumstances of the enthronement of King Mongkut. The fourth ruler of the Chakri
Dynasty owed his rise to the throne to the Bunnag clan, who at the time had virtually
absolute control over Siam’s military, political, economic and commercial domains. In his
controversial book “The Politics of the Enthronement of Phra Chom Khlao” (Bangkok:
Matichon Press, 2004), Therdphong Khongchan argues that Jamuen Vaivoranat (Chuang
Bunnag) and Jamuen Rajamataya (Kham Bunnag) were decisively responsible for the
support of Prince Mongkut to become the new king, because he posed the least threat to the
political and military power and wealth of the Bunnag clan. The two high-ranking noblemen
were brothers and sons of Chao Phraya Phra Khlang (Dis Bunnag). Together with his
younger brother, Phraya Sripipatratanarajkosa (Thut Bunnag), Chao Phraya Phra Khlang
exercised an almost monopoly on the conduct of Siamese affairs in the first half of the 19th
century. Their father was Bunnag, who was a friend and in-law of King Yodfa. Bunnag
married Khun Nuan, a younger sister of Than Phuying Nag, the mother of King Lertla and
wife of Chao Phraya Chakri, who would later become King Yodfa. Through marriages and
relations, Bunnag would be able to establish his clan as the most powerful in Rattanakosin.
Chao Phraya Phra Khlang was the chief minister with the most power in Siam during the
Third and Fourth reigns. His son, Jamuen Vaivoranat, who was later promoted to the highest
rank of Chao Phraya Maha Srisuriyawongse (Chuang Bunnag), would become regent during
the reign of King Chulalongkorn. In 1824, Chao Phraya Phra Khlang, Phraya
Sripipatratanarajkosa and Jamuen Vaivoranat passed over Prince Mongkut for Prince Jesda
Bodin to take over as the third ruler after the demise of King Lertla (1809-1824). Prince
Jesda Bodin was the eldest son of King Lertla. His mother was a commoner. But he excelled
in trade, commerce and administration, helping King Lertla, who was more interested in
spending his time writing poetry and appreciating the arts, to run most affairs of the state.
The Bunnag clan readily supported Prince Jesda Bodin, because they considered him a
strong ally to further enhance their political power. King Nang Khlao, and to a greater
degree, King Mongkut, might in theory have held absolute power in the conduct of state
affairs, but in reality they ruled under “limited monarchy” with the military and noblemen
exercising their mighty power in the shadows. It was not until towards the end of the 19th
century that King Mongkut’s son, King Chulalongkorn, or Rama V, would be able to
reclaim absolute monarchy after the deaths of the key members of the Bunnag clan. The
traditional-history textbooks generally give the impression that Prince Jesda Bodin was not
a Celestial Prince in the strictest sense, because his mother was not a queen, and that he
“stole the throne” from Prince Mongkut. But as is generally known, King Lertla and King
Yodfa (1782-1809) – the father and grandfather respectively of Prince Jesda Bodin and
Prince Mongkut – were also born commoners. Born 200 years ago on October 18, 1804,
Prince Mongkut was only 20 years old when his father, King Lertla, passed away. Like all
Thai men coming of age, he had just entered the monkhood to fulfil his duty as a Buddhist.
His mother was Queen Sri Suriyendra, a cousin of King Lertla. Bangkok then was a young
capital, established in 1782 by King Yodfa, or Rama I, right after the end of the Thonburi
Kingdom and 15 years after the fall of Ayutthaya. Given the political situation of the time,
Prince Mongkut decided to stay on in the yellow robe to avoid giving the impression that he
had ambition for the throne. It was the tradition of the Siamese, noblemen or commoners to
seek refuge in the monkhood in times of political peril. As a monk, Prince Mongkut proved
to be a first-class scholar. He was the first king in Asia to learn how to speak and write
English. His Pali was excellent and he was well versed in the Buddhist doctrine. He also
studied modern science, geography, history, mathematics and astronomy. It was during his
monkhood that he travelled to the North and reportedly discovered the Ramkhamhaeng
stone, with inscriptions of the earliest known Thai language, before bringing it back to
Bangkok. The prince-monk known as Vajirayana also founded a religious order, the
Thammayuth Sect, which emphasised strict discipline and practices. The sect was created as
a reaction to the lax religious practices of the Maha Nikaya, the mainstream Buddhism. Wat
Samorai became the centre of the sect, which gained respect among the people. However,
King Nang Khlao was disturbed with Vajirayana, who was summoned to stay closer to him
at Wat Bovornnivej. The king would have liked one of his sons, Prince Annop – then 31 –
to succeed him. But the Bunnag clan, as Therdphong points out in his book, believed that
they would not get along with Prince Annop that well. Other candidates, who were either
sons of King Lertla or King Nang Khlao, were passed over, including Prince Juthamani, the
younger brother of Prince Mongkut. Eventually, the Bunnags decided to support Prince
Mongkut, who was likely to pose the least threat to their power. Prince Juthamani would
become the Second King, elevated to a full title as King Pinkhlao. The Bunnags’ power
reached its zenith during the Fourth Reign, as they promoted their sons, siblings and
relatives to all the key positions of state. Naturally, King Mongkut was obliged to feel
grateful to the Bunnags for bringing him to power. He allowed them almost free rein to run
the affairs of state on his behalf. Still, King Mongkut managed to begin consolidating Siam,
which at the time was loosely divided into territories under the rule of local lords, into
statehood. Colonial threats were clear, and he deterred these by institutionalising the
concept of nationhood for the first time to show the colonial powers that Siam was a unified
country with a great history. When he passed away in 1868, his son Prince Chulalongkorn
took over the throne. Initially, he faced hardship in dealing with the nobility and the
Bunnags, but when he came of age, he began, with the aid of his half-brothers, to consolidate his power. However, it was not until the death of key members of the old
establishment that he could really embark on a revolution to modernise the country. King
Mongkut could not have imagined that his son would pull off the task that he himself wouldhave liked to accomplish – absolute monarchy.

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