The Autobiography of Prince-Patriarch Vajiranana
I just found in the BSWA library a fascinating little book, the English translation of the autobiography of Vajiranana. (Autobiography: The Life of Prince-Patriarch Vajiranana. Ed & trans Craig J Reynolds, Ohio University, 1979.)
He was one of the very many sons of King Mongkut, and following on from Mongkut’s modernist tendencies, was perhaps the single greatest reformer in modern Thai Buddhism. His autobiography, one of the first of its kind in Thai literature, is brief, honest, and refreshingly candid, although it only covers the period of his early life, up to the first few years as a monk. The English edition is excellent, with a detailed introduction and very useful notes.
What comes across most strikingly is Vajiranana’s constant effort to balance the Dhamma and his duties and temptations as a prince. He details at length his period of decadence as a young man, with gambling and overspending, although he confesses he was a failure at being a drunkard and was never attracted to women. This period is interesting, although it follows an edifying formula, paralleling Siddhattha’s early life, and has a clear literary purpose in contrasting with his reform as he discovered Buddhism.
What is interesting, though, is that this reform happened not through an encounter with a monk or Buddhist teachings, but through his Scottish teacher, Dr Peter Gowan, who lived “like an Indian rishi” and who, among other things, persuaded Vajiranana to give up smoking. It’s fascinating to see how the east and west were closely intertwined even in those days, as Vajiranana repeatedly says how much he liked European ways, and says again and again that he did things just because they were European, whether good or bad. He makes explicit connections between the Sangha hierarchy and western religious forms, saying that the rank of chao khana is equivalent to the Church of England’s Bishop.
In addition to his encounters with Gowan, and of course with the various monks who he knew, his defining moment of dispassion came when he saw that a table that he had bought, and which he thought was so lovely, was in fact fairly cheaply made, and coming apart. This little observation turned him off materialism forever – a realistic psychological detail.
Vajiranana didn’t seem to have a very positive view of women, and saw one of the benefits of his initial stay in the monastery as a novice in his young teens very much in terms of the traditional process of an initiation into the men’s circle. It was the tradition that young princes would live in the Inner Palace among the Palace women until they ordained as novices around age 14, after which they would not return to the Inner Palace. Vajiranana says (p. 9) that he was happy to be in the monastery as:
‘the talk of women had no wit’… ‘Living at the monastery was beneficial in rapidly making my sensibilities and mannerisms more masculine, although in my subsequent residence there as a novice I tended to acquire less intrepid, feminine mannerisms.’
In his later teens he began to seriously study and reflect on the teachings. He was particularly struck by the Kalama Sutta ‘which taught one not to believe blindly and to depend on one’s own thinking.’ This was in the late 1800s, and he apparently noticed this sutta, which has come to define modernist Buddhism, by himself. Like King Mongkut before him, he took a sceptical attitude towards the miraculous events described in the texts, deciding, for example, that the attack by the army of Mara could not be true. But he says that he lacked the Pali expertise at the time to carefully investigate such cases, merely making up his mind and rejecting what he didn’t like. Only later did he come to realize that such teachings could be interpreted in an allegorical sense. He was not alone in taking such an inquiring attitude, for he remarks that:
After hearing senior monks object to certain passages I learned to make up my own mind, to select those passages which were acceptable to me and to reject, as if sifting out gold from the sand, those which were unacceptable…
Vajiranana refers to his strong temper, and while his autobiography is quite restrained and generous-spirited, he shows a degree of impatience for narrow-minded or overly ritualistic monks. He praises his teacher Brahmamuni, as “he did not have the narrow mindedness typical of a monk who thinks of himself as orthodox.” He writes critically of the dispute in his time between the ‘water’ monks and the ‘land’ monks – those who were ordained in a water sima were considered more pure than those ordained on land. He says, “Pious laywomen of that school fluttered about praising the ‘water monks’ and disparaging the ‘land monks’…”
Throughout, there is precisely no emphasis on any of the higher teachings. No meditation, no deep philosophy, no liberation, no Nibbana. When he mentions the benefits he has received from his Dhamma study, they are all very limited, worldly concerns.
In this regard, the forest tradition has surely made an incalculable contribution, by placing meditation and liberation where they should be, at the heart. Yet in their dismissal of study, the forest tradition has forgotten how much they owe to reformers such as Vajiranana. Without such scholars, there would be no critical study of Buddhist texts, no understanding of how the Pali suttas are the most authentic teachings of the Buddha, and subsequently no understanding of the central role of meditation in liberation. While forest tradition monks rely, usually unconsciously, on the reforms brought about with such effort by Vajiranana and his generation, too many of them have lost the spirit of inquiry that illuminates this period of Thai Buddhist reform. Now, the idea that one can investigate the teachings and make up one’s own mind is regarded as a formal heresy (ditthivipatti). Modern Thai Buddhism was formed on the basis that the Vinaya is the authority, not the opinions of the teachers (acariyavada). For much of the modern forest tradition, sadly, the opinions of the teachers has become all that matters, and recourse to the Dhamma and Vinaya of the Buddha is dismissed out of hand.