Mongkut & Dhammayut

Here’s an interesting account of Thai Buddhist history, focusing on the reforms by Phra Mongkut in the mid-19th century.

The author, Phra Anil Sakya (Sugandha), is a Nepalese bhikkhu who was the secretary for the Sangharaja in Thailand, and is now holding an academic post. He notes that Mongkut himself used the term ‘dhammayut’ to mean one who is practicing correctly in accord with the Buddha himself, whose teachings are to be studied through a critical and close examination of the texts, clearly distinguishing between authentic and inauthentic. His son, Phra Vajiraṇāṇa, praised one of the leading figures in the early Dhammayut, saying, ‘Somdet Phra Vanarat likes changing, a true nature of Dhammayut Order.’

17 thoughts on “Mongkut & Dhammayut

  1. Getting information on how to actually and practically begin the process of going forth seems to be very rare to come by on the internet; I have any number of descriptions of the ordination procedure, but as to the details of where to go, who to talk to, and what to do in which order… :cricket:

    I hereby attach a request for more of this sort of information alongside the forthcoming discussion of the various Vinaya lineages.

    • Hmm, Phra Anil’s apologetics for the Dhammayutika has a glaring sleight of hand on page 35. Trying to explain away the movement as being nothing more than a “trend” ignores completely the realities of the institutional character of the Dhammayutika as a “seperate” nikaya.

      That distinction, I believe, is entrenched in the Sangha Acts, and is not just some wooly notion based on like-mindedness.

    • There’s obviously a development there, from the posited idea of dhammayut meaning ‘correct way’, to the formation of a distinct nikaya. Phra Anil’s essay could be read as an apologetic for the Dhammayut institution; equally it could be read as a critique of the later formation of Dhammayut as a highly conservative, legally entrenched sect.

    • I’m not too sure if the “legalism” phase of the Dhammayutika did not begin with Prince Mongkut himself. I have it from an unverified source that the future Rama IV ordained, disrobed and reordained nearly 30 times over suspicions on defects in (i) siimas or (ii) his preceptor(s)’ qualifications,

      There could well be dimensions, other than ordination, that might have been used by Prince Mongkut to distinguish his group from the “rest” but I can’t speculate on these.

      I think AC Thanissaro tries quite valiantly to make a similar distinction between the Dhammayutikas of –

      (i) the 3rd and 4th Reigns (Mongkut’s purported agenda at fidelity to the roots)
      (ii) the 5th Reign (for the purposes of the consolidation of State Buddhism); and
      (iii) the Forest Tradition.

      I just find the attempt to distinguish (i) from (ii) to be a little too artificial and “romantic”, as if Prince Mongkut did not have any nationalistic agenda once he ascended the throne.

      Nevertheless, I suppose the best intent for the origins of the Dhammayutika cannot be displaced by any nationalistic agenda that came later.

    • It certainly seems as if there is a degree of idealizing going on here. Mongkut, being a thoroughly practical man and a king, cannot be seen as a purely spiritual reformer, and I would be surprised if the early Dhammayut was really as completely free of sectarian tendencies as Phra Anil’s article would have us believe.

      What’s interesting to me is not so much whether the ‘ideal’ of the pre-sectarian interpretation of ‘dhammayut’ actually corresponds to a genuine historical period, but the fact that it is upheld as a value at all. The application of that value to the real world would have been messy and incomplete. But the fact remains that the most important figure in the founding of modern Thai Buddhism extolled, and at least tried to live up to, the ideal of genuine Buddhist practice arrived at through a critical and inquiring process, and rejected the mindless passing down of tradition for its own sake.

    • This is fantastic, actually! I had been trying to get a general gist of things from someplace online because Metta Forest Monastery in California is pretty secluded, and if I get someone on the phone I don’t want to ask about mere basics.

      (I expect ordaining thereabouts will be easier than trying to swap citizenship over to Australia first, much as I love Santi!)

  2. I’ve oftenheard it said that the king’s Pali scholarship was atrocious and that his understanding of the texts was poor at best. I would much appreciate a scholarly view not the hagiography this appears to be.

    • I’m not sure, as I haven’t read much of their original works. With due allowance for hagiographic bias, it seems to me that the scholarship of Vens Mongkut and Vajirañāṇa was quite good. It was pioneering work, done without either a well-developed native scholarly tradition, or a connected international community, or much training or precedent in serious text-critical work, so there are undoubted flaws. But i think, seen as an innovative step, it was a great leap in a good direction.

  3. I’m actually quite open to the possibility that the Dhammayutika agenda started off idealistically with Prince Mongkut. There does not seem to be anything to suggest that his motives were anything other than “spiritual”. I doubt if we would ever be able to construct a sinister angle to his early idealism, eg hoping to pit a purified Sangha against Rama III.

    I just feel that once he left the robes, the Dhammayutika agenda may have been hijacked towards nationalistic ends. Bangkok control of the border kingdoms (eg Lanna) may have been tenuous during his reign and did not see consolidation till much later. So, it’s not inconceivable that State Buddhism through the Dhammayutika bureacracy could have been a viable option for Rama IV to “co-opt” the provinces into Bangkok rule.

  4. David Mead :
    This is fantastic, actually! I had been trying to get a general gist of things from someplace online because Metta Forest Monastery in California is pretty secluded, and if I get someone on the phone I don’t want to ask about mere basics.
    (I expect ordaining thereabouts will be easier than trying to swap citizenship over to Australia first, much as I love Santi!)

    You needn’t become a citizen. We, for example, are jumping the final hurdles in the application for a permanent residency visa for one of our novices.

    I don’t want to give the impression that ordination at Santi is a free ride past the Australian Department of Immigration, merely that immigration should not be considered an impermeable barrier to sincere candidates.

    >j<

  5. Dear Bhante,

    I am teaching social studies in a Bangkok high school and need to know the main sangha acts that were passed in Thailand and what was their effect.
    Thanking you for any help you can give me,
    Sincerely and with every blessing,
    Alan J. Cooper

  6. To get back to the “literature on ordination” question above, archiv.org has:
    * Ordination Procedure Thai Theravada (1964): https://archive.org/details/OrdinationProcedureThaiTheravada going back to Vajirañana, i.e. straight from the horse’s mouth
    * Buddhist Self-Ordination: https://archive.org/details/BuddhistSelf-ordinationADharmaStrategyForTheWest
    * Burmese procedure of yore is described in: Knox, George in TAJS, Vol. 3 (1833)
    * Wat Dhammakaya publishes its procedure on http://www.ordinationthai.org/
    * Those not limited to Hinaya may have a look at Antaiji (http://antaiji.org/) a Soto-Zen temple, where the abbott described on the old site (can’t be bothered to dig through it right know) described the Zen ordination.
    * Mahāsāṃghika Vinaya, Mahīśāsaka Vinaya, Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, Sarvāstivāda Vinaya and Mūlasarvāstivāda with the appropriate rule may be read in full text at: http://www.cbeta.org/ (for those who feel comfortable with classical Chinese) , a French-japanese Index is at: https://archive.org/details/HobogirinFasciculeAnnexe

    • Thanks for the sources. Just to note that all the Chinese Vinayas, with the exception of the Mulasarvativada, may also be read at Suttacentral, with a more friendly navigation, and a powerful Buddhist Chinese lookup tool.

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