Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 16

Some exam­in­ers are extreme­ly strict; if one makes even the slight­est mis­take, one is not let off the hook. There is a sto­ry that one exam­i­nee trans­lat­ed the ear­li­er pas­sage as ‘a bird goes through the air.’ The exam­in­er replied: ‘Wrong. Try again.’ The exam­i­nee looked right and left, and saw his friend out­side wav­ing a red hand­ker­chief, mouthing the words: ‘A bird must fly! Just say­ing “go” will not suf­fice!’ Lack­ing smarts, the exam­i­nee answered: ‘The red bird goes through the air.’ The exam­in­er laughed loud­ly: ‘What kind of red bird? A com­mu­nist bird?’ The exam­i­nee duly failed. 

There is sto­ry of King Rama IV (King Mongkut) from a time when he was still a monk (named Phra Vaji­rañāṇa) and when he act­ed as an exam­in­er at the Roy­al Park exams. He got into a dis­pute with anoth­er exam­in­er over the way an exam­i­nee had trans­lat­ed the pas­sage: Āsane nisī­datha. The exam­i­nee had answered: ‘They sit in the sit­ting plat­form,’ and this answer was accept­ed. Somdet Phra Mahāsamaṇa Chao Krom Phraya Vaji­rañāṇavaro­rasa replied: ‘How can they sit in the platform—did they rip the top off to get inside?’

So what should he say?’ asked the oth­er exam­in­er furi­ous­ly. 

He must be sit­ting over the plat­form’ was the imme­di­ate reply.

What sort of pos­ture is that—over the plat­form? Was his bum hang­ing in the air?’ the exam­in­er retort­ed.

These inter­pre­ta­tions are a mat­ter of linguistics—who is to say which one is cor­rect? If we think too much about it, we begin to have doubts. But what is cer­tain is that these two ven­er­a­ble sirs were incom­pat­i­ble from that time onwards. Lat­er, when one of them dis­robed to ascend the throne, the oth­er feared roy­al ret­ri­bu­tion and dis­ap­peared on tudong for many years. King Mongkut asked his min­is­ters to find this monk and call him for an audi­ence. When beck­oned, the for­mer antag­o­nist thought: ‘Now I’m fin­ished.’ The king, how­ev­er, ele­vat­ed his eccle­si­as­ti­cal rank as a ges­ture of kind­ness and to show that he har­boured no ill-feel­ings. This is one of the many anec­dotes of the Roy­al Park exams.

I have men­tioned before that in order to receive the title of Mahā, one must pass the first three lev­els of Pali stud­ies, which is an exhaust­ing process. Each year, more peo­ple fail the exams than pass them. To pre­vent those stu­dents who failed from get­ting dis­cour­aged in their stud­ies, dur­ing the reign of King Rama III, the viceroy Somdet Phra Bawon­ratchao Maha Sakdiphon­lasep took those novices who had com­plet­ed the sec­ond lev­el of Pali stud­ies under his patron­age and bestowed on them a cer­e­mo­ni­al fan as encour­age­ment. For this rea­son, these novices were called ‘Front Palace grad­u­ates’ (bpri­an wang nah). This cus­tom was main­tained until the reign of King Rama V, when it was even­tu­al­ly abol­ished.

Cer­e­mo­ni­al Fans

This gives you an idea of how impor­tant study is for the monks, to the extent that kings and princes have praised and extend­ed their patron­age to those monks who pass the exams and are knowl­edge­able of the Tip­iṭa­ka, for instance those monks who reach the stage of Mahā.

Some schol­ars claim that the term mahā, besides refer­ring to some­one who has com­plet­ed the first three lev­els of Pali stud­ies, also refers to some­one who receives ‘great roy­al kind­ness’ (mahākaruṇā-adhiguṇa) from a monarch. Mahā is thus an abbre­vi­a­tion of this longer term. One need not pass exams to earn this title. For exam­ple, in the case of Somdet Bud­dhacharn Toh, peo­ple referred to him as Mahā Toh, even though he nev­er took part in the Roy­al Park exams. This ven­er­a­ble elder was great­ly respect­ed by King Rama IV. It is fair to say that he was the only monk able to ‘tease’ the king with­out incur­ring his wrath. Some­times, how­ev­er, he would acci­den­tal­ly push the king’s but­tons and receive the con­se­quences.

For exam­ple, at one time, the king had a pond built, along with a beau­ti­ful roy­al res­i­dence in the mid­dle. He asked Somdet Toh: ‘Ven­er­a­ble Toh, isn’t it beau­ti­ful?’ The ven­er­a­ble elder respond­ed: ‘Very beau­ti­ful, Your Majesty. Just like an exquis­ite roy­al char­i­ot.’ This short reply caused the king to be annoyed for sev­er­al weeks. The read­er may not know why this answer pro­voked such a response. It is because King Mongkut was a Pali expert. Somdet Toh’s words ‘like an exquis­ite roy­al char­i­ot’ cor­re­spond with one of the Buddha’s proverbs, stat­ing: ‘You should see this daz­zling world as sim­i­lar to an exquis­ite roy­al char­i­ot. Fools become enchant­ed by it, but the wise remain detached.’ The king got angry because he thought that Somdet Toh was call­ing him a fool.

This is how it is. When learned peo­ple admon­ish each oth­er, they do so in sub­tle ways. In regard to two wise peo­ple, the first knows what the oth­er is up to. This dif­fers from ordi­nary peo­ple, who may be scold­ed by the wise yet remain com­plete­ly obliv­i­ous.

When Somdet Toh was first appoint­ed as the abbot of Wat Rakang, the monks at this monastery were quite ill-dis­ci­plined. Some of them played kick vol­ley­ball, some of them prac­tised box­ing, while oth­ers behaved in oth­er shame­less ways. But in the end, Somdet Toh was able to bring a sense of order and dis­ci­pline to the monastery, using his own astute meth­ods. One day, he was return­ing from a roy­al cer­e­mo­ny at the palace and he met one of the monks enjoy­ing hav­ing a pee against the monastery wall. Somdet Toh said to him: ‘Stand on one leg—that way you won’t incur an offence.’ (Accord­ing to the Vinaya, it is an offence of wrong­do­ing—dukkaṭa—for a monk to uri­nate while stand­ing up.) The monk loy­al­ly did what he was told.

Wow, a moment ago I almost got into trou­ble. I was tak­ing a piss on the wall and just then, peek-a-boo, there was the Somdet,’ the monk told his friends.

Did he tell you off?’ they asked.

No. Instead, he had the kind­ness to show me how to stand up while pee­ing with­out falling into an offence.’

How can one stand and pee with­out it being an offence?’

He told me to lift one leg.’

Ha, ha. He was tak­ing you to task—can’t you see this?’ his friends laughed. 

How so?’

Stu­pid. What ani­mal lifts its leg while it is pee­ing?!’ 

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We are back, again

My apolo­gies for neglect­ing this web­site. Some­times impor­tant tasks remain sim­mer­ing on the back burn­er. An update since the last post:

My dear friend and ex-monk Shaun Ricordel, who was great­ly influ­en­tial in mak­ing this web­site hap­pen in the first place, passed away on 7 Feb­ru­ary 2018. He is still sore­ly missed. 

Shaun Ricordel

A pre­lim­i­nary online ver­sion of ‘Bud­dhad­ham­ma’ is avail­able at

Please be aware that this is a very large ras­terised ver­sion that is not yet suit­able for many prac­ti­cal pur­pos­es includ­ing word search­es. A more suit­able eBook ver­sion is cur­rent­ly being pre­pared. 

Bud­dhad­ham­ma’ is also now avail­able at book­shops in Thai­land includ­ing Asia Books and Kinoku­niya. If you want to buy a hard copy and have it sent to your address please let me know.

Third Edi­tion (for sale)

May all beings abide in safe­ty.

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Buddhadhamma’ Complete

After 17 years of work, the book has final­ly been pub­lished. For those of you who wish to acquire a copy of this first edi­tion, please con­tact the Bud­dhad­ham­ma Foun­da­tion at A sec­ond print­ing will be done soon, with thin­ner paper. Even­tu­al­ly, a 3‑volume set will be pre­pared, as well as an e‑Book ver­sion.

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We are back! After hav­ing our serv­er hacked, final­ly, after two years, we are back on line. Thank you Shaun for hav­ing backed up all the data and help­ing to get things off the ground again. Sad­hu

Offer­ing the final man­u­script of ‘Bud­dhad­ham­ma’ to Tahn Chao Phra Khun Somdet

Luang Por receiv­ing hon­ours for his new eccle­si­as­ti­cal title of Somdet


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Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 17

Novices Chanting

One of the activ­i­ties that mem­bers of the Saf­fron For­est must con­stant­ly engage in is mem­o­riza­tion. In Pali mem­o­riza­tion is called sajjhāya—con­stant, voiced recita­tion for the pur­pose of com­mit­ting a text to mem­o­ry. Mem­o­riz­ing Pali is extreme­ly dif­fi­cult. If one is intel­li­gent it is tol­er­a­ble, but if one is a bungling dimwit like Ven. Dtaw, by the time one trun­dles through a sin­gle verse there is great toil and drudgery.

There are numer­ous things to mem­o­rize in the Saf­fron For­est, includ­ing the words of con­fes­sion, morn­ing and evening chant­i­ng, words for pour­ing water, the yathā/sab­bī chants, pro­tec­tive chants, and funer­al chants. This last item in par­tic­u­lar is cru­cial; it can be called a source of liveli­hood for many monks. There is a Thai idiom: ‘The monks live off the ghosts; the lay offi­cials live off the monks.’ For this rea­son, new­ly ordained monks are urged to learn the funer­al chants as quick­ly as pos­si­ble. Oth­er­wise, some­one may sud­den­ly kick the buck­et; when the rel­a­tives come to invite you to chant at the funer­al you don’t want to die of embar­rass­ment.

There are two kinds of funer­al chant­i­ng:

  • Saṅ­ga­ha
  • Mātikā-paṁ­sukūla

The Saṅ­ga­ha funer­al chant­i­ng is done when the body of the deceased is kept at the family’s home or at the monastery, before the cre­ma­tion. On these occa­sions only four monks are invit­ed to chant—no more, no less. For the most part, the chants include vers­es relat­ed to the Abhid­ham­ma, derived from the book ‘Abhid­ham­mattha-Saṅ­ga­ha,’ com­posed by the Sri Lankan elder Ven. Anu­rud­dha. (The name of this chant­i­ng is an abbre­vi­a­tion from this title.) This chant­i­ng resem­bles a form of melo­di­ous singing, includ­ing fluc­tu­a­tions in pitch. Some of the monks pro­duce a falset­to that rivals the folk singers Pon Pirom or Chi­nagon Krailat. Occa­sion­al­ly, Thai poet­ic chants are includ­ed in this per­for­mance, in par­tic­u­lar as a reminder to reflect on the imper­ma­nence of con­di­tioned phe­nom­e­na.

For instance:

Anic­cā saṅkhārā, all for­ma­tions are fleet­ing,

Aris­ing and pass­ing away—expended, con­sumed.

Adults and chil­dren alike pass away, swept clear.

Even doc­tors and heal­ers must die, their lives com­ing to an end.”

Or they may be max­ims on the law of kam­ma, e.g.:

Doing right­ful deeds by body, speech, and mind;

Good­ness rec­i­p­ro­cates and rewards the doer;

Hap­pi­ness fol­lows in every moment;

Good­ness sup­ports and sus­tains the doer of good.

The delud­ed, wicked fool who per­forms bru­tal and heart­less deeds,

Sure­ly comes to ruin and dis­grace;

He gar­ners only woe, his hard­ship mul­ti­plied;

Thus evil is reaped by the evil­do­er.”

Corpse With Flowers

Regard­less of whether Thai or Pali is used, no-one seems to be able to under­stand what is being said, because the monks tend to draw out the chant­i­ng, ren­der­ing the words incom­pre­hen­si­ble. Even­tu­al­ly it appears like the monks are only chant­i­ng for the ghosts.

This is no match for the chant­i­ng in India. One of my friends used to live in India. He recount­ed how in the Land of the Indus when some­one dies the rel­a­tives car­ry the body in pro­ces­sion to the banks of the Riv­er Ganges. While trav­el­ling to the riv­er they chant in har­mo­ny: ‘Rām Rām maraṇā satyā haa’ which loose­ly trans­lates as: ‘Even Rāma must die; how could we escape the clutch­es of Death?’ Such a sim­ple and con­cise chant has dis­tinct advan­tages over the chants in Thai­land.

As I can gath­er, the Saṅ­ga­ha chant­i­ng is only per­formed in the cen­tral regions of Thai­land. It is not the cus­tom to invite the monks for Saṅ­ga­ha chant­i­ng in the back­woods of the North­east. When I was ordained we were nev­er invit­ed to sing. This is because the peo­ple in the North­east gen­er­al­ly do not keep the deceased at home. Imme­di­ate­ly after some­one dies, a rel­a­tive rush­es off to the monastery to invite the monks to chant the Mātikā-paṁ­sukūla. After the chant­i­ng is com­plet­ed the body is car­ried to the char­nel ground for cre­ma­tion. There is there­fore no Saṅ­ga­ha chanting—only the Mātikā-paṁ­sukūla.

Mātikā-paṁ­sukūla is com­prised of two sep­a­rate words: Mātikā and Paṁ­sukūla. Mātikā refers to chant­i­ng the main top­ics or the abbre­vi­at­ed head­ings of the Abhid­ham­ma. Anoth­er name for this chant­i­ng is Kusala. Chant­i­ng the Mātikā and chant­i­ng Kusala is one and the same. It has this alter­na­tive name because it begins with the word ‘kusala’: Kusala dham­mā, akusala dham­mā…. The Mātikā is not chant­ed in a melo­di­ous fash­ion as is the case with the Saṅ­ga­ha. It is chant­ed in an even and reg­u­lar into­na­tion. When the Mātikā chant­i­ng is fin­ished, the senior monk pass­es a skein of holy thread down the line to the last monk in the row. The monks then chant the Paṁsukūla—also known as the Anic­cā chant, because it begins: Anic­ca vata…. In Cen­tral Thai­land the thread is usu­al­ly placed down taut in front of the monks. The laypeo­ple then place an under-robe (sabong) or upper-robe on the thread. The monks hold on to the robe while chant­i­ng, and when the chant­i­ng is com­plete they draw the robe out. This pro­ce­dure is thus com­mon­ly known in the sphere of the Saf­fron For­est as ‘draw­ing Paṁ­sukūla’ or very sim­ply chak (‘draw,’ ‘yank’).

Out­siders may hear the monks using such tech­ni­cal terms, for instance:

Hey Kam­mai, how many times did you yank yes­ter­day?’

Only once. I can’t beat Tahn Vinai—he yanked three times.’

Don’t yank too much—you’ll get knack­ered.’

If you hear such a con­ver­sa­tion, don’t think too much, or you will cre­ate bad kar­ma unnec­es­sar­i­ly. The monks are sim­ply ask­ing one anoth­er how many times they went to chant the Paṁ­sukūla. The first monk here is dis­cour­ag­ing the sec­ond monk from accept­ing too many funer­al invi­ta­tions, and encour­ag­ing him to take some rest.

Chant­i­ng the Mātikā-paṁ­sukūla is a spe­cial activ­i­ty; it is not per­formed reg­u­lar­ly. Only once in a while is one invit­ed to chant at a funer­al. For this rea­son, most of the monks can­not remem­ber these chants as accu­rate­ly as they can the morn­ing and evening chant­i­ng. The monks and novices at Wat Huay trem­bled at the thought of hav­ing to be the senior monk on these occa­sions and to lead the chant­i­ng. Tak­ing part by sit­ting at the end of the line, how­ev­er, was gen­er­al­ly not a prob­lem.

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The com­men­taries define five kinds of bliss (pīti): 1) minor bliss (khud­dakā-pīti): enough to make one’s hair stand on end and for one to shed tears; 2) momen­tary bliss (khaṇikā-pīti): one expe­ri­ences momen­tary flash­es of rap­ture, like flash­es of light­ning; 3) peri­od­ic or surg­ing bliss (okkan­tikā-pīti): one feels puls­es of rap­ture in the body, like waves wash­ing against the shore; 4) trans­portive bliss (ubbeṅgā-pīti): one feels a strong sense of exhil­a­ra­tion, caus­ing one to behave in spon­ta­neous ways, say by utter­ing vers­es, or to feel as if one is float­ing; 5) all-per­va­sive bliss (pharaṇā-pīti): to expe­ri­ence rap­ture and exhil­a­ra­tion through­out one’s whole body.

(Vism. 143–4)

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Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 16

Wat Molee Lokayaram

Some exam­in­ers are extreme­ly strict; if one makes even the slight­est mis­take, one is not let off the hook. There is a sto­ry that one exam­i­nee trans­lat­ed the ear­li­er pas­sage as ‘a bird goes through the air.’ The exam­in­er replied: ‘Wrong. Try again.’ The exam­i­nee looked right and left, and saw his friend out­side wav­ing a red hand­ker­chief, mouthing the words: ‘A bird must fly! Just say­ing “go” will not suf­fice!’ Lack­ing smarts, the exam­i­nee answered: ‘The red bird goes through the air.’ The exam­in­er laughed loud­ly: ‘What kind of red bird? A com­mu­nist bird?’ The exam­i­nee duly failed. Con­tin­ue read­ing

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Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 15

Wall Painting on a Door from a Monastery in Chiang Mai

The Monks and Novices Go to the Royal Park

Every group devel­ops its own spe­cial lan­guage and tech­ni­cal terms for com­mu­ni­ca­tion. One needs to be a mem­ber of a spe­cif­ic bat­tal­ion or pla­toon in order to under­stand these terms; out­siders are left in the dark. Mem­bers of the Saf­fron For­est also have a large num­ber of tech­ni­cal terms spe­cif­ic to their com­mu­ni­ty. New mem­bers must per­se­vere before they gain any lev­el of pro­fi­cien­cy in such ter­mi­nol­o­gy. Con­tin­ue read­ing

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Nature & Society

Monastery Bell

A com­plete spir­i­tu­al devel­op­ment involves an inter­ac­tion with and an under­stand­ing of both nature and soci­ety, because peo­ple are shaped and influ­enced both by nat­ur­al and social forces. Such devel­op­ment is nour­ished by soci­ety and by nature, bring­ing about pros­per­i­ty and hap­pi­ness. Con­tin­ue read­ing

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Wholesome Desire

Sunlit oak on the Blackdown Hills, DevonWhile trav­el­ling in the coun­try­side and see­ing an enor­mous tree with over­ar­ch­ing branch­es and abun­dant green leaves, some­one whose mind is expan­sive and appre­ci­ates the beau­ty of nature will delight in the splen­dour and mag­nif­i­cence of that tree and wish for it to pros­per and be free from dan­ger. Con­tin­ue read­ing

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