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.

This is true even for such sim­ple pro­nouns as ‘me’ and ‘you.’ It is a headache before one devel­ops any sense of ease around these terms. With oth­er monks one may use the com­mon pro­nouns of pom (‘I’) and koon (‘you’), but this also depends on the sta­tus of the oth­er monk. If he has a cler­i­cal rank, for instance he is a chao khun, then the pro­nouns change accord­ing­ly. (If one won­ders how to tell who is a chao khun, look at the cer­e­mo­ni­al fan. If it is peaked at the end, then one knows.)

Tahn Chao Khun Upali

When a junior monk speaks to a chao khun, the pro­noun ‘I’ changes to glao-grapom, and the pro­noun ‘you’ changes to dty-tao or pra-date-pra-koon. When a monk speaks to a layper­son who is old­er than him­self, he may use the name yom. (The term yom, how­ev­er, should not be used when speak­ing to chil­dren, because this term lit­er­al­ly means ‘par­ent’; any chil­dren who know this fact will oth­er­wise burst out laugh­ing.) When speak­ing to laypeo­ple, the first per­son pro­noun changes to ahtamah, a term one should nev­er use with oth­er monks. When acknowl­edg­ing the speech of the laity, one uses the term jar­ern-pawn, instead of ja or krap. The terms ahtamah and jar­ern-pawn are often abbre­vi­at­ed to ahmah and pawn, respec­tive­ly. Here is an exam­ple conversation:

I need to con­sult with you, tahn (‘ven­er­a­ble’).’

Pawn. What is on your mind, pawn.’

Oh, it’s my son. He seems to be get­ting con­stant­ly more unruly. He comes home late every night. Some­times he dis­ap­pears for sev­er­al days. I fear he is going to become a delinquent.’

Pawn. How can I help, pawn.’

I would like him to be ordained as a novice. I want you to give him some train­ing. I’m find­ing him uncontrollable.’

The rea­son I am dis­cussing this mat­ter of lin­guis­tics is to ensure that peo­ple don’t mis­un­der­stand the title of this chap­ter. The expres­sion ‘go to the Roy­al Park’ is a tech­ni­cal term used by mem­bers of the Saf­fron For­est, mean­ing to sit one’s exams for nak tham or for Pali stud­ies. It doesn’t con­tain the sex­u­al innu­en­dos that this term con­veys in oth­er cir­cles, for instance in the mas­sage parlours!

Here, I wish to dis­cuss the exam­i­na­tions by mem­bers of the Saf­fron For­est. (Let us dri­ve ven­er­a­bles Boonkay, Liam, Dtaw, & Maha Sing off the main stage tem­porar­i­ly.) One may won­der why the monks’ exam­i­na­tions are called ‘going to the Roy­al Park’ or the ‘Roy­al Park exams.’ Pre­vi­ous­ly, I nev­er inquired about the hid­den mean­ing of this expression.

Buddhist Novice taking Royal Park Exams

From what I can gath­er, the exam­i­na­tion of for­mal Dham­ma stud­ies (pariy­at­ti-dham­ma) goes back to the Sukhothai and Ayut­thaya peri­ods. Whether the exam­i­na­tion pro­ce­dures were the same as they are now I don’t know, because I wasn’t born in time to find out. Dur­ing the reign of King Rama II of the Rat­tanakosin era the cur­ricu­lum and the method of exam­i­na­tion was reformed. Every Thai king sup­port­ed for­mal Dham­ma stud­ies. This was par­tic­u­lar­ly true in the case of King Rama IV, who con­sid­ered it a mat­ter of state. He decreed that the exam­i­na­tions should take place at the Grand Palace, and he would lis­ten to the exam­i­na­tions every year until the end of his reign. This is where the expres­sion ‘Roy­al Park exams’ comes from. It is trimmed from ‘sit­ting the exam­i­na­tions at the Roy­al Are­na’ or ‘sit­ting one’s exams in the Roy­al Palace.’

Orig­i­nal­ly there were only three lev­els of Pali exam­i­na­tions. Dur­ing the reign of King Rama II, this was expand­ed into nine lev­els, which exist to this day. The three lev­els of nak tham (‘Dham­ma schol­ar’) exams were estab­lished by Somdet Phra Mahāsamaṇa Chao Krom Phraya Vaji­rañāṇavaro­rasa, towards the end of King Rama V’s reign. In the old­en days the exam­i­na­tions were all done oral­ly. Writ­ten exams were only intro­duced dur­ing the reign of King Rama VI. The exam­i­na­tions by oral trans­la­tion did not occur every year; they only took place every three years.

Roy­al offi­cials are in charge of sched­ul­ing the times for indi­vid­ual monks to sit their exams. Senior monks make up the exam­i­na­tion board. The exam­i­nee is asked to trans­late about 25–30 vers­es or lines of Pali text. If one makes a mis­take, the exam­i­na­tion board objects and gives one anoth­er 2–3 chances to make a cor­rec­tion. While cor­rect­ing one’s mis­takes, the board some­times allows one to leave the room and think up the right answer before return­ing and try­ing again. If one pass­es the third lev­el of Pali stud­ies, one is giv­en the title of Mahā.

Pali Scriptures

There are two ways to trans­late Pali: first, is a lit­er­al or word-for-word trans­la­tion; and sec­ond is a sense-for-sense trans­la­tion, accord­ing to the essen­tial mean­ing of the text. Take for exam­ple the Pali phrase: sakuṇo ākāse gac­cha­ti. The lit­er­al trans­la­tion is: ‘A bird flies in the air.’ The sense-for-sense trans­la­tion is: ‘A bird flies.’ In the lat­ter trans­la­tion one need not add the clause ‘in the air,’ because no bird flies in the ground. Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, the Pali exam­i­na­tion board asks that one give a lit­er­al trans­la­tion, for this bet­ter reveals a person’s for­mal under­stand­ing of the language.


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