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