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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