Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 7

Tipitaka Collection at Wat Vimutti

I men­tioned in an ear­li­er chap­ter that every novice and monk who is ordained must study a for­mal reli­gious instruc­tion (nak tam) or study Pali, or both. Of course it is pos­si­ble to be ordained and to not study at all, but this is not in line with the objec­tives of an ‘ordi­na­tion for learn­ing’ (buat rian). The expres­sion ‘ordi­na­tion for learn­ing’ implies that there is work to be done after the ordi­na­tion ceremony.

Giv­ing out lot­tery num­bers, sprin­kling holy water, com­muning with spir­its, lend­ing out mon­ey offered by the laity to enrich one­self, rush­ing about to gain an offi­cial eccle­si­as­ti­cal title (say of pra kroo or chao khun)—all these actions go against the true objec­tives of ordi­na­tion. The cor­rect path is to pur­sue a spir­i­tu­al study. The term ‘study’ here encom­pass­es gain­ing a pro­found knowl­edge of the Bud­dhist teach­ings, apply­ing this knowl­edge so that it bears fruit in one’s own heart and mind, and then to act as a refuge to the lay peo­ple by offer­ing them teach­ings. This is the true way for dis­ci­ples of the Buddha.

The for­mal edu­ca­tion for novices and monks is called the ‘study of Dham­ma’ (pariy­at­ti-dham­ma). It is divid­ed into two sec­tions: the study of for­mal reli­gious edu­ca­tion (nak tam) and the study of the Pali lan­guage. Nak tam has three lev­els: third (dtree), sec­ond (to), and first (ake). Pali stud­ies was for­mer­ly divid­ed into nine lev­els (bprayoke—lit­er­al­ly ‘sen­tence’). Lat­er, the first and sec­ond lev­els were com­bined and referred to as the ‘gram­mar lev­el,’ which one had to study for two years (or for one year if the pupil was excep­tion­al­ly skilled). Once one had fin­ished the gram­mar lev­el one moved on to lev­els 3, 4, etc. This sys­tem was used for a while until the present sys­tem was adopted.

The lev­els of Pali stud­ies are divid­ed into three sec­tions: the third lev­el is called ‘bpri­an dtree,’ lev­els four through six are called ‘bpri­an to,’ and lev­els sev­en through nine are called ‘bpri­an ake.’ The rea­son for these titles is because one must pass the cor­re­spond­ing lev­el of nak tam in order to pass the equiv­a­lent lev­el of Pali stud­ies: nak tam dtree for the third lev­el of Pali stud­ies, nak tam to for lev­els 4–6, and nak tam ake for lev­els 7–9.

Many peo­ple who were nev­er ordained as monks have asked me about the mean­ing of these dif­fer­ent terms, includ­ing bprayoke, bpri­an, and mahā. In the past, the monks would learn through oral trans­mis­sion (mukha-pāṭha): the teacher would read out a verse or sen­tence and the pupils would mem­o­rize it. When this sen­tence was mem­o­rized they would move on to the next sen­tence. The rea­son for this was prob­a­bly because in the old­en days books were scarce and pupils were unable to have their own copies. Lat­er, when books became more read­i­ly avail­able, pupils were able to have their own copies to mem­o­rize the pas­sages before the examinations.

Offering of the Tipitaka to Ajahn Kevali at Wat Pah Nanachat

Dur­ing the exam­i­na­tion a com­mit­tee com­prised of senior monks asked the pupil to trans­late a Pali pas­sage (or ‘sen­tence’) into Thai. Each sec­tion or sen­tence is about 25–30 lines long. The answers were giv­en oral­ly, in a loud voice. If one made a mis­take the com­mit­tee gave the per­son three chances to make cor­rec­tions. If the answer was still not cor­rect, then one failed the exam. But if one passed, this was called ‘accom­plish­ing one sen­tence.’ For­mer­ly, if one passed the exam and one so wished, one could then ask the com­mit­tee for anoth­er, more-dif­fi­cult pas­sage to trans­late. If one’s answer was cor­rect then one would accom­plish anoth­er sen­tence (bprayoke; i.e., anoth­er lev­el of Pali studies).

There are sto­ries of monks and novices who were able to pass all nine lev­els at the same time. Two epic sto­ries that are still talked about today involve novices Sah and Plot. Both of these indi­vid­u­als passed all nine lev­els of Pali stud­ies while still novices. Novice Sah was able to accom­plish this at one sit­ting. King Rama IV was very pleased and bestowed his patron­age, mak­ing Sah a roy­al novice and orga­niz­ing his bhikkhu ordi­na­tion with state cer­e­mo­ny. Lat­er on Ven­er­a­ble Mahā Sah gave up the monk’s train­ing despite the fact that the king was dis­pleased and con­se­quent­ly put him in prison (so the sto­ry goes.) Every day the king would vis­it Sah in prison and place down a set of three robes, say­ing: ‘Choose between prison and the robes!’ In the end Sah said that he would like to be reor­dained. The king con­tin­ued to be his atten­dant. After his sec­ond ordi­na­tion, Ven. Sah went to be exam­ined once more to test whether his mem­o­ry of Pali was still up to scratch. He was able to pass all nine lev­els at once, just like before. Some­one thus gave him the name ‘Phra Mahā Sah, Eigh­teen Bprayoke’ (since he had passed all nine lev­els twice). He even­tu­al­ly became the Supreme Patri­arch of Thailand.

The sec­ond novice was Plot, who lived dur­ing the reign of King Rama V and who passed all nine lev­els of Pali at age 20. It took him two occa­sions to pass all nine lev­els. He too even­tu­al­ly became the Supreme Patriarch.

Lat­er on the monas­tic sang­ha changed the exam from an oral exam to a writ­ten one, and they issued the stip­u­la­tion that one can only sit for a sin­gle lev­el of Pali exam­i­na­tion per year. One is not able to pass sev­er­al lev­els of Pali stud­ies at a sin­gle time, as before. For a long time there were thus no novices who were able to pass all nine lev­els, because by the time they were eli­gi­ble to take the ninth exam they were already old enough to have been ordained as bhikkhus. Only dur­ing the cur­rent reign of King Rama IX was a novice able to accom­plish this feat; he was the first novice to pass all nine lev­els through a writ­ten exam. I have heard that he lat­er jumped over the clois­ter walls and dis­robed; he didn’t wait around to be the supreme patri­arch like his predecessors.

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