Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 8

Somdet Buddhajahn at Wat Saket

The long account I gave in the pre­vi­ous sec­tion was sim­ply to make it clear to the read­ers that the term bprayoke, refer­ring to a lev­el of Pali stud­ies, lit­er­al­ly means a pas­sage of Pali text, which the exam­i­na­tion com­mit­tee uses to test the exam­i­nee. If he can trans­late it cor­rect­ly he thus achieves a lev­el of Pali stud­ies.

As for the term bpri­an (เปรียญ), it is unclear where it comes from. Orig­i­nal­ly this term was pro­nounced ‘bahri­an,’ but I don’t know its ori­gin. (A friend of mine jok­ing­ly said that it comes from ‘bah-rian’ (บ้าเรียน), which means ‘study like crazy’ in order to pass the exam. It is true that some monks study so inten­sive­ly that they do go mad.) Schol­ars say this word comes from the Pali word par­iññā, which means ‘thor­ough knowl­edge.’ The term bpri­an is used to refer to a novice or monk who has passed the first three lev­els of Pali stud­ies. It cor­re­sponds to the term mahā, and some­times these two terms are used togeth­er as mahā-bpri­an.

The term mahā, how­ev­er, has spe­cial attrib­ut­es. If a novice pass­es the first three lev­els of Pali, he is not called a mahā, but rather the term bpri­an is added after his name. And a monk who has passed these three lev­els, but who hasn’t yet received the roy­al gift of a cer­e­mo­ni­al fan and for­mal cer­tifi­cate, is not yet enti­tled to use the term mahā—he can only use the term bpri­an after his name. After receiv­ing the fan and cer­tifi­cate he can use the title mahā. One can see that mahā is an eccle­si­as­ti­cal title bestowed on a monk who has com­plet­ed the first three lev­els of Pali stud­ies. If a monk dis­robes, he is not per­mit­ted to use this title any longer. These days, how­ev­er, this tra­di­tion has become con­fused. Monks dis­robe and start a fam­i­ly, and they still use the title mahā, which is inap­pro­pri­ate.

Why are these indi­vid­u­als called mahā? If you ask me this, I’ll just have to make a guess. Mahā means ‘great.’ For a stu­dent to pass this stage of Pali stud­ies, he must have tremen­dous dili­gence. Some monks sit the exam so many times that they end up with grey beards with­out join­ing the oth­ers as mahā.

In fact, the knowl­edge required is not ter­ri­bly com­pli­cat­ed, but the committee’s way of exam­i­na­tion is tru­ly pre­his­toric. The com­mit­tee mem­bers only test a student’s mem­o­ry, and if one trans­lates more than twelve words incor­rect­ly one fails the exam. Even more so in the eighth and ninth levels—if one errs with one sin­gle word, and this is a word that they con­sid­er should nev­er be got wrong or it is a sil­ly mis­take, one fails the exam imme­di­ate­ly. Nowhere else in the world is it this strict. Say there are three sub­jects to be examined—if one excels in two but fails the third, one fails the entire exam. The next year one starts again from the begin­ning. This time the sub­jects one pre­vi­ous­ly passed one fails, and the sub­jects one failed one passes—one thus fails the entire exam again because one didn’t pass all sub­jects. One gets caught in this cycle until one has a ner­vous break­down. For this rea­son some­one who pass­es is called a mahā—he must be extreme­ly accu­rate with his answers.

Of the two sec­tions of Dham­ma study, the laypeo­ple are only able to study and be test­ed on the for­mal reli­gious edu­ca­tion (nak tam). They have this oppor­tu­ni­ty through­out the king­dom of Thai­land, with the monks act­ing as teach­ers and exam­in­ers. If they pass the exams they receive a diplo­ma, and they are grant­ed the same hon­our and priv­i­leges as the novices and monks.

As for Pali stud­ies, dur­ing the time that the sang­ha was admin­is­tered by four advi­so­ry bod­ies (i.e., the agency of edu­ca­tion, the agency of admin­is­tra­tion, the agency of prop­a­ga­tion, and the agency of pub­lic assis­tance), the sang­ha con­sid­ered allow­ing laypeo­ple to study Pali as well. The mat­ter was brought to a meet­ing of the senior sang­ha offi­cials. After a long debate it was decid­ed not to allow laypeo­ple to engage in these stud­ies.

Tripitaka Offering at Wat Pah Nanachat, Ubon Rajathani

The rea­sons behind for­bid­ding the laity to study Pali were nev­er revealed. Ven­er­a­ble Mahā Sing, who was dear to us lit­tle novices at Wat Bahn Huay, gave us an amus­ing account of the events sur­round­ing this deci­sion. Allow me to relay the con­clu­sion of this account:

Oppo­nent: ‘I insist that we shouldn’t start teach­ing Pali to the laypeo­ple under any cir­cum­stances.’

Pro­po­nent: ‘We shouldn’t bar the laypeo­ple from learn­ing Pali. If they learn Pali it will make our job of spread­ing Bud­dhism eas­i­er.’

Oppo­nent: ‘I agree with that point.’

Pro­po­nent: ‘If you agree, then you shouldn’t oppose this propo­si­tion.’

Oppo­nent: ‘I believe there will be prob­lems with issu­ing diplo­mas and with choos­ing titles for these peo­ple.’

Pro­po­nent: ‘I don’t under­stand.’

Oppo­nent: ‘A monk who pass­es the exams is called a mahā, right?’

Pro­po­nent: ‘Yes, so what?’

Oppo­nent: ‘And what about laypeo­ple?’

Pro­po­nent: ‘One can call them Mr. Mahā.’

Oppo­nent: ‘And if it’s a woman?’

Pro­po­nent: ‘We can call her Mrs. Ma … Oh! Right! Laypeo­ple can’t learn Pali—if they start learn­ing Pali things will get all con­fused.’

Oppo­nent: ‘See, I told you so!’

From that time onwards laypeo­ple have been unable to par­tic­i­pate in the for­mal learn­ing of Pali.

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