Monastic Education

In the nineteenth century the Siamese kings Rama the Fourth (Mongkut) and Rama the Fifth (Chulalongkorn) made great efforts to formalize the Buddhist ecclesiastical system and educational practices in Siam and in their vassal states in the north, northeast and south. This was part of the nation-building and social control process to suppress regionalism, strengthen the country against foreign missionary influence, formalize the curriculum, and "modernize" the entire education system. Siamese ecclesiastical ranks, textbooks printed in Siamese script, monastic examinations, the Pali Buddhist canon, and teachers approved from Bangkok and Central Siam were disseminated to the rural and urban areas in Siam and its holdings. Monks from the recently pacified north, northeast and south were brought to Bangkok to study in two new monastic universities (Mahachulalongkon and Mahamakut). Localized forms of expression, language, curricula, script were considered irrelevant to this formalization and centralization. The Sangha Act and Royal Education Acts sponsored by King Chulalongkorn of Siam forced Northern monks to be under the authority if the higher ecclesiastics (Mahatherasamakom) and leader of the Siamese Sasana (Sangharaja) and curricula to be dictated and written (in Siamese script and language) in Bangkok. One of the most significant features of Buddhism in modern Thailand is its apparently well-organized and centralized institutional structure. Since Siam (later Thailand ) is the only country in Southeast Asia that was"never colonized," the nation-building project in which religious reform played a major part could be considered a success. Although the Buddhist ecclesia has grown in wealth and institutional stability since 1902, there are still deep fissures in Thai Buddhism that existed before 1902 and persist today.

Royal reform of Buddhist monastic education is not particularly modern. Consistently from the earliest thirteenth century records to 1902 Siamese kings and high ranking monks had seen it as their duty to collect and edit Buddhist texts, rewrite Buddhist history, purge the sangha of corrupt persons, and reign in renegade, independent-minded practitioners. By 1902 these techniques had become more efficient and widespread. In 1902, King Chulalongkorn and Prince Wachirayan, who was an ordained monk and who had become the supreme patriarch of the entire Thai Buddhist Sangha, removed the role of the Sangha to educate the Thai people and regulated the organization of monastic education. Those two working with another half-brother, Prince Damrong (the Minister of the Interior), released the Act on the Administration of the Sangha ("Acts of the Administration of the Buddhist Order of Sangha of Thailand: 2445 [1902], with later adaptations in 2484 [1941], 2505 [1962], and 2545 [2002]"). Before this Sangha Act, monastic education and administration in Thailand was neither formal nor centralized. It depended largely on the aims of the monks of each monastery. The Sangha Act was designed to make those residing in a monastery a"service to the nation" and to deflect criticism from European missionaries and Japanese envoys who denounced the poor and idiosyncratic state of Thai Buddhist education and organization.

The details of the Sangha Act represent largely administrative rules dividing the Buddhist ecclesia into formal ranks and assigning national, provincial and district heads of the Sangha. They are still in effect today. Each of the regions (north, south, central, and northeast) has a formal hierarchy of monks and they all report to the Mahatherasamakom . Individual monasteries are still run by abbots ( chao awat ) and deputy abbots ( rong chao awat ), but after 1902 they had to report regularly to their district and regional heads. All monks had to be registered with a particular monastery and were issued identification numbers and cards. Prince Wachirayan, commenting on the act,"Although monks are already subject to the ancient law contained in the Vinaya [Buddhist Book of Precepts], they must also subject themselves to the authority which derives from the specific and general law of the State".

In 1902, around 80,000 monks became subject to the law of the royal government of Siam who controlled their admission to monkhood, the right to ordain, the size and status of monastic ground, and the ranking of monks. There was certainly sporadic resistance in the form of renegade monks in the north like Krupa Siwichai and rebellions of holy men in the northeast until 1924. There was also Western influence on Thai Buddhism. King Chulalongkorn was quite impressed by western scholars of Buddhism and sought to reform the canon and teaching of Buddhism in Thailand based on a strict historical and canonical understanding of Buddhism.

In order to suppress rebellions against central Thai authority in these regions by local "holy men" ( phu mi bun ) the Siamese king ordered local manuscripts of jatakas and stories of these holy men burnt and the enforcing of the central Thai Sangha authority under the king. Prince Wachirayan also believed that reform was necessary to ensure that Siamese Buddhism could purify itself. He believed, as did the king, that Buddhism was simpler and more pure in the distant past."True Buddhism" was that designed by the Buddha himself in India 2400 years earlier. The state-centered and sponsored reform movements of King Mongkut, Prince Wachirayan, King Chulalongkorn, Prince Damrong among others portrayed Thai Buddhism as overly corrupted by those claiming magical and fortune-telling powers and, thus, in need of renewal. Prince Wachirayan in particular believed that there was an ideal past when Buddhist practice did not involve protective magic, when all monks studied Pali for many years, and when the Buddhist ecclesia and benevolent Buddhist kings worked together for the common people.

Besides administrative organization, the most significant feature of the 1902 reforms was the examination system for monks and novices. The Prince publicly stated that the Pali canon was the most important source of Buddhist ethics, law and history. However, when formulating his exams and writing his textbooks for monks the canon actually played very little role. In fact, there was very little real difference between the examinations and texts used before Wachirayan and after.

The canon and the 1902 reforms seemed to have not ushered in the modern era (at least not in monastic education) that Ishii, Wyatt, and others suggest they did. There is little evidence that the Pali Canon was available and accessible to the majority of Thais previous to 1902. The canon was rarely found as a set in one monastery and the authoritative parts of the canon were not commonly agreed upon at any time in Thai history. Ideally, Wachirayan wanted to make the canon more prominent, to facilitate this goal, he promoted the study of Pali grammar. He composed six volumes of Pali grammar, as well as several guidebooks for students, including the still standard Navakowat, outlining what he saw as basic Buddhist ethics; the Buddhasasanasubhasit, a selection of short pithy Buddhist proverbs from the canon; a Buddha biography; and a guide to the Vinaya . These textbooks, all written in simple and straightforward Thai, began to form, ideally, the standard curriculum for monks in Siam . Monks in both monastic universities were encouraged to take examinations in Pali and Thai designed by the prince and based on these and other anthologized Buddhist texts. Therefore, in the early twentieth century these textbooks were the basis for the new "nak dham" Buddhist examinations. The prince instituted three grades of "nak dham" (student of the Dhamma) which remain relatively unchanged today. These examinations are in Thai and were pre-requisites for the Pali examinations. Interestingly enough, most of the examinations were on commentarial texts like the Dhammapada-Atthakatha , Mangala-atthadipani, and the Visuddhimagga , and Thai handbooks and anthologies , not on canonical texts themselves. While these nak dham examinations and essays do not involve exact word-for-word translation or memorization and are not based on Pali language texts (mostly Thai translations) the Parian examinations involves the "literal reproduction of an original Pali text" (again, not canonical texts) from the Thai and vice-versa. The Brayok level eight examination involves over 160,000 words of memorization.

Comparing texts to those used by King Rama II in the early nineteenth century we see little change. First, commentaries, and even commentaries and histories composed in Northern Thailand , constituted the textual material for most of the examinations, not canonical texts. Second, narratives from the Dhammapada-Atthakatha which are very similar in style and subject matter to narratives from the Jataka-atthakatha , which King Chulalongkorn had claimed were"full of nonsense" were an important source for the exams. In fact, King Chulalongkorn himself wrote an introduction in Thai (largely copied from the British scholar, Rhys-Davids' English introduction) to the Jataka-atthakatha in 1903 and therefore his judgment of the texts in 1886 seems to have been either rash or based on his assessment that these stories inspired rebels. Despite royal rhetoric about the purity of the canon and a lauding of the Westerner's help in discovering and preserving the canon, extra-canonical narratives and translocal and local commentaries still played a dominant role in the state's new monastic curriculum and examinations. Third, very few monks, nuns, or novices ever actually sit for these examinations (as we will see below) and less than a handful every year ever take the highest levels of the examinations. Most of the students who do actually take the examinations take the lower levels and hence study the Dhammapada-Atthakatha and anthologies more than Pali canonical texts.

The prince opened an academy at his own royal monastery in Bangkok , Wat Boworniwet (Bovornivesa), called the Mahamakut Rajavidyalaya ( Mahamakut Monastic University ). This later expanded into one of the two major monastic universities in Thailand . From this base and from his institution of a Thai curriculum, he began to change the Pali examination system. First, he instituted written examinations. This enabled a larger number of students to sit and take the examination at the same time. For example, the first cycle tested 53 students in one day, a number unheard of in the old system. He also revised the subject matter of the Pali examinations. While keeping the Dhammapada commentary and the Mangala-atthadipani , he chose canonical texts for the upper grades from the Vinaya, Sutta and Abhidhamma Pitaka(s).

The vast majority of monks in the capital still took the old Pali exams and were trained at the major monastic university, Mahachulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya ( Mahachulalongkorn Royal Monastic University ) next to the grand palace on the river. It was not until 1913 that Prince Wachirayan's system was standard for all monks in the kingdom. By his death in 1921, the examinations were held at 11 Bangkok monasteries. This worked well for nation-building since any monk who wanted a national ranking had to travel and usually trained in Bangkok . These ranks were important because they could lead to employment after a monk disrobed. In order to work for the civil service, teach in government schools or universities, or enter secular bachelors, masters and doctoral programs had to pass these examinations if they had been a Buddhist novice in their youth. In 1911 if a monk had not passed any examinations they could be forcibly disrobed and sent to the military.


Modern Monastic Educational Institutions in Thailand

Despite these institutional and elite changes, there is no record that many monks were forcibly removed on a large scale because of examination failure rates. Indeed, if they did so, there would be very few monks left in Thailand . These rules have never been enforced systematically. There is a bending, breaking, and altering of the rules in every monastery on a daily basis. Monastic life is subtle and intensely personal. There is much movement within the walls. Friends are helped, students are quietly dismissed or promoted. Monastic examinations have slowly become less relevant. Many monks can spend their entire careers, even in the royal monasteries in Bangkok , without passing any of the upper level examinations. In rural monasteries, especially in the North and South, royally sponsored examinations and the canon play little role.

Scholars typically overestimate the influence of the central Thai ecclesia and the government's Ministry of Religion and Culture on the practice of Thai Buddhism. The central Thai government's sponsorship of ecclesiastical examinations, suppression of local religious practice (esp. Lao) and training of Thammayut missionaries has had only limited influence over the past century. The Sangha Act, like other public displays of the progressiveness of the Siamese Royal display (photographs of royalty in European suits, lavish train stations, public clocks, public parks, secular universities, royally sponsored dictionaries, etc.), had little effect outside the capital and did not fundamentally change the lives of the urban and rural poor. The new Buddhist education created by the elite has had little commerce among the vast majority of monks and novices in Thailand today. According to national statistics, of the 267,000 monks and 97,840 novices in Thailand in the year 2000, only 9,775 were enrolled in monastic universities (less than 3 percent). Of the 9,775 enrolled, only 351 are studying beyond the bachelor degree level and only a handful are studying for their doctorates. The Northeast, the poorest and least populated of the four major regions of Thailand , has the largest number of monks and novices in the country (over 40 percent of the total). The North has only 20 percent of the total. The northern sixteen provinces (of which only seven were ever part of the kingdom of Lan Na ) and the twenty-six northeastern provinces produce the least amount of university students. They sit for monastic examinations much less frequently than Bangkok monks and novices even though Bangkok and surrounding provinces only supply 16 percent of the total monks and novices in the country. The south has the least and only 6 percent of all the monks and novices reside there.

Before monks and novices can enter monastic universities they study at primary and secondary monastic schools. There are 31,071 monasteries in Thailand , but only a small percentage of these monasteries actually run schools. 3,554 (11 percent) have Rongrian Pathom (elementary schools). 78 percent of this 11 percent are in the north and northeast. In Central Thailand only 1.66 percent have monastic elementary schools. The North and Northeast have 21,629 and 160,991 monastic elementary students respectively (many are lay students), while Bangkok and surrounding provinces have less than 8,000 students enrolled at monastic elementary schools. The largest number of monastic students in modern Thailand study in Pariyatidhamma Secondary Schools. In these schools there are three major divisions: Paliseuksa study (Pali language, liturgy and texts), Dhammaseuksa (ethics, general Buddhist history and teachings) and Samanaseuksa ("common," secular). Most schools teach only Buddhist subjects, but some also teach garuhat (householder or lay subjects). It should be noted that texts from the Pali canon and the Pali grammar in general are almost completely absent in elementary and secondary monastic schools. Pali is limited to lifting ( yok sab ) Pali words from an idiosyncratic selection of texts and basing lessons on them.

These statistics are striking because they reflect the sparse influence that the Sangha educational reforms—especially the textbooks, curriculum and examinations, of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—have had on the state of Buddhist education in the country. Less than 30 percent of all the monasteries in the country have schools, only 16% have anything more than elementary schools. The North has a much lower percentage than the Northeast and even a lower percentage monks and novices in residence. Many novices and monks reside at one monastery and travel to attend classes at another nearby. Many novices and monks have never attended school formally and study with their abbots, older novices and senior monks. If they do attend a neighboring monastic school or government school, it may be only for 2-3 years. The vast majority of formally or informally trained monastic students never sit for state-sponsored monastic nak dham or parian examinations. Of those who sit, even fewer pass the exams. As a monk in the Northeast myself I never prepared for examinations and none of the other monks or novices, including my abbot, had ever studied in a formal monastic school or taken examinations. Even though we were members of a Thammayut monastery we did not have any of the official textbooks for Thammayut students written or complied by Prince Wachirayan or his successors. We did not have a full (unopened) copy of the canon. I taught English at a local Mahanikaya (the"sect" to which 95% of Thai monks belong) elementary school for several months in rural Thailand . None of Prince Wachirayan's sponsored textbooks were available at that school either. This does not mean that education, reading, writing, etc. was not important or promoted in our monastery or in the local Mahanikaya monastery. It certainly was, but the elite and royal reform movement had little influence on what we studied or how we studied or taught. This is quite common throughout Thailand and even more so in Laos and Northern Thailand where monastic education is largely informal and idiosyncratic. The rise of Buddhist Sunday Schools , as well as meditation centers, mosques, Christian mission schools, and government schools further reflect the sparse influence that the Sangha educational reform has outside the elite monasteries of Bangkok and a few other major urban centers. The reforms of the kings and princes of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have little effect on Buddhist education throughout Thailand today. However, as we will see, this does not mean that novices and monks do not get an education.

Studies which posit a rupture between pre-1902 and post-1902 Buddhist education are certainly accurate if we see Buddhist education as royal, institutional, canonical, elite, and Bangkok-centered. However, this approach has certain limitations. First, it focuses only on the changes ushered in by the elite in Bangkok . Second, it does not examine the actual impact institutional changes have on the reception of Buddhist learning among students (except for misleading records of examination scores and the granting of certain monastic ranks). Third, it does not offer us any real understanding of the nature of Buddhist education before these institutional changes. Wyatt and Ishii in particular only state that Thai Buddhist education before King Chulalongkorn's reforms was amorphous, informal, idiosyncratic, and decentralized. While there certainly is little information available about the Buddhist education before the nineteenth century there has been no effort to look directly at the texts used in pre-modern education to discover possible rhetorical styles, pedagogical techniques, and curricular parameters. Fourth, although this can't be said of Wyatt and Reynolds, it treats the Royal reformers and elite monks of Bangkok as simplistic,"oriental," thinkers, who could do nothing but ape the West. Just as French reformers and researchers were diverse in their approaches to Lao Buddhism, Prince Wachirayan, King Chulalongkorn and others had many different approaches to Thai and Pali religious scholarship. They supported both the editing, printing, and copying of vernacular as well as classical texts, they appealed to scholars and texts in Burma and Cambodia , and developed a sophisticated way of testing and teaching. They were active agents of change, not just victims of it.



Ishii, Sangha, State and Society , 60-80.

Wyatt associates the rise of religious educational reform in Siam partly with King Chulalongkorn's European tour of 1897 and Wachirayan's push for religious educational reform with the ascendance of Western inspired secular education in Siam . However, the Japanese, along with the West, played a major part in the nineteenth century religious reform in Siam . In fact in 1902, when the Sangha Act was announced, the Japanese example was explicitly stated as its inspiration. Wutichai Mulasilpa , Kan patirup kanseuksa nai samai phrapatsomdet phrachulachomklaochao yu hua (Bangkok: Thai Wattana Panich, 2539 [1996]): 62 .

Ibid., 912 and Siriwat Khamwansa, Song Thai nai 200 P i (Bangkok: Mahachulalongkorn Monastic University Press, 1981): 333-334. It should be noted, Skilling (personal communication) emphasizes, that King Chulalongkorn was a dynamic thinker in regards to the Jatakas and Buddhist textual scholarship in general. He composed a study of the Jatakas (based primarily on Rhys-Davids study in 1903) called for local folktales, histories, and religious texts to be collected and preserved in an address to the Boranakhadi Samoson in 1907. Therefore, without further corroboration, the claim that he had Jatakas burnt is dubious.

Reports by La Loub è re and van Vliet are some of are only sources for the period. The former mentioned oral translations of Pali passages in front of the king. Then there were three tiers of exams supposedly based on exams used in the late Ayutthyan period. A few haphazard efforts to reform Siamese Buddhist education had been made by Kings Boromatrailokanaat in 1466 and King Narai in 1688. The former awarded small areas of tenable rice paddy to monks and novices who had"knowledge of the Dhamma." The latter instituted exams based on the ability to read (sound out, not necessarily know the semantic meaning) of"a certain Bali book" (as reported by Nicolas Gervaise, a visitor to the Ayudhyan court from France in 1687). La Loubère, reported that monks outside the city refused to submit to these exams unless they were given by their own abbot. King Rama II expanded the three-tier system to nine levels of Pali examinations in 1818. Ishii, Sangha, State, and Society, 82-83.

Ibid., 76-77, and 93-95.

See Ishii, chapter 3 for a summary of these mostly non-canonical exams.

Maurizio Peleggi's ( Lords of Things ( Honolulu : University of Hawaii Press , 2002) is illuminating here. Further: Alexandra Denes forthcoming work on the royal interest in"tourism" and consumption of exotica and orientalia.

A new branch of Mahachulalongkorm Monastic University , the Buddhaghosa College in Nakhon Pathom near Bangkok , has grown significantly over the past three years. It is a campus focused on Paliseuksa and is quic kly becoming, along with"Section 25" of the central Bangkok campus, the center of Pali grammatical study.

For more detailed information on the content and implementation of the curricula in these different categories with an emphasis on the lower level monastic education see Chamroen Sekdhira, Laksut Phra Pariyatidham Phanaek Saman Seuksa (Bangkok: Krasuang Seaksathikan, 2534 [1993]).

Buratin Khampirat's Masters Thesis at the School of Education at Chulalongkorn University ( Sabhap lae Banha Khong Kan Seuksa Phra Pariyatidham phanaek Pali nai Samnak Rian Suan Klang (Bangkok: Withyaniphon Phak Wicha Sarat Seuksa Mahawithyalai Chulalongkorn, 2539 [1996]) and Thipawan Khwanawn's study ( Sabhap lae Banha Chai Laksut Phra Buddhasasana tam Laksut Prathomseuksa Buddhasasana nai Rongrian Sangkat Samnakngan Khana Kammakan Kan Seuksa Ekachon Krungthep Mahanakon (Bangkok: Withyaniphon Phak Wicha Brathom Seuksa Chulalongkorn University, 2541 [1998]) point out that the Sangha Act of 1902 and the promotion of Pali education by the reformers of the nineteenth century have not been implemented well. Buratin attributes the poor implementation to budgetary problems and the fact that Pali education focuses too much on memorization and not enough on how Pali texts can offer perspectives on global problems (esp. pp. 147-166). Thipawan, on the other hand, identifies the problems with lack of adequate facilities (ventilated classrooms, proper desks, etc.) and the fact that the teachers were not well trained in method or content (pp. 166-189). See also Sukanya Nitungkorn (“Higher Education Reform in Thailand ," Southeast Asian Studies , 38.4 (2001): 461-480).

I again thank Peter Skilling for discussions on this issue.