Thursday, February 08, 2018

A Review of Four Reigns (Part Six): Religion

Having worked through the text one reign at a time, I'd like to consider a few particular aspects for the text as a whole. Hence in the sixth of a series of posts reviewing Four Reigns, a translation of Si Phaendin, a Thai classic of historical fiction by M.R. Kukrit Pramoj, I shall consider the treatment of religion.

Traditionally, Thailand’s identity has been established on three pillars: nation, religion and king (and when Thailand became a constitutional monarchy, ‘constitution’ was inserted as a fourth element). Nationhood and kingship are described overtly, but what about religion? The official and generally accepted religion of Thailand has for many centuries been Buddhism, but running alongside have been other ancient religious traditions imported from Asia and the Middle East. In royal circles official ceremonies are strongly influenced by Indian culture and especially Brahmanism, which tended to become prevalent in formal administrative functions more than a thousand years ago. The language in use was Sanskrit, which explains why many Thai Buddhist terms have come to use the Sanskrit version and not the Pali, which is a written form approximating to the vernacular of the Magadha region.

Accordingly, the ritual observances that are described in detail tend to be Brahminical — the top-knot cutting ceremony, oath of allegiance, coronation and so on. Further, in the family context, there are some Chinese rituals as evidenced in connection with Prem’s Chinese ancestry. (For a fuller list of rituals from Brahmanism see Krit Witthawassamranku’s paper). So there are only occasional references to Buddhist acts of devotion, such as flowers for the Buddha image.

This also partly explains why the temples (wats) are not mentioned so much, but probably this would largely be taken for granted since there are tens of thousands of wats and hundreds of thousands of monks — they are ever present in daily life. Yet there are some direct references and suggestions as to the respect shown to the Triple Gem (Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha). For example, early on, within the Grand Palace, Sadet joins another princess for an afternoon of offerings to monks chanting in the Throne Hall; and on their way by boat to Bang Pa-In, we see monks on canoes, accepting food at piers and landings. The Sangha features at most ceremonies concerning major transitions in life (and death); at her marriage ceremony, Phloi is listening very intently to monks chanting Mangala Sutta, Ratana Sutta and Bojjhanga Paritta [7 factors of Enlightenment recited as a protection] and implicitly understands at least some (“though not all”) of the meaning. In brief nods to the monastic life, Phloi expresses the common wish to see her son, Od, in robes before getting married, which eventually comes true when he requests ordination.

In fact there are Buddhist concepts woven into the narrative; returning from Bang Pa-In, we read Phloi “contemplating … the inescapable facts of getting born, falling ill, growing old and dying.” and she then strives to cultivate awareness of these facts. Impermanence (Pali: anicca), is a recurring theme, helping to articulate the reality of change — in these pages it drastically affects people, possessions, health and home. However, the starkness of the underlying Dhamma is softened by the the author’s imaginative prose, which depicts the characters lingering on past memories, painting evocative scenes in a kind of dreamy sepia effect. Furthermore, some of the language also draws on Buddhist analogies, as when Khun Un, Phloi’s eldest half-sister, refers to Prem as “a bo tree spreading happiness over her head”. (The Buddha was Enlightened at the foot of a bo tree.) If it were a theatre production, because of Buddhism’s universality I can imagine the entire cast joining in a chorus, no matter what their character.

And as the disconcerting reality of change bites deeper, some of the religious beliefs emerge more strongly and the value of the monastic life and involvement of the Sangha seems to emerge closer to hand: we see Phloi praying fervently for the release of a son, Choi spending time repairing monk's robes, monks choosing names for babies or young children, and the belief in good deeds (as urged by Phloi to An). The importance of puñña (merit) is made clear when Choei, reflecting on increased poverty during war, asks: “What will happen to them if they become too poor to do merit-making?” to which Phloi responds, “But that’s unthinkable ... merit-making is our way of life”. There’s also Phloi’s urgent questioning of the law of Karma following the passing of Ot, the observance of Vesak (the day in which the Buddha was born, became Enlightened and entered final nirvana) together with more superstitious beliefs, including the possession of amulets (Phoem frequented many wats).

There’s no explicit reference to the Five Precepts per se, but Phloi’s character evidently values them: for example, whilst the consumption of alcohol appears to be common in aristocratic circles, she quietly disapproves of Pherm taking to whisky and other farang drinks on the pretext of ‘social drink’ — “to Phloi, liquor still meant liquor”, and she’s hurt by his periods of excess, particularly smoking, drinking and gambling, which render him insensitive to what she’s saying. In fact, her behaviour is closely aligned to teachings of the Sigalovada Sutta, in which the Buddha gives guidance on cultivating wholesome relationships as a lay person, on the importance of associating with the wise and so on.

What is absent, though, is meditation practice among the lay; the perceived incompatibility is alluded to when Choei remarks that she feels drawn to renounce the world and take up meditation practice if she did not have family commitments. In the first half of the 20th century it was left to monastics to practice meditation whilst lay people mainly concentrated on doing good deeds, cultivating merit; this was the case in my mother’s family until my mother made the breakthrough in her teens and then some of her siblings, nephews and nieces followed her example (as described in her biography).

There is also a fair sprinkling of astrological and superstitious beliefs; Halley’s comet, sighted towards the end of the rainy season in 1910, is taken as a bad omen and inevitably connected to King Chulalongkorn’s passing that year (even after King Edward VII passes away in England). There’s a charming and magnanimous Thai slant: Muang England has many colonies, so it seemed fitting that an international ‘sign’ be viewed from all its colonies to indicate that its ruler was going to heaven! Also there’s the use of a heavily accented blind Chinese fortune-teller to predict the future of the children. It turns out he is accurate. This practice has long been common among Thais — my mother certainly had consulted them occasionally (or perhaps they approached her). There’s also the belief that an unexpected action brings unexpected consequences — as with Ot getting a job bringing rain during winter — and the need to take care with one’s intentions, i.e. be careful what you wish for, advice that Ot disregards as he prays that he will die before his mother and it turns out that way.

Overall, the influence of Buddhism is subtle and not much made explicit with respect to its role in society; references to the functions of Sangha members are made almost in passing. This is because to the Thai people it was an ever-present reality, as natural as one’s skin. It’s the occasional reference to other non-Buddhist religious practices that appear more obviously because they would have been less common, even strange. However, there is certainly a Buddhist ethos permeating Phloi’s outlook and behaviour — in body, speech and mind. She carries an air of serenity and displays a great deal the qualities of universal love expressed in the Brahmaviharas (the divine abidings or sublime states).

One final remark concerning the author’s own background. M.R. Kukrit belongs to the very influential House of Bunnag, who trace their ancestry through the centuries to Iranian traders and merchants, who were Shia Muslim. A notable figure among them was Sheikh Ahmad Qomi, who arrived in Siam around 1600 and settled there until his passing. They became very successful, winning the confidence of the kings of that period until they assumed high office, in particular responsible for foreign affairs (except for dealings with the Chinese). They even had mosques built in the grounds of the royal palace (at that time in Ayutthaya), but later generations converted to Buddhism.

Still further comment to follow in the final post...

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