The King of Siam invents Western Buddhism

Do you know the Rogers & Hammerstein musical The King and I? Or the movie Anna and the King of Siam?

They are about Mongkut, the King of Siam. More than any other single person, he invented Western Buddhism. The films don’t exactly mention that, but they do explain quite a lot about why the Buddhism we have is the way it is.

Jack Kornfield is one of the main creators of what I call “Consensus Buddhism”—the Western Buddhist mainstream. When he got to Thailand in 1967, the Buddhism he found had already been extensively Westernized—largely thanks to King Mongkut. Thai Buddhism spoke to Kornfield, because it was designed partly to address Western problems.

Jack Kornfield is, in fact, a great-great-grand-student of King Mongkut. Kornfield’s main teacher was Ajahn Chah. Ajahn Chah was a student of Ajahn Mun, who invented vipassana meditation, which is the main “Buddhist” thing in Consensus Buddhism.

Mun’s preceptor was a student of Mongkut. It was Mongkut who had the radical idea that Buddhists ought to meditate—if only anyone knew how.

But I’m getting ahead of the story.

A totally awesome dude

Besides inventing Western Buddhism, Mongkut was just a Totally Awesome Dude. I want to be him when I grow up.

When he was born, in 1804, his grandfather Rama I was king. Rama I founded the kingdom of Siam—now called Thailand. Rama I began to modernize the country, opening it to Western influence. He allowed in traders and Christian missionaries. He had parts of the Pali scriptures—the holy texts of Theravada Buddhism—translated into the Thai language. That was a first, and an important innovation, because only tiny fraction of the monks could read Pali. Most had no idea what their own holy books said.

Mongkut ordained as a monk in 1824, and remained a monk for 27 years. The first thing he did was to go to a monastery that supposedly specialized in teaching meditation. After less than a year, he realized that this “mediation” was bogus, and left. (I’ll write more about that in another post.) Then he spent several years studying the scriptures.

In the light of scripture, he found bogosity everywhere. All the Siamese monks were ignoring the vinaya. Vinaya is the part of scripture that lays out the rules for what monks are supposed to do. There’s 227 of them. Supposedly they come straight from the Buddha.

In traditional Buddhism, everywhere in Asia, most of the vinaya was ignored. It still is. It’s very holy and stuff, in theory; but monks actually follow other, unwritten rules, set by local institutional tradition. Currently, in Thailand, most monks pay attention to only 19 of the 227 vinaya rules, and take only eight really seriously.

Maybe there are good reasons for that. These might be sensible changes, due to circumstances being different than in the Buddha’s time. Or it might be a corruption, due to laziness. I don’t have an opinion—my own Buddhist lineage is totally non-monastic, so I don’t care what monks do.

Mongkut sure had an opinion. His opinion was that if Buddha said monks can’t eat after noon, that means monks can’t eat after noon. He formed a new order of monks who followed every goddamn one of the rules, to the letter.

He had another opinion. Siamese Buddhism was full of magic, gods and demons. That was bogus. That stuff was Hinduism, or superstition, not Buddhism. Anything not in the Pali scriptures wasn’t Buddhism. As a powerful monk, and later as king, he did everything he could to get rid of it.

Taking scripture, not oral tradition, as religious authority was a new idea in Buddhism. Historians think it’s due to the influence of Protestant Christian missionaries.

Mongkut spent much of his time with missionaries and traders. He got to be fluent in English, and learned Western science and Christian theology. He liked the rationality of Christian ethics, but thought its supernatural doctrines were absurd. He was close friends with a Catholic vicar, to whom he said “What you teach people to do is admirable, but what you teach them to believe is foolish.”

Buddhism should be rational and scientific, he thought. Everyone in Siam thought the earth was flat. That was bogus. Western science convinced Mongkut that it was round. His opinion was, the Siamese needed to know that. He worked hard, through the rest of his life, to convince them.

Buddhist texts are very clear on the flatness of the earth. Here Mongkut established a fundamental principle of modern Buddhism: scripture trumps tradition, but science trumps scripture.

Mongkut had another opinion. Scripture said you had to practice vipassana to reach nirvana. Unfortunately, no one at that time knew how. He thought that was bogus. He seems to have encouraged his students to find out.

It’s good to be king

Mongkut became king, and disrobed, in 1851. He was not a dilly-dallier. He acquired hundreds of concubines, as quickly as possible. Being a monk is the way to nirvana, but if you are stuck being king instead, the job has its consolations.

Mongkut was brought to power by the pro-Western, modernist faction of the Siamese elite. He was not a dilly-dallier. He set out to modernize the country as fast as he could.

Siam was caught between two colonial powers: the British dominated Burma, Siam’s western neighbor; the French dominated Laos and Cambodia, to Siam’s north and east. Both wanted Siam, and would take it if they could.

Mongkut played the two off against each other; but he recognized that, in the worst case, Siam would be better off under British rule. The British, unlike the French, had gotten a bit squeamish about colonialism. To justify it, they had to pretend it was moral; a way of uplifting the lives of primitive natives who lacked the benefits of the modern world: the scientific worldview, industrial technology, a bureaucratic government, and a proper religion.

So Mongkut’s strategy was to allow British influence in Siam, but to try to show them that it was a modern country—and therefore could not be colonized. (This is a main theme in The King and I and Anna and the King of Siam.)

He imported British teachers to educate Siamese in Western ideas. He signed a free trade treaty with Britain, resulting in dramatic increases in commerce. He built modern infrastructure and began to industrialize. (For this he is apparently known as “The Father of Science and Technology” in Thailand.) He started to transform a feudal kingdom into a European-style nation-state. He increased state control over the Sangha, and promoted the reforms of Buddhism that would make it look like an acceptable “world religion” to the British.

Dying for Science

Theoretically, Mongkut was an absolute monarch, but in reality his power was limited by the traditionalist factions of the aristocracy and institutional Sangha.

In 1868, Mongkut used Western astronomy to calculate the exact time and place of a solar eclipse. He travelled there, with court officials, to demonstrate that “Science Works, Bitches”—and the “Buddhist” methods used by the powerful court astrologers don’t.

His calculations proved right; the astrologers were wrong. But, unfortunately, he got malaria on the trip, and died.

His oldest son Chulalongkorn was king next. Chulalongkorn reigned until 1910, and completed most of Mongkut’s modernization program. (The movies are about the relationship between Mongkut and Anna Leonowens, the English school teacher he hired to tutor his children. In the films, Leonownes’ liberal political teachings significantly influence Chulalongkorn’s ideas about right government. Historians are unsure whether that’s true.)

Mongkut’s strategy worked. Siam was one of the very few Asian countries to escape colonization.

Mongkut’s legacy: “Western Buddhism”

Mongkut’s reform of Buddhism is a classic case of the pattern of modernizations I’ve explained in my previous few posts:

Current “Consensus Buddhism” is based more on Thai Theravada than any other Buddhist source. That means that Mongkut’s transformation of traditional Siamese folk beliefs into a modern world religion is the most important example of the themes I’ve been writing about.