Buddhist Reformation
The Nation, Published on October 20, 2004

The most important Buddhist reformation ever attempted in Siam began during the reign of King Rama III under Prince Mongkut, the monarch’s son who was then a monk, and continued when he ascended the throne as King Rama IV.

Although he had genuine enthusiasm for the new knowledge and technology of the West, King Rama IV advocated caution when it came to Siamese acceptance of all things occidental. He realised Buddhism's importance to his countrymen and made sure it was maintained at the core of the nation’s spirit.

In the earlier Rattanakosin period, accepted theories about the Earth and the universe derived from the book “Tribhum Phra Ruang”, which was believed to have been written by King Mahathammaracha Lithai of Sukhothai sometime in the 14th century. Its concepts were drawn from Buddhist and Brahmin belief, and in itself the old tome was claimed to be part of Buddhist teaching.

“Tribhum Phra Ruang” addressed the universe in terms of four “bhumi” (states) of the spirit: the enlightened, the state without form, the state with form, and the state with sensuousness. The Earth was the land separated into four regions: Utrakuru, Chombhudaveep, Burapavitheha and Amarakoyan. Siam and the other countries of the Earth existed in Chombhudaveep. Beneath the earth, the book claimed, was a large fish whose movements caused earthquakes. Rain, thunder, lightning and the like were caused by angels at work in the universe.

It was American missionary John Taylor Jones who first introduced Siamese people to the modern world map, but naturally it took many years to change local minds about the grand picture of the universe, and for the citizenry at large to accept that the tenets of “Tribhum Phra Ruang” were untrue. King Rama IV took it upon himself to explain to his people – and to foreigners – that the old treatise was in fact not Buddhist text derived from the revered Tripitaka (“the Three Baskets”).

Having created the new sect of Buddhism while he was still a prince, he stressed that essential Buddhism focused on truth, cause and outcome. The Dhammayutikanikaya monks devoted themselves to Lord Buddha’s teachings and spurned traditional animism as a wayward path.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that King Rama IV did not strongly support his sect when he was on the throne. He said he did not want all monks in the Kingdom moving to Dhammayutikanikaya; he wanted them to continue in their customary activities. For the Dhammayutikanikaya sect he founded, it seems, he wanted only men from the families of high personages.

Academics have conjectured that King Rama IV, realising the difficulty of changing people’s minds overnight, was merely seeking to avoid social conflict. At the same time, though, it became essential for Siamese leaders to understand the scientific aspects of Buddhism so they could use it as a tool to protect the country from the worst of Western influence.

The monks of the Dhammayutikanikaya sect would play a crucial role in educational reform during the reign of King Rama V, opening temples schools where children could study modern subjects, including arithmetic and science.