Mongkut: King and Monk

King Mongkut reigned Thailand from 1851 to 1868. He is one of the most striking examples of a righteous king in modern history. He is remarkable because combines the roles of monk and king. He served as a monk for over twenty-five years before he ascended to the throne. He came to his position of king as a person who already had been deeply infused in monastic practice, something that is not common in the Buddhist world. It is striking that King Mongkut brought that background with him to the throne.

A Modernist

As king, he believed that Thai monastic life needed to be reformed, purged of superstitious practices and return to the pristine model of the early canonical scriptures, the scriptures that we call the Pali Canon.

In addition to being a monk and a king, he was also a modernist. He wanted to reform the Sangha, to bring it back to what he thought was the pristine ancient practice of the Buddha as it was reflected in the Pali Canon. This is an important aspect of contemporary Buddhism you would encounter throughout South East Asia, and in fact, throughout the world. There is a modernizing impulse, an impulse to strip away what people think of as being superstitious practices, things that have been added to the tradition over the course of his history and return to the ancient practice of the Buddha.

The Reform Movement

He gave institutional expression to these ideas by creating the Thammayut movement. During the reign of his son, king Chulalongkorn, this reform movement was extended throughout the Thai Sangha and was given the status of an official orthodoxy. So, King Mogkut created a reform movement that eventually was extended to the whole Sangha and became the modernizing matrix of Thai monastic life. This is one of the reasons why the Thai monastic system has been able to adapt to the challenges of modernity.

Thailand continues to be an example, even today, of the close alliance between king and Sangha in the extension and protection of Buddhist values. This is something you should keep in mind if you ever have the chance of visiting in Bangkok the Royal Shrine, called the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. In that place, you will see clearly the intersection of royal and Buddhist values. It is a Shrine that honors the monarchy, and also at the same time, the central place of the Buddha within the structure of the Thai national identity.

This article is part of the series about Theravada Buddhism.

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