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What is the difference between the Mahanikai and the Thammayut (Dhammayutika)?

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The Rise of the Thammayut Order

Some scholars have suggested that the development of the early monkhood in Buddhism is the reverse of the Brahmans, and that Buddhism is revolutionary in light of the caste system of India. Buddhism can be viewed as a reaction against Brahman supremacy. The Buddha placed virtue and morality above formal caste status. In other words, a virtuous outcaste is more valuable to society than an immoral Brahman who has achieved his status by birth. [1] The revolutionary aspects of Buddhism also included a reaction against ritual formalism. Yet in Thailand, a tradition developed that put the monk back into the role of overseer of ritual, whereas once he had a much more varied function in the community. This has caused monks like Prayudh Payutto to remark that

The Sangha administrators, the abbots and other elderly monks, having been deprived of or lost their social roles, especially their educational responsibilities, have now turned to engage themselves in the construction and repair of monastic buildings, in holding ceremonies and in performing rites connected with magic and superstition. They seem to have turned Buddhism into a new age of grandiose monastic buildings, huge Buddha images and luxurious ceremonies. This has caused them to depend more upon persons with power and influence, that is, politicians and the rich, and it has brought them into a closer association with the latter. At the same time, for the populace, stress has been placed on the merit-making activity of making contributions for huge buildings and luxurious ceremonies. [2]
How is it that this has happened, that monks have came to be aligned with politicians and spend much of their time presiding over their rituals and ceremonies?

According to Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha told his right-hand disciple Ananda that after his passing on the monks should have but one authority, the Dhamma. [3] He spoke of no successor, nor did he suggest that it would be necessary to elect a new head of the Sangha.

Thus it is said that in the early Sangha there was no hierarchy and locus of authority; while the leaders and older monks deserved respect and privilege in etiquette, they could only advise and instruct, not legislate or compel. The elders (theras) did not possess episcopal authority; at best they were the chief teachers of the order. [4]
Tambiah underscores this comment with a note from Thomas (1951, 22-23):

Within [the sima] boundary each assembly was self-governing. There was no hierarchy, but seniority was reckoned by the number of years from ordination, nor did a central authority exist to check any tendency to change or development in new directions. [5]
Even though this was the case, later we will find Thai administrators harking back to the original Sangha in order to justify the imposition of further regulations and administrative structures on the Thai sangha.

In Thailand and other Buddhist countries, the king has come to be known as an overseer of the Buddhist Sangha. While originally, the relationship between the king (including his administrative machinery) and the Buddhist Sangha (itself fragmented into separate communities and “orders” with regional differences) was, by and large, one of patronage and protection, not interference; yet, the alignment between the king and the Sangha gradually became closer and closer. [6]

We have already noted in the Ramkhamhaeng Inscription that the king’s condoning the new Sinhalese sect aided its spread. While this sanction may have served to expedite the decline of the older order, it did not impose any restrictions or structures on the Sangha as a whole. It was not until just after the sacking of the capital of Ayudhaya by the Burmese in 1767 that the Sangha became more directly related to the political authority of the king and his administration.

The Burmese, despite the fact that they too were Buddhist, took the city of Ayudhaya by storm, leaving it utterly devastated, its records and art destroyed and most of its monuments defaced. The years that ensued saw many figures vying for power, trying to create order out of the barren landscape of ruins and beheaded Buddhas. One figure, Taksin, a former official of Chinese ancestry, attempted to establish a new capital further south in Thonburi in 1798, across the Chao Phraya River from Bangkok. Taksin, working from scratch, as it were, due to the destruction of all the old records and laws, attempted to base his designs mainly on the traditional social order of Ayudhaya. Together with a stable government, Taksin felt it was necessary to revive and stabilize the religion. In fact, he envisioned them working side-by-side. His method of reviving Buddhism included a complete retranscription of the Tipitaka. He also claimed that he was a “stream-enterer” (sotapanna). He claimed to have great powers because of this and suggested that monks should pay respect to him, rather than the other way around. Some monks went along with this and those who refused were demoted or defrocked. [7] Taksin was deemed “mad” because of these breaks with the traditional order and the religious claims that he had made for himself. He was eventually executed. [8]

Taksin was succeeded by one of his own generals who established the present Chakri dynasty. Rama I also had special concerns regarding the Buddhist religion. He completely did away with Taksin’s retranscription of the Tipitaka and demanded that another version be written. He also looked into the status and practices of the monkhood and was disappointed by what he saw. He demanded that some monks whose practices were questionable be defrocked, others were reordained and reinstated, and he even promoted many of the monks who had resisted Taksin’s claims to special religious powers and status. [9]

Tambiah summarizes this very well and suggests that the bond between the political structures and the Sangha continued throughout the Bangkok period as well.

Definite information concerning political penetration into the Sangha affairs comes to us from the reigns of Rama I (1782-1809) and the succeeding monarchs of the Bangkok Period. A reorganization and revival appeared necessary after the ravages of the Burmese wars which destroyed the Ayudhaya Kingdom. The ‘purification of religion’ went hand in hand with ensuring the loyalty and cooperation of monks. The decrees called Kathmay Brah Sangha [Kotmai Phrasong] dealt with details of monastic discipline and directives to key officials to see that the disciplinary rules were implemented. [10]
This theme of the “purification of the monkhood,” is one that returns time and again. The next great housecleaning of the Sangha occurs with the reforms of Prince Mongkut. The banner of purification is waved once again and the patterns of reform that were apparent in the Sinhalese reforms are again found in the formation and institution of the Thammayut (Dhammayutika) order of Prince Mongkut.

In 1824, Prince Mongkut was ordained at Wat Mahadhatu [Mahathat]. Just a short time after his ordination, his ailing father died. Rather than leave the monkhood and create a conflict with his brother for the right to the throne, he made a decision to stay in the monkhood. Mongkut was an excellent linguist and he became a great scholar of the (Buddhist) Pali language and literature. It is most likely his in-depth study of the Pali texts that made him realize the practices they presented did not match those prevalent in Siam at that time. [11] The old issue regarding the proper activity for the monks arose once again.

Now, as Prince Mongkut (as a Bhikkhu) stayed [at Wat Samorai, where he had gone for the Rains Residence, phansa or vassa] for a long time, he understood the way of calm and of insight meditation (samatha-vipassana bhavana), but he found that it was practised in the wrong way — conjoined with delusion — as though one might borrow the nose of someone else for breathing (or blindly rely on a blind guide). The teachers there preached about Dhamma neither openly nor clearly, nor in a way that would stimulate faith among those who were learning. When sometimes the pupils asked questions, the teachers would become angry, and mention the Ancient Teachers' tradition such as Acinnakappika, meaning ‘the great ones have done like this’. This kind of teaching is without openness, without light and they did not explain about causes so that the students could understand with wisdom. They wished the students to listen only to their own way and to practise without reason. This is not the way of teaching to establish the principles of meditation and a waste of time as well. When sitting in meditation this was only the cause of a pain in the back. [12]
Prince Mongkut, by expressing his dissatisfaction with the practices at Wat Samorai, brings up the old issue of appropriate practices for monks. Wat Samorai belonged to the araññavasi (forest-dwelling) order. In the classical manner of institutionalized Buddhism, he proclaimed that meditation and ascetic practices (vipassana-dhura) that are not based on a study of the texts (gantha-dhura) are of insignificant value. [13] This served to reinforce and make the gamavasi (town-dwelling) order the focus of attention.

Mongkut’s reforms led to the establishment of a new order called the Thammayut (Dhammayutika, literally, those who are “yoked to the teachings”). The orthodoxy of the new order concerned itself more with issues of discipline and ritual, rather than doctrine, as is true of most reforms in Thailand. [14] Issues included a different way of wearing the robe and carrying the begging bowl, much of this based on the study of Mon monastic practices. This study of Mon practices convinced him that these new forms of discipline were closer to the original Buddhist practices as recorded in the ethical codes (vinaya). [15]

Like others before him, Prince Mongkut set out to establish a definitive edition of the sacred texts.

Perhaps Mongkut’s most important undertaking was to establish the pure Pali canon, because the extant Thai collections of the Tripitaka were judged both defective and incomplete. It is in respect of this venture that Sinhalese Buddhism figures importantly. Intensified communication with Ceylon resulted in the sending of two embassies of Siamese monks in 1840 and 1843 to bring from Ceylon 40 volumes and another 30 volumes respectively of the Tripitaka, the Sinhalese versions in Pali being considered purer than any other. A major consequence of the study of Sinhalese and Mon texts was the generation of “an unprecedented textual work” which lasted until the end of the reign of Rama III (1851). [16]
The issue of the resanctification of sacred space also recurs with Mongkut’s reforms. When he finally became disenchanted with the lax practices and, what in his mind were, corrupt monks at Wat Mahathat, he returned to Wat Samorai for another Rains Residence; but before the Thammayut order could be established there, he felt that he must find out whether the space had been sanctified with the proper rituals. When he excavated the boundary stones (sima) and judged that they had been placed improperly, he had to resort to another space and a different ceremony to insure the purity of the new order. The following account illustrates the ritual importance of the sacred space contained within a proper boundary, Mongkut’s doubts about the purity of any space in the Bangkok area, his adherence to the authority of the Pali canon, and the unwillingness of the new order to perform rites in any space that was deemed sacred by the previous order (the Mahanikai).

...he considered the case of the boundary (baddhasima) in this way, “At the time of establishing the baddhasima it was done only roughly, not properly and not perfectly, not being completed through the power of the Sangha but being done by the laymen because there were none among the faithful at that time who knew thoroughly the various marks of a baddhaslma and there was no one then who knew how the Ancient Teachers taught about this. This was because there was no one who had studied the Pali about the marks of the boundary (sima). When the faithful (bhikkhus and laity) established a baddhasima and buried the marking-stones, they did this according to the succession of Teachers, not considering the Pali upon the marks of a boundary. Such a sima marked thus, is a rotten root for the Sasana. If it is not made properly, it will not be a field of merits but just a waste of time.” Being dissatisfied with this, he ordered the marking-stones of the sima in Wat Samorai to be dug up and then he saw that they were too small, not being suitable as markers, because they were not the same as laid down in the Buddha-word. [17]
With this discovery, he felt that any ordination carried out in Bangkok might be subject to question. His final decision was to moor a raft in the river next to Wat Samorai and perform the ordination rituals on it. [See: Aspects\Some Prominent Buddhists\Luang Pu Thuat.] He had himself reordained under what he considered to be impeccable conditions and he insisted that his followers do likewise. [18]

After twenty-seven years as a monk, Prince Mongkut left the order and ascended the throne at the death of his brother, Rama III, in 1851. It was with his reign (1851-1868) that the structures and controls over the Sangha began to be reinforced and further developed. The distinction that has already been mentioned between “royal” monasteries and “ordinary” or “commoner” monasteries, became clearer. Leaders of the royal monasteries were appointed by Mongkut at the start of his reign, and officials of the ordinary monasteries were appointed by the people or nobles who supported the temple. [19]

In former times, there existed two divisions (or tendencies) within the Thai monkhood: the gamavasi (town-dwelling monks) and the araññavasi (forest-dwelling monks), each with a head appointed by the king. Later, further institutionalization divided the Sangha and reorganized it into four khana (divisions or sectors): the Northern and Southern (both of which were Mahanikai, the order that comprised the major part of the Thai Sangha prior to Mongkut’s formation of the Thammayut), the Middle Khana (composed largely of hermit monks of the Mahanikai order who were more involved with meditation rather than study) and the last division was composed of Thammayut monks (just established by King Mongkut). [20]

Even though these new divisions appear to have done away with the former division between town and forest monks, the tensions regarding the proper activity for the monk, which each of these tendencies represented, did not relax. Questions and debates over these issues continue up to the present day. [See: Aspects\Some Prominent Buddhists\Samana Bodhirak.] The traditional difference represented by the gamavasi and the araññavasi is still very much an issue in Thai Buddhism. Also, Mongkut’s further division of the Sangha bred more bitterness and rivalry in the Thai monkhood. The Thammayut sect was, and still remains, a minority order; the majority of the monks are still found within the Mahanikai. However, after Mongkut ascended the throne, the Thammayut order, quite naturally, became associated with royalty. As Thammayut means “a close adherence to the teachings,” the kings have wished to be associated with this notion. So it has been up to the present day, with both the current king and prince having been ordained in the Thammayut order. Although King Mongkut’s institutionalization of the Sangha did serve to begin the centralization process and hierarchization of the monkhood, the pull of the center was not really felt by the multitude of outlying, upcountry villages and wat (temples) until much later.

Here ends our brief discussion of the “awkward moment” in Thai history mentioned in our introductory path.

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