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Mongkut

Mongkut

Mongkut (1804-1868) was king of Thailand as Rama IV. He founded modern Thai Buddhism and as king took a leading role in opening his kingdom to the West.

Born on Oct. 18, 1804, Mongkut was the forty-third child of King Rama II (reigned 1809-1824), but he was the first son to be born of Queen Suriyen and thus was favored to succeed to the throne. He had just entered the Buddhist monkhood for a short period, as was customary, when his father died in 1824 and the royal accession council chose his older and more experienced half brother to reign as King Nangklao (Rama III, reigned 1824-1851).

As much for political safety as any other reason, Mongkut remained a monk during his brother's reign. An unusually gifted young man, Mongkut spent several years seeking intellectual and religious satisfaction in traditional Buddhism, trying first mental exercises and meditation and then orthodox scholarship, neither of which kindled his enthusiasm. Then he encountered a monk from Burma who inspired his return to the strict discipline and teachings of early Buddhism, shorn of local Thai custom and noncanonical beliefs.

Becoming abbot of a monastery in Bangkok, Mongkut developed a lively home for intellectual discourse in the 1830s and 1840s, when he gained adherents to his new teachings and invited American and French missionaries to teach Western languages, arts, and sciences. His brother monks ultimately were to found the modernist Dhammayutta sect, a major force in the life of modern Thailand.

Others who joined his circle were among the leading princes and young nobles of Bangkok society, and this group, led by Phraya Suriyawong (Chuang Bunnag)—eldest son of the leading minister of Rama III—was responsible for placing Mongkut on the throne when Rama III died on April 2, 1851. These young liberals had come to understand the nature of Western power and Siam's weakness, profiting from the example of Western warfare against China (in the Opium War, 1839-1842) and Burma (1824-1826 and 1851-1852).

Upon consolidating their power the liberals signified their willingness to come to terms with Western demands and signed treaties, beginning with Britain in 1855, which removed all barriers to trade and established extra-territoriality for European subjects in Siam. Mongkut and Suriyawong, who became his chief minister, set a pattern of accommodation to the West which came to assure Siam's survival as an independent state through the 19th-century thrust of European imperialism.

Described by European envoys as thin and austere, Mongkut was extraordinarily lively, excited by ideas, and colorfully expressive in English. Though the conservatism of his nobles precluded fundamental reforms, he educated his sons to understand the value of national independence and the necessity for reform, which alone could ensure survival. He died on Oct. 1, 1868, and was succeeded by his son, Prince Chulalongkorn.

Further Reading

The best available biography is Abbot Low Moffat, Mongkut, King of Siam (1961). An excellent contemporary account is Sir John Bowring, The Kingdom and People of Siam (2 vols., 1857).

Additional Sources

Bristowe, W. S. (William Syer), Louis and the King of Siam, New York: Thai-American Publishers, 1976. □

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Mongkut

Mongkut (mông´kōōt) or Rama IV (räm´ə), 1804–68, king of Siam, now Thailand (1851–68). A devout Buddhist monk, he was displaced in succession to the throne by his brother, who ascended as Rama III. Mongkut became king as Rama IV in 1851, and then used his knowledge, especially of the West, accumulated during his long years of study, to further his country's interests. He established diplomatic relations with several European countries and the United States, opened Siam to Western trade, and undertook extensive internal reform in all fields. Because of these measures, Siam was the only country in Southeast Asia not to fall under Western control in the 19th cent. He was succeeded by his son Chulalongkorn. Mongkut was made famous in the West by Margaret Landon's book Anna and the King of Siam (1944), which was based on the reminiscences of Anna Leonowens, a British governess at the court of Siam.

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Mongkut

MONGKUT

MONGKUT (18041868), Thai Buddhist reformer and later king of Thailand. A son of the second king of the Cakkrī dynasty (1782), Mongkut was heir apparent to the throne. However, when his father (later known as Rama II) died before Mongkut had reached his twentieth birthday, his claims were passed over in favor of those of his uncle (Rama III). Having entered the Buddhist monastic order for a temporary stay only two weeks prior to his father's death, he decided to remain a monk. Mongkut's monastic career did not end until more than a quarter of a century later when, following his uncle's death in 1851, he was chosen to succeed to the throne. At that point he left the order, became king (Rama IV), and began a reign that continued until his death.

Mongkut began his monastic career at Wat Samorai, a forest monastery near Bangkok that was renowned for its emphasis on ascetic practice and meditation. After a year of apprenticeship there he became increasingly dissatisfied because no adequate intellectual grounding or justification was being provided for the practices in which he was engaged. For this reason he left to become associated with a monastery in Bangkok, Wat Mahāthāt, which emphasized the study of the sacred texts written in the Pali language. There he quickly demonstrated his intellectual ability, becoming a leading expert in Pali studies.

Despite his increasing erudition, however, Mongkut remained skeptical about the authenticity of the tradition in which he was participating. At a certain moment during his stay at Wat Mahāthāt he reached a point of spiritual crisis (so the story goes) and vowed that if his doubts were not resolved within the week he would give up the struggle and leave the order. Before Mongkut's self-imposed time limit had expired, the answer that he was seeking came to him during an encounter with a Mon monk. (The Mon were an ethnic group with a long and venerable history in both Thailand and Burma.) This teacher was able to convince Mongkut that the Theravāda tradition as preserved and practiced by the Mons was the authentic tradition, the one remaining truly faithful to the teachings of the Buddha and to the testimony of the Pali scriptures (the Tipiaka). The obvious correlary was that the Thai version of the Theravāda tradition was inauthentic, misguided, and in need of reform.

Soon after his encounter with the Mon monk, Mongkut returned to Wat Samorai, where he launched his reform movement. Having initiated his own program of Pali studies at this forest monastery, he soon "discovered" that the boundary stones that established and set off the sacred precincts (sīmā ) were not in accord with the requirements set forth in the Vinaya (the portion of the Pali Tipiaka that deals with the behavior of monks and the proper ordering of monastic life). Thus, he concluded, the ordinations that had taken place at this monastery, which for many years had been an ordination center for the Thai sangha as a whole, were invalid. In order to rectify the situation Mongkut arranged for the proper consecration of the sacred precincts at the Wat, and for his own reordination by monks who had been ordained in the Mon tradition. Through these formal ecclesiastical acts Mongkut made an irrevocable break with the traditionally oriented community of Thai monks (the Mahanikai; Pali, Mahānikāya) and established a new, reformist Thai lineage that later came to be known as the Thammayut (Dhammayuttika) Nikāya.

During Mongkut's remaining years in the order, he gradually built the new lineage into a small but distinctive and distinguished community. This community came to include within its ranks a number of serious and intellectually creative young monks, most of them from high-ranking families in the kingdom. It gained the support of many laymen and laywomen, including prestigious and influential members of the nobility. It also gained widespread popular recognition through an active program of teaching, not only in the capital city but also in the countryside.

Like many reformers who have emerged in traditions that have preserved sacred scriptures from the distant past, Mongkut appealed to the authority of those scriptures in order to purge supposed accretions that had, from his perspective, come to compromise the purity of the original tradition. He also combined his emphasis on scripturalist reform with an openness to the new modes of scientific rationality (and the accompanying rejection of inherited "superstitions") that were then being introduced from the West. The effect of these reforms on religious practice was the adherence, by the monks, to more canonical forms of monastic discipline and ritual. Doctrinally, the reforms resulted in a new modernist form of Buddhist teaching that emphasized the humanity of the Buddha and highlighted the ethical and humanitarian aspects of his message.

When, at the age of forty-seven, Mongkut left the order and became king, he assumed the traditional royal responsibility for the support of the sangha as a whole. In this new role he provided patronage and protection for the older and much larger Mahanikai lineage, but he clearly favored the reform-minded Thammayut lineage that he himself had founded.

By the time of Mongkut's death in 1868 the reform movement that he had originated was well established. During his long career as a monk he had provided the intellectual and organizational leadership that had enabled the new Thammayut lineage to become a coherent community with its own distinctive emphases and goals. Subsequently, during his seventeen years as king, he fostered both the religious and intellectual atmosphere and the institutional ecclesiastical adjustments that enabled the new movement to consolidate its position and extend its influence. In so doing, Mongkut has contributed, more than any other individual of his era, to the establishment of the gradual but pervasive process of modernist reform that characterized the development of Thai Buddhism during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

See Also

Buddhism, article on Buddhism in Southeast Asia; Buddhism, Schools of, article on Theravāda Buddhism.

Bibliography

The most accessible biographies of Mongkut are A. L. Moffat's Mongkut, the King of Siam (Ithaca, N.Y., 1961) and A. B. Griswold's King Mongkut of Siam (New York, 1961). These treatments may be supplemented by an indigenous perspective that can be found in the relevant sections of Chula Chakrabongse's Lords of Life: The Paternal Monarchy of Bangkok, 17821932 (New York, 1960). Those who seek a more critical approach with greater historical detail should consult Craig J. Reynolds's "The Buddhist Monkhood in Nineteenth Century Thailand" (Ph.D. diss., Cornell University, 1973).

New Sources

Finestone, J. Somdet phrarup phraratcha orot phraratchathida læ phraratchanatta nai phrabat somdet phra chomklao chaoyuhua, ratchakan thi si (A Royal Album: The Children and Grandchildren of King Mongkut, Rama IV, of Siam). Bangkok, 2000.

Narathipphongpraphan, I. Vijavat. A Diplomatic History of Thailand. Bangkok, 1991.

Pallegoix, J. B., and W. E. J. Tips. Description of the Thai Kingdom or Siam: Thailand under King Mongkut. Bangkok, 2000.

Phiphat, P., et al. Phapmumkwang khong Krung Thep Phra Maha Nakhon nai samai Ratchakan thi 4: kankhonphop mai (Panorama of Bangkok in the Reign of King Rama IV: A New Discovery). Krung Thep, 2001.

Thipakonwongmahakosathibodi, et al. The Dynastic Chronicles. Bangkok Era, the Fourth Reign, B.E. 23942411 (A.D. 18511868). Tokyo, 1965.

Frank E. Reynolds (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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