“Why is your head higher than mine?”

May 2, 2019

Rama - 1

RAMA X/Anadolu Agency

I read a long story from Reuters today about Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun—not a household word in the United States but the king in Thailand. He became the monarch in 2016 upon the death of his father, and he is going to be formally crowned on Saturday. He is also, and more conveniently, known as Rama X.

According to Reuters, the king runs a tight ship. He has taken direct control of the family fortune, which is almost too great to be calculated. A career soldier himself, he has the support of the military in his authoritarian posture—usually not a good sign.

Rama X, Reuters reported, has established an enormous volunteer corps in Thailand, more than five million civilians who don uniforms and scurry around cleaning up public places, helping police direct traffic, and generally making themselves useful. They start each project by lining up to salute a portrait of the king.

Rama IV Mongkut

RAMA IV

Reading about this king called Rama reminded me of a Rama of a different sort who ruled that country when it was known as Siam—Rama IV, also known as Mongkut, who was in power from 1851 to 1868.

The western world, me included, probably would be oblivious to Rama IV if it weren’t for accounts in literature, film, and theater, of the experiences of the English tutor Anna Leonowens. As it is, however, these romanticized versions of the teacher’s interaction with the king have made him a well-known figure.

But the image of Rama IV embedded in western consciousness, notably by Yul Brynner’s portrayals on film and on the stage, only vaguely resembles the real man. It is true that Rama wanted to protect Siam from colonization by a European power and that he wanted to introduce modern ideas to the Siamese people. And it is true that to some extent he achieved these goals, although the reality was not as simple or successful as Oscar Hammerstein would have it.

In keeping with Siamese expectations for young men, Rama became a Buddhist monk when he was twenty years old, and he led a reform movement in monasticism. He studied Latin, English, and astronomy, and he became a close friend of Bishop Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix, the popular and influential apostolic vicar in Bangkok—the envoy of the pope.

Merton

THOMAS MERTON

Rama’s philosophical inquiry attracted the attention of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton—a student of Buddhism—who recorded in his journal the king’s observation that “There is nothing in this world which can be clung to blamelessly, or which a man clinging thereto could be without blame”—an idea that Pope Francis might endorse.

In his effort to establish Siam’s place among the community of nations, King Rama corresponded with world figures including Abraham Lincoln. Although it has often been written that Rama offered to send Lincoln elephants to use against the Confederacy during the Civil War, it appears that the king actually wrote to James Buchanan, Lincoln’s predecessor, offering the animals as beasts of burden. By the time the letter reached the United States, Lincoln was president, and he responded, explaining that the climate might not be suitable for elephants and that Americans were relying on steam engines to do heavy hauling.

Pius IX.jpg

POPE PIUS IX

In 1861, Rama wrote an expansive letter to Pope Pius IX, addressing him as the “Holy Father of the Catholic Christian World.” The letter was dictated by the king, taken down in Siamese by a scribe, translated by the king into a rather stilted English, and carried to Rome by Pallegoix. This letter is now in the Vatican Museum.

The king wrote that although Siamese monarchs for centuries had practiced Buddhism, they had also allowed people to practice other faiths unmolested and had welcomed refugees from places such as China and what is now southern Vietnam where Christians in particular were persecuted. Rama mentioned that Pius IX, in a letter hand delivered by Pallegoix, in 1852, had specifically asked that Catholic missionaries and other Christians in Siam be protected.

What is most compelling about this letter is the king’s frequent references to religious tolerance. After all, he wrote, the path to internal happiness and eternal life “is in fact difficult to be exactly known.’’ In this letter, the king asks “the Superagency of the Universe”—in other words, the one God—to confer “temporal and spiritual happiness” and eternal life on the pope. Some commentators have pointed out that the notion of one God is not a part of Buddhist thought, and that the king probably used this expression out of deference to the pope’s beliefs.

Rama’s interaction with the pope and his comments in this letter suggest that he would embrace an idea expressed by Pope Francis in his apostolic letter “Amoris Laetitia”:

“Keep an open mind. Don’t get bogged down in your own limited ideas and opinions, but be prepared to change or expand them. The combination of two different ways of thinking can lead to a synthesis that enriches both. … We need to free ourselves from feeling that we all have to be alike.”

 

 

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2 Responses to ““Why is your head higher than mine?””

  1. shoreacres Says:

    Very interesting. I’ve known of Merton’s interest in Buddhism, but wasn’t aware of this connection.

    As for religious tolerance, I suspect the king would be interested to know that in a nearby small Texas town, there’s a Vietnamese Buddhist temple. It’s as much a part of the community as the beer joints and trail rides. I’d like to know more about it, but I need to visit when an English-speaker is around. So far I’ve only met people who seem limited to Vietnamese — but we smile at each other a lot.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      I’ve always had an ambition to learn more about Buddhism, but, although I’ve read a few books on it, I haven’t devoted the time necessary to really understand. Pope Francis’ celebration of diversity has really set off his critics, who accuse him of heresy. But he understands that our old, comfortable idea that we live in a binary world where things are either right or wrong, white or black, no longer stands up under scrutiny. Scientists, especially physicists, have had to come to terms with this. So should the Church.

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