Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 15

Wall Painting on a Door from a Monastery in Chiang Mai

The Monks and Novices Go to the Royal Park

Every group develops its own special language and technical terms for communication. One needs to be a member of a specific battalion or platoon in order to understand these terms; outsiders are left in the dark. Members of the Saffron Forest also have a large number of technical terms specific to their community. New members must persevere before they gain any level of proficiency in such terminology.

This is true even for such simple pronouns as ‘me’ and ‘you.’ It is a headache before one develops any sense of ease around these terms. With other monks one may use the common pronouns of pom (‘I’) and koon (‘you’), but this also depends on the status of the other monk. If he has a clerical rank, for instance he is a chao khun, then the pronouns change accordingly. (If one wonders how to tell who is a chao khun, look at the ceremonial fan. If it is peaked at the end, then one knows.)

Tahn Chao Khun Upali

When a junior monk speaks to a chao khun, the pronoun ‘I’ changes to glao-grapom, and the pronoun ‘you’ changes to dty-tao or pra-date-pra-koon. When a monk speaks to a layperson who is older than himself, he may use the name yom. (The term yom, however, should not be used when speaking to children, because this term literally means ‘parent’; any children who know this fact will otherwise burst out laughing.) When speaking to laypeople, the first person pronoun changes to ahtamah, a term one should never use with other monks. When acknowledging the speech of the laity, one uses the term jarern-pawn, instead of ja or krap. The terms ahtamah and jarern-pawn are often abbreviated to ahmah and pawn, respectively. Here is an example conversation:

‘I need to consult with you, tahn (‘venerable’).’

Pawn. What is on your mind, pawn.’

‘Oh, it’s my son. He seems to be getting constantly more unruly. He comes home late every night. Sometimes he disappears for several days. I fear he is going to become a delinquent.’

Pawn. How can I help, pawn.’

‘I would like him to be ordained as a novice. I want you to give him some training. I’m finding him uncontrollable.’

The reason I am discussing this matter of linguistics is to ensure that people don’t misunderstand the title of this chapter. The expression ‘go to the Royal Park’ is a technical term used by members of the Saffron Forest, meaning to sit one’s exams for nak tham or for Pali studies. It doesn’t contain the sexual innuendos that this term conveys in other circles, for instance in the massage parlours!

Here, I wish to discuss the examinations by members of the Saffron Forest. (Let us drive venerables Boonkay, Liam, Dtaw, & Maha Sing off the main stage temporarily.) One may wonder why the monks’ examinations are called ‘going to the Royal Park’ or the ‘Royal Park exams.’ Previously, I never inquired about the hidden meaning of this expression.

Buddhist Novice taking Royal Park Exams

From what I can gather, the examination of formal Dhamma studies (pariyatti-dhamma) goes back to the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya periods. Whether the examination procedures were the same as they are now I don’t know, because I wasn’t born in time to find out. During the reign of King Rama II of the Rattanakosin era the curriculum and the method of examination was reformed. Every Thai king supported formal Dhamma studies. This was particularly true in the case of King Rama IV, who considered it a matter of state. He decreed that the examinations should take place at the Grand Palace, and he would listen to the examinations every year until the end of his reign. This is where the expression ‘Royal Park exams’ comes from. It is trimmed from ‘sitting the examinations at the Royal Arena’ or ‘sitting one’s exams in the Royal Palace.’

Originally there were only three levels of Pali examinations. During the reign of King Rama II, this was expanded into nine levels, which exist to this day. The three levels of nak tham (‘Dhamma scholar’) exams were established by Somdet Phra Mahāsamaṇa Chao Krom Phraya Vajirañāṇavarorasa, towards the end of King Rama V’s reign. In the olden days the examinations were all done orally. Written exams were only introduced during the reign of King Rama VI. The examinations by oral translation did not occur every year; they only took place every three years.

Royal officials are in charge of scheduling the times for individual monks to sit their exams. Senior monks make up the examination board. The examinee is asked to translate about 25-30 verses or lines of Pali text. If one makes a mistake, the examination board objects and gives one another 2-3 chances to make a correction. While correcting one’s mistakes, the board sometimes allows one to leave the room and think up the right answer before returning and trying again. If one passes the third level of Pali studies, one is given the title of Mahā.

Pali Scriptures

There are two ways to translate Pali: first, is a literal or word-for-word translation; and second is a sense-for-sense translation, according to the essential meaning of the text. Take for example the Pali phrase: sakuṇo ākāse gacchati. The literal translation is: ‘A bird flies in the air.’ The sense-for-sense translation is: ‘A bird flies.’ In the latter translation one need not add the clause ‘in the air,’ because no bird flies in the ground. Generally speaking, the Pali examination board asks that one give a literal translation, for this better reveals a person’s formal understanding of the language.


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