Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 7

Tipitaka Collection at Wat Vimutti

I mentioned in an earlier chapter that every novice and monk who is ordained must study a formal religious instruction (nak tam) or study Pali, or both. Of course it is possible to be ordained and to not study at all, but this is not in line with the objectives of an ‘ordination for learning’ (buat rian). The expression ‘ordination for learning’ implies that there is work to be done after the ordination ceremony.

Giving out lottery numbers, sprinkling holy water, communing with spirits, lending out money offered by the laity to enrich oneself, rushing about to gain an official ecclesiastical title (say of pra kroo or chao khun)—all these actions go against the true objectives of ordination. The correct path is to pursue a spiritual study. The term ‘study’ here encompasses gaining a profound knowledge of the Buddhist teachings, applying this knowledge so that it bears fruit in one’s own heart and mind, and then to act as a refuge to the lay people by offering them teachings. This is the true way for disciples of the Buddha.

The formal education for novices and monks is called the ‘study of Dhamma’ (pariyatti-dhamma). It is divided into two sections: the study of formal religious education (nak tam) and the study of the Pali language. Nak tam has three levels: third (dtree), second (to), and first (ake). Pali studies was formerly divided into nine levels (bprayoke—literally ‘sentence’). Later, the first and second levels were combined and referred to as the ‘grammar level,’ which one had to study for two years (or for one year if the pupil was exceptionally skilled). Once one had finished the grammar level one moved on to levels 3, 4, etc. This system was used for a while until the present system was adopted.

The levels of Pali studies are divided into three sections: the third level is called ‘bprian dtree,’ levels four through six are called ‘bprian to,’ and levels seven through nine are called ‘bprian ake.’ The reason for these titles is because one must pass the corresponding level of nak tam in order to pass the equivalent level of Pali studies: nak tam dtree for the third level of Pali studies, nak tam to for levels 4-6, and nak tam ake for levels 7-9.

Many people who were never ordained as monks have asked me about the meaning of these different terms, including bprayoke, bprian, and mahā. In the past, the monks would learn through oral transmission (mukha-pāṭha): the teacher would read out a verse or sentence and the pupils would memorize it. When this sentence was memorized they would move on to the next sentence. The reason for this was probably because in the olden days books were scarce and pupils were unable to have their own copies. Later, when books became more readily available, pupils were able to have their own copies to memorize the passages before the examinations.

Offering of the Tipitaka to Ajahn Kevali at Wat Pah Nanachat

During the examination a committee comprised of senior monks asked the pupil to translate a Pali passage (or ‘sentence’) into Thai. Each section or sentence is about 25-30 lines long. The answers were given orally, in a loud voice. If one made a mistake the committee gave the person three chances to make corrections. If the answer was still not correct, then one failed the exam. But if one passed, this was called ‘accomplishing one sentence.’ Formerly, if one passed the exam and one so wished, one could then ask the committee for another, more-difficult passage to translate. If one’s answer was correct then one would accomplish another sentence (bprayoke; i.e., another level of Pali studies).

There are stories of monks and novices who were able to pass all nine levels at the same time. Two epic stories that are still talked about today involve novices Sah and Plot. Both of these individuals passed all nine levels of Pali studies while still novices. Novice Sah was able to accomplish this at one sitting. King Rama IV was very pleased and bestowed his patronage, making Sah a royal novice and organizing his bhikkhu ordination with state ceremony. Later on Venerable Mahā Sah gave up the monk’s training despite the fact that the king was displeased and consequently put him in prison (so the story goes.) Every day the king would visit Sah in prison and place down a set of three robes, saying: ‘Choose between prison and the robes!’ In the end Sah said that he would like to be reordained. The king continued to be his attendant. After his second ordination, Ven. Sah went to be examined once more to test whether his memory of Pali was still up to scratch. He was able to pass all nine levels at once, just like before. Someone thus gave him the name ‘Phra Mahā Sah, Eighteen Bprayoke’ (since he had passed all nine levels twice). He eventually became the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand.

The second novice was Plot, who lived during the reign of King Rama V and who passed all nine levels of Pali at age 20. It took him two occasions to pass all nine levels. He too eventually became the Supreme Patriarch.

Later on the monastic sangha changed the exam from an oral exam to a written one, and they issued the stipulation that one can only sit for a single level of Pali examination per year. One is not able to pass several levels of Pali studies at a single time, as before. For a long time there were thus no novices who were able to pass all nine levels, because by the time they were eligible to take the ninth exam they were already old enough to have been ordained as bhikkhus. Only during the current reign of King Rama IX was a novice able to accomplish this feat; he was the first novice to pass all nine levels through a written exam. I have heard that he later jumped over the cloister walls and disrobed; he didn’t wait around to be the supreme patriarch like his predecessors.

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