The long account I gave in the previous section was simply to make it clear to the readers that the term bprayoke, referring to a level of Pali studies, literally means a passage of Pali text, which the examination committee uses to test the examinee. If he can translate it correctly he thus achieves a level of Pali studies.
As for the term bprian (เปรียญ), it is unclear where it comes from. Originally this term was pronounced ‘bahrian,’ but I don’t know its origin. (A friend of mine jokingly said that it comes from ‘bah-rian’ (บ้าเรียน), which means ‘study like crazy’ in order to pass the exam. It is true that some monks study so intensively that they do go mad.) Scholars say this word comes from the Pali word pariññā, which means ‘thorough knowledge.’ The term bprian is used to refer to a novice or monk who has passed the first three levels of Pali studies. It corresponds to the term mahā, and sometimes these two terms are used together as mahā-bprian.
The term mahā, however, has special attributes. If a novice passes the first three levels of Pali, he is not called a mahā, but rather the term bprian is added after his name. And a monk who has passed these three levels, but who hasn’t yet received the royal gift of a ceremonial fan and formal certificate, is not yet entitled to use the term mahā—he can only use the term bprian after his name. After receiving the fan and certificate he can use the title mahā. One can see that mahā is an ecclesiastical title bestowed on a monk who has completed the first three levels of Pali studies. If a monk disrobes, he is not permitted to use this title any longer. These days, however, this tradition has become confused. Monks disrobe and start a family, and they still use the title mahā, which is inappropriate.
Why are these individuals called mahā? If you ask me this, I’ll just have to make a guess. Mahā means ‘great.’ For a student to pass this stage of Pali studies, he must have tremendous diligence. Some monks sit the exam so many times that they end up with grey beards without joining the others as mahā.
In fact, the knowledge required is not terribly complicated, but the committee’s way of examination is truly prehistoric. The committee members only test a student’s memory, and if one translates more than twelve words incorrectly one fails the exam. Even more so in the eighth and ninth levels—if one errs with one single word, and this is a word that they consider should never be got wrong or it is a silly mistake, one fails the exam immediately. Nowhere else in the world is it this strict. Say there are three subjects to be examined—if one excels in two but fails the third, one fails the entire exam. The next year one starts again from the beginning. This time the subjects one previously passed one fails, and the subjects one failed one passes—one thus fails the entire exam again because one didn’t pass all subjects. One gets caught in this cycle until one has a nervous breakdown. For this reason someone who passes is called a mahā—he must be extremely accurate with his answers.
Of the two sections of Dhamma study, the laypeople are only able to study and be tested on the formal religious education (nak tam). They have this opportunity throughout the kingdom of Thailand, with the monks acting as teachers and examiners. If they pass the exams they receive a diploma, and they are granted the same honour and privileges as the novices and monks.
As for Pali studies, during the time that the sangha was administered by four advisory bodies (i.e., the agency of education, the agency of administration, the agency of propagation, and the agency of public assistance), the sangha considered allowing laypeople to study Pali as well. The matter was brought to a meeting of the senior sangha officials. After a long debate it was decided not to allow laypeople to engage in these studies.
The reasons behind forbidding the laity to study Pali were never revealed. Venerable Mahā Sing, who was dear to us little novices at Wat Bahn Huay, gave us an amusing account of the events surrounding this decision. Allow me to relay the conclusion of this account:
Opponent: ‘I insist that we shouldn’t start teaching Pali to the laypeople under any circumstances.’
Proponent: ‘We shouldn’t bar the laypeople from learning Pali. If they learn Pali it will make our job of spreading Buddhism easier.’
Opponent: ‘I agree with that point.’
Proponent: ‘If you agree, then you shouldn’t oppose this proposition.’
Opponent: ‘I believe there will be problems with issuing diplomas and with choosing titles for these people.’
Proponent: ‘I don’t understand.’
Opponent: ‘A monk who passes the exams is called a mahā, right?’
Proponent: ‘Yes, so what?’
Opponent: ‘And what about laypeople?’
Proponent: ‘One can call them Mr. Mahā.’
Opponent: ‘And if it’s a woman?’
Proponent: ‘We can call her Mrs. Ma … Oh! Right! Laypeople can’t learn Pali—if they start learning Pali things will get all confused.’
Opponent: ‘See, I told you so!’
From that time onwards laypeople have been unable to participate in the formal learning of Pali.