19th Supreme Buddhist Patriarch of Thailand

Full Name and Titles: Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara Suvaddhana Mahathera. 'Somdet' is a title given to the highest officials in the Thai Sangha. 'Phra' is a Thai term for 'monk' that is used similarly to the way 'Rev.' is used in the West. Nyanasamvara is also an honorary title, similar to Somdet, but not held by all Thai Patriarchs; it was specially bestowed on the patriarch in 1972. Mahathera is an honorific indicating his seniority. His name at birth was Charern Gajavatra, and he is sometimes credited (particularly in his writings) as Suvaddhano Bhikkhu.

Early Life

Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara, the 19th monk since the reign of Rama I to hold the title of Supreme Buddhist Patriarch (Sangharaja) of Thailand, was born on October 3, 1913 in Kanchanaburi Province, Thailand. Even as a child he was very interested in religion and monastic life; it is said that as a child, he liked dressing up like a monk, and giving 'sermons' to his friends and family. He completed the equivalent of the 5th grade at a temple school near his home, and was then ordained as a Buddhist novice (samanera) at the age of 14.

Instruction in Pali and other fundamentals of Buddhist education were not readily available in his home province (a common problem in Thailand during the early 20th Century), so Phra Nyanasamvara traveled to a temple at Nakhon Pathom, 70 km away, where he spent 2 years studying Pali and Buddhist philosophy. He then moved to Wat Bovoranives in Bangkok, an important temple in the emergent Dhammayutt Order (Thai: Thammayuttika) reform movement, and completed his basic studies, including passing the highest level of Pali study established by the Thai Sangha.

In 1933, Phra Nyanasamvara returned to his old temple in Kanchanaburi to be ordained as a full-fledged monk (bhikkhu). After passing the better part of a year there, he again traveled to Wat Bovoranives, where he was re-ordained into the Dhammayutt Order, under the supervision of the 13th Thai Supreme Patriarch.

Rise Through The Ranks

Following his full ordination, Phra Nyanasamvara rose quickly through the ranks of the Thai Sangha. As Thai ecclesiastic titles often take the form of additions or alterations to monastic names, this necessitated a variety of changes of name and title for the next several years. In 1956, at the age of 43 and under the titular name Phra Dhammavarabhorn, he was appointed guardian and advisor to King Rama IX (Bhumibol Adulyadej) during his royal ordination (by tradition, all Thai monarchs serve as Buddhist monks prior to gaining the throne]). Five years later, Phra Nyanasamvara was named abbot of Wat Bovoranives.

In 1972, he was given the title Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara, the same basic title that he bears today. This was a special monastic title that had not been granted to a Thai bhikkhu in over 150 years. The granting of this title placed Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara in the top tier of the Thai monastic establishment, and set the stage for his being named Supreme Buddhist Patriarch of Thailand (Sangharaja, or 'Lord (or Prince) of the Sangha') in 1989 by the king and queen of Thailand

Achievements & Challenges

During his 70+ years as a monk and novice, Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara has held a variety of posts in the Thai ecclesiastic hierarchy. In these roles, he has always been concerned with promoting education, both religious and secular. He has assisted in the founding and construction of numerous schools, as well as sponsoring campaigns to build schools, temples, and hospitals in rural communities.

As abbot of Wat Bovoranives, he oversaw the renovation and expansion of this 100+ year old monastery. Long interested in the meditation techniques of the Thai Forest Tradition, Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara has helped make his temple residence a center of teaching and study in Bangkok, himself delivering lectures on meditation and Buddhist teachings on two Uposatha days a month.

Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara has also been more active than previous Sangharaja in teaching to non-Thais, as well as the Thai emigrant community. His recorded sermons and teachings are distributed among Thais living outside Thailand, particularly in areas where there is not access to temples or Theravada monks. Westerners have also been encouraged to study Buddhism; Wat Bovoranives is known as one of several monasteries in Thailand where Westerners can not only study, but also ordain either as full bhikkhu, or for a limited term (such as vassa) as a novice (samanera). A number of Somdet Nyanasamvara's books and talks have also been translated into English, and he has also been involved in sponsoring the establishment of temples and monasteries abroad.

With the rise in the number of widely reported scandals among the Thai Sangha, as well as rising pressure from social issues (such as the ordination of women), Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara's tenure has probably been exposed to more criticism and controversy than that of any preceding Thai Sangharaja. Because of the convoluted governing structure of the Thai Sangha (which includes both ecclesiastic and civil officials) and the Patriarch’s health problems, it is difficult to determine what, if any, role that Phra Nyanasamvara has played in adressing these issues. The course held by the Council of Elders has not strayed; they continue to defrock those monks found guilty of the most flagrant offenses, and to strongly oppose any change in the official status of women in the Sangha. Some have criticized the Council (and, by implication, Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara) for not taking a more proactive role in reforming disciplinary standards and eliminating corruption.

Like its predecessors, the Council of Elders under Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara has been very conservative and slow to act. There are some indications that this is the best course for maintaining the confidence of the public; some temples in the United States that have attempted to change the roles of Theravada monks have been met with a strong backlash from their lay communities. However, many feel that an open purge of corrupt monks would, in the long term, be less damaging than a postponed meltdown, of the sort the Catholic Church endured in the United States during the early 21st Century.

Furthermore, educated Buddhist women- Thai, Western, and otherwise- continue to call for an expanded role for female Buddhists, with many calling for a rebirth of the Theravada bhikkhuni lineage. They are joined in this call not only by some laymen, but by an increasing number of progressive monks. Some of these advocates for change have begun to take the law into their own hands, ordaining Buddhist nuns through recourse to the existing Chinese bhikkhuni lineage. The Council and secular authorities have condemned these steps, going so far as to arrest (at least) one Thai woman who underwent ordination for impersonation of a member of the clergy (ordained bhikkhu have a different civil status in Thai society than non-ordained female followers, such as the mae chi).

The actions of Phra Nyanasamvara and his Council (or, more likely, his successor and his Council) during the next few years may have a lasting impact on the Thai Sangha- either by beginning to resolve the troublesome questions that have arisen during the last half of the 20th Century, or by deepening what could prove to be a pending crisis for the Theravada as a whole.

Later Life

By the late 1990’s, the Patriarch’s health was in serious decline. In early 1999, he stopped attending meetings of the Sangha Council. His attendant and advisors and the other members of the council increasingly managed the day-to-day workings of the Thai Sangha without direct leadership from Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara. By 2003, it was clear that the 96 year old Sangharaja was unable to effectively fill the position to which he had been appointed. The government felt obliged to act, and appointed a committee of senior monks (selected by monastic rank, not age) to act on behalf of the Sangharaja. The move received widespread support; a poll conducted among Thai monks found that more than 70% supported the appointment of a representative for the Supreme Patriarch. Given the challenges facing the Thai Sangha, the appointment of the representative council seemed like an excellent move. By appointing monks based on rank, rather than age, it raised the possibility of introducing (comparatively) new blood into debates over the changing role of the Sangha. Since the committee had the power to act on behalf of the patriarch, they had the opportunity to take up issues that may have been neglected during the absence of the Sangha Council's senior-most member.

However, the appointment of a committee to represent the Supreme Patriarch was not without some controversy. Monks close to Phra Nyanasamvara's camp protested the move as unconstitutional and in violation of Thailand's Sangha Act. Government officials countered that these individuals, fearing a loss of prestige or influence if the aging Patriarch was circumvented, were putting their own interests ahead of those of the Sangha. The controversy was further convoluted by lingering debates over the appointment of a second Sangharaja- one for the Dhammayutt Order, and one for the Mahanikaya Order. Some saw the appointment of the committee as an attempt to surreptitiously pave the way for a second patriarch, suspicions the government was quick to dismiss.

By 2005, concerns about the role that the representative council would take were increasingly eclipsed by debate over succession. With the Patriarch’s health continuing to decline, focus increasingly turned to Somdet Kiaw (Somdet Phutthacharn), abbot of Wat Saket. By the terms of Thailand’s religious law- modified in 1991 to take the choice of the patriarch away from the king- Somdet Kiaw would become the next Sangharaja automatically. This development was vocally opposed by Phra Maha Bua, a popular monk often believed to be an enlightened arahat. Phra Maha Bua’s supporters maintain that Somdet Kiaw earned his high position in the Sangha hierarchy through corruption and abuse of power, and that he deserved to be defrocked rather than promoted.

The rancorous succession debate has brought to the forefront long-standing complaints against the amended 1962 Sangha Act (sometimes called the Ecclesiastic Bill) that defines the structure and governance of the Thai Sangha. Created during a period of military dictatorship, the 1968 Sangha Act stripped out democratic reforms that had accompanied King Mongkut’s doctrinal and disciplinary reforms. The act lent greater power to the roll of the Sangharaja, and structured the Sangha along according to a strict hierarchy that stifled dissent and provided few significant roles for younger monks. Thus, while Phra Nyanasamvara’s health has prevented him from taking an active role in reforming the Thai Sangha during the past several years, his death may prompt the biggest reform of all: the creation of a new Sangha Act that will define a more democratic leadership structure for Thailand’s largest religious organization.


Sources:
An extensive biography of Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara is found at:
http://mahamakuta.inet.co.th/english/somdet19.html
It includes details about his various posts and titles.
A smaller bio at:
http://www.dhammathai.org/somdet/main_hh.html
contains a much more streamlined overview.

“Monastic Feud Could Lead to a Schism”, http://news.spirithit.com/index/asia/more/monastic_feud_could_lead_to_a_schism/

“200 Years After King Mongkut’s Birth: A Review of Reform Movements in Thai Buddhism”, http://www.wb-university.org/research/article-tavivat.htm

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