Bhumibol Adulyadej and Buddhist Kingship in Thailand

By Akhilesh Pillalamarri, The Diplomat, October 15, 2016

Rama IX served as a revered symbol and also shielded his country from the worst consequences of its political instability.

Bangkok, Thailand
-- What makes an ideal king in the Buddhist tradition?

This is a question that many will ponder, as Thailand mourns the death of the late Rama IX (Bhumibol Adulyadej) and awaits the ascension of his controversial heir, Maha Vajiralongkorn. Buddhist monarchs continue to reign in Thailand, Cambodia, and Bhutan (and Buddhism has influenced the more Shinto-oriented imperial tradition of the Japanese monarchy). Moreover, the metaphysics of Buddhism remain intertwined with office of the Dalai Lama.

The Buddhist tradition of kingship has a long history. Royal patronage of Buddhism goes back to ancient South Asia, when several ancient kings patronized Buddhist monks and the Buddha himself came from a royal family. However, the key moment in Buddhist history was the conversion of the Indian Emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan Dynasty to Buddhism around 260 BCE. Ashoka’s conversion was the result of the remorse he felt after his brutal conquest of Kalinga (modern Odisha). He helped promote Buddhism by setting up rock edicts throughout his empire and by sending emissaries to other kings, including the Greek dynasties that had carved up Alexander the Great’s empire.

Ashoka remained the model for early Buddhist ideals of kingship, which held that the ideal king was a chakravartin, an ideal ruler who rules benevolently throughout the world through dharma (righteousness). A chakravartin keeps the wheel (chakra) of dharma going, in other words, by laying down righteous laws and teaching his people to live in accordance with the teachings of Buddhism. Chakras appear on the Indian flag and the emblem of the royal dynasty of Thailand. In the tradition of Ashoka, Buddhist kings were supposed to use their power primarily in defense of dharma. 

From the beginning, however, there was a tension between the realities of politics and military necessities and the ideals of Buddhist kingship. This can be seen through the very life of Ashoka himself. Even though he is portrayed as an ideal ruler, he is also portrayed as “fierce,” and therefore as an “armed chakravartin.” It was this tension that led to the replacement or overshadowing Buddhist ideas of kingship and governance everywhere the religion spread.

In India, Buddhism was reabsorbed into Hinduism and the ruling and warrior classes maintained a ruling ideology based on the grant of power from the Hindu gods Vishnu and Shiva, necessary to prevent the primeval chaos of an ungoverned society. In Japan, Shintoism eventually prevailed as the ideology of the imperial family, transforming into the militarized State Shinto after the Meiji Restoration (1868). In China, by the time of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), and in Korea during the Choson Dynasty (1390-1910 CE), neo-Confucianism pushed Buddhism out of its role in governance.

In regions such as Southeast Asia, however, which remained Buddhist, the original ideals of kingship remained important in the theory of kingship. But even these were diluted. Hindu views of what a king ought to do and his sources of power prevailed in countries like Thailand and Cambodia. The king was seen as a divine incarnation of Vishnu, and in particular modeled after the avatar Rama. His rule was not only for the purpose of establishing dharma but law and order; his consecration and crowing involved Hindu rituals, Vedic chants, and martial symbolism from Hindu deities.

The idea that the king ought to be more than a paragon of virtue, but a competent military and political operator is at once dangerous and beneficial in modern times. By remaining a symbol of dharma and not getting overly involved in the nitty-gritty of law and order, a king can maintain the prestige of his dynasty.

But by also helping maintain order and some semblance of stability in an increasingly fractured and politically chaotic country, like Thailand, a king can also draw from the Hinduized elements of Buddhist kingship that emphasize law, order, and punishment. Rama IX was able to both serve as a revered symbol and shield his country from the worst consequences of its political instability. It remains to be seen if his heir can do likewise.
We Need Your Help to Train the
Buddhist AI Chat Bot
(Neural Omniscient Robotic-Being for Buddhist Understanding)

For Malaysians who wants to donate in MYR, please use the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB
Note: Please indicate your name in the payment slip. Thank you.

Dear Friends in the Dharma,

We seek your generous support to help us train NORBU, the word's first Buddhist AI Chat Bot.

Here are some ways you can contribute to this noble cause:

One-time Donation or Loan: A single contribution, regardless of its size, will go a long way in helping us reach our goal and make the Buddhist LLM a beacon of wisdom for all.

How will your donation / loan be used? Download the NORBU White Paper for details.

For Malaysians who wants to donate in MYR, please use the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB
Note: Please indicate your purpose of payment (loan or donation) in the payment slip. Thank you.

Once payment is banked in, please send the payment slip via email to: Your donation/loan will be published and publicly acknowledged on the Buddhist Channel.

Spread the Word: Share this initiative with your friends, family and fellow Dharma enthusiasts. Join "Friends of Norbu" at: Together, we can build a stronger community and create a positive impact on a global scale.

Volunteer: If you possess expertise in AI, natural language processing, Dharma knowledge in terms of Buddhist sutras in various languages or related fields, and wish to lend your skills, please contact us. Your knowledge and passion could be invaluable to our project's success.

Your support is part of a collective effort to preserve and disseminate the profound teachings of Buddhism. By contributing to the NORBU, you become a "virtual Bodhisattva" to make Buddhist wisdom more accessible to seekers worldwide.

Thank you for helping to make NORBU a wise and compassionate Buddhist Chatbot!

May you be blessed with inner peace and wisdom,

With deepest gratitude,

Kooi F. Lim
On behalf of The Buddhist Channel Team

Note: To date, we have received the following contributions for NORBU:
US$ 75 from Gary Gach (Loan)
US$ 50 from Chong Sim Keong
MYR 300 from Wilson Tee
MYR 500 from Lim Yan Pok
MYR 50 from Oon Yeoh
MYR 200 from Ooi Poh Tin
MYR 300 from Lai Swee Pin
MYR 100 from Ong Hooi Sian
MYR 1,000 from Fam Sin Nin
MYR 500 from Oh teik Bin
MYR 300 from Yeoh Ai Guat
MYR 300 from Yong Lily
MYR 50 from Bandar Utama Buddhist Society
MYR 1,000 from Chiam Swee Ann
MYR 1,000 from Lye Veei Chiew
MYR 1,000 from Por Yong Tong
MYR 80 from Lee Wai Yee
MYR 500 from Pek Chee Hen
MYR 300 from Hor Tuck Loon
MYR 1,000 from Wise Payments Malaysia Sdn Bhd
MYR 200 from Teo Yen Hua
MYR 500 from Ng Wee Keat
MYR 10,000 from Chang Quai Hung, Jackie (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from K. C. Lim & Agnes (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from Juin & Jooky Tan (Loan)
MYR 100 from Poh Boon Fong (on behalf of SXI Buddhist Students Society)
MYR 10,000 from Fam Shan-Shan (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from John Fam (Loan)
MYR 500 from Phang Cheng Kar
MYR 100 from Lee Suat Yee
MYR 500 from Teo Chwee Hoon (on behalf of Lai Siow Kee)
MYR 200 from Mak Yuen Chau

We express our deep gratitude for the support and generosity.

If you have any enquiries, please write to: