Student Query

Wendi Adamek's picture

Dear Colleagues,

Thank you so much for helpful replies to my previous post on behalf of one of my undergraduate students. She really appreciated all the sources on SE Asia and tatoo designs!

I have another set of questions from another student in the same class, I'm pasting below his abstract and questions. 

Thanks so much for any help!

All best,

Wendi Adamek

University of Calgary

 

Abstract: This paper will explore ways that the Thai political landscape has evolved in relation to its understanding of phuu mii bun (“person having merit”) as integral to Thai Buddhist kingship, under the aegis of structuration theory as coined by Anthony Giddens. With the inception of a constitutional monarchy in the mid-19th century, reformation of state ideology has created a Thai political society that is inseparable from Buddhist doctrine. However, as the international system changes economically, ideologically, and politically, the legitimacy of the upper echelon of Thai society has come into question. I argue that multiple reform movements oriented toward satisfying the needs of the Thai people have reshaped the Thai understanding of a legitimate ruler.

 

1) What is a good translation and/or sources relating to the Phongsawadan Nua (Northen Chronicles)?

2) Any recommendations for sources relating Thai kingship ideology and the Vessantara Jataka? I am particularly interested in the nuances of the use of “phuu mii bun.” 

2) When was the first appearance of the concept of phuu mii bun in pre-modern Thailand, the Menam basin and its kingdoms? How were people determined to be phuu mii bun? 

3) If anyone claimed to be phuu mii bun, how did they legitimize that claim?

4) Which of the modern reform movements in Thailand used the notion of phuu mii bun to challenge the legitimacy of the monarchy? 

Categories: Query

Dear Wendi,

Here’s some thoughts with regards to your student’s questions.

1) What is a good translation and/or sources relating to the Phongsawadan Nuea (Northern Chronicles)?

The Baṅśāvatār hnị̄ö/Phongsawadan nuea was compiled from various documents and oral legends in Bangkok in the early nineteenth century. I don’t believe there is a translation or in-depth study available at present. This source is not about “Northern Thailand” in the sense of Lanna/Chiang Mai; it primarily deals with the city states in the north part of the central plain (Sukhothai, Phitsanulok, etc.). The content of the text is briefly discussed in Chatri Prakitnonthakan, “The origins of Sukhothai art as the Thai golden age: the relocation of Buddha images, early Ratanakosin literature and nationalism,” South East Asia Research 27:3 (2019), 254–270. 

For the connection between the local chronicles of Lanna/Northern Thailand and Buddhist millenarian ideologies, see the excellent PhD dissertation by Betty Nguyen, “Calamity Cosmologies: Buddhist Ethics and the Creation of a Moral Community” (University of Wisconsin, 2014). 

2) Any recommendations for sources relating Thai kingship ideology and the Vessantara Jataka? I am particularly interested in the nuances of the use of “phuu mii bun.” 

There are several recent pieces in English that address politics/ideology with regards to the Vessantara Jataka. Patrick Jory’s Thailand's Theory of Monarchy: The Vessantara Jataka and the Idea of the Perfect Man (SUNY Press, 2016) is a good place to start. Katherine Bowie’s Of Beggars and Buddhas (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017) offers a great counterpoint, particularly chapters 4–6. 

3) When was the first appearance of the concept of phuu mii bun in pre-modern Thailand, the Menam basin and its kingdoms? How were people determined to be phuu mii bun

I am not sure of the precise antiquity of the Thai phrase phū₂ mī puñ/phuu mii bun, or its regional equivalents, such as Khmer anak mān puṇy/neak mean bon. In Thai, it appears six times in the early sixteenth-century poem Lilit́ braḥ laa/Lilit phra lo, where it always refers to a member of the royal family, and never a millenarian leader. In other classical Thai literary works, it is used to emphasize the bodhisatta status of a protagonist, royal or otherwise. In seventeenth-century Khmer literature, such as Cpāp’ braḥ rājasambhār, it appears in the sense of one who is simply fortunate (anak mān puṇy bhabv/neak man bon phoap). 

I am not aware of evidence for how and why the general concept of phū₂ mī puñ/phuu mii bun as a fortunate being with enormous merit from past lives, perhaps even a bodhisatta and/or king, became narrowed into a millenarian figure by the early nineteenth century. Leaders of millenarian movements and their followers were clearly drawing on an existing idea that certain beings are born into the word with exalted karma, and may be recognized as such through their appearance, actions, status, and/or powers. 

La Loubère’s A New Historical Relation of the Kingdom of Siam (1693) describes a late seventeenth-century child who is supposed to become a buddha, and is adored by a mass a followers (137). La Loubère does not use the term phū₂ mī puñ/phuu mii bun in his account, but the concept is similar. 

The concept of phū₂ mī puñ/phuu mii bun as a millenarian leader, however, seems to be a product of the eighteenth and nineteenth century in Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. Baker and Phongpaichit’s A History of Ayutthaya (Cambridge UP, 2017) cites some late eighteenth-century uses of the term in a millenarian context during the waning days of Ayutthaya (see pp. 250, 262). In nineteenth-century Thai and Khmer court records, royal chronicles, and other documents, the term often is clearly associated with non-royal millenarian leaders and is frequently associated with a genre of prophetic texts (Thai dāṃnāy/thamnay; Khmer daṃnāy/tumneay) that circulated at the time. 

For a general overview with regards to Thailand and Laos, see Constance Wilson, “The Holy Man in the History of Thailand and Laos,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 28:2 (Sep 1997), 345–364, which cites other key studies by Yoneo Ishii, Charles Keyes, Chatthip Nartsupha, etc. 

For an analysis of anak mān puṇy/neak mean bon and daṃnāy/tumneay texts in nineteenth-century Cambodia, see Anne Hansen, How to Behave (U of Hawai‘i Press, 2007), pp. 55–64.

4) If anyone claimed to be phuu mii bun, how did they legitimize that claim?

How people are identified/legitimized as phū₂ mī puñ/phuu mii bun varies considerably by historical and cultural context. Several of the essays in Charismatic Monks of Lanna Buddhism (ed. Paul T. Cohen, NIAS Press, 2017) address how various Thai/Tai monks were recognized as tȃnº puñ/ton bun, a Lanna concept similar to phū₂ mī puñ/phuu mii bun

5) Which of the modern reform movements in Thailand used the notion of phuu mii bun to challenge the legitimacy of the monarchy? 

See, for instance, Katherine Bowie’s essay in Cohen’s Charismatic Monks of Lanna Buddhism. See also the theoretical issues broached in the fifth chapter of Betty Nguyen’s dissertation.

Best,

Trent Walker
Khyentse Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow
Department of Thai, Faculty of Arts
Chulalongkorn University