332nd Meeting – Tuesday, March 8th 2011

A Sangha without a King: 

A Buddhist Millenarian Response to the Collapse of the Local Buddhist Kingdoms

A talk by Betty Nguyen

Present: Sébastien Tayac, Louise Gabaude, Hans and Sangdao Bänziger, Ivan Hall, David James and Mangkhoot, Nancy and Don Swearer, Mark and Dianne Barber-Riley, Brooke Schedneck, Cliff Sloane, Spencer and Layle Wood, Ivan White, Bob Vryheid, Raimondo Bultrini, Jinda Moore, Peter Brummel, Ron Renard, Nance Cunningham, Manfred Liebig, Martha and John Butt, Alexander Goedecke, Suriya Smutkupt. An audience of 27   


The northern Tai Buddhist kingdom known as Lanna was once a major economic and political principality in northern mainland Southeast Asia.  Various factors caused the kingdom to collapse and fall under Burmese rule which lasted from 1558-1774 AD.  Re-gaining its independence around the 1780’s AD due to a military alliance with Taksin, a central Tai king, Lanna then became a tributary state of Bangkok up until the late nineteenth century when Siam began to politically incorporate it into its nation-state.  I examine indigenous histories that circulated in various northern Tai cities and appear to have been prolific during the mid-nineteenth century to the first quarter of the twentieth century.  In particular, I focus on a genre of prophetic histories that express millenarian thinking and desires as they narrate the history of Lanna’s period under Burmese rule and its liberation from that rule. In my paper, I examine this genre of prophetic history writings in order to gain an understanding of how northern Tai Buddhists perceived and responded to their experience of the historical collapse of the Lanna Buddhist kingdom that first occurred with the onset of Burmese domination and gradually continued as it transitioned into a Siamese tributary state and then a regional province of the nation-state.  These indigenous histories will afford us a new vantage from which to consider the scholarly conceptualization of the Buddhist state since they were disseminated during a historical period and in a cultural region that was undergoing the end of the local lineage of Theravada Buddhist kings.


Summary of her talk compiled by Betty Nguyen
A Sangha without a King: A Buddhist Millenarian Response to the Collapse of the Lānnā Buddhist Kingdom

From around the mid-nineteenth to the first quarter of the twentieth century, a body of Buddhist writings prophesying the world’s end circulated in the Lānnā kingdom whose territory roughly covered the present day area of Thailand’s northern region.  In this genre of prophetic writings, the Buddha or Inda prepare man for the catastrophic end of the world by relating the future events that will signal the imminent coming of the End.  Those who believe in the prophecy and follow the Buddha’s prescriptions will survive the catastrophic dissolution of the world.  Afterwards, they will come to live in a new world order where a righteous king rules as one did in the ideal past or be born in the time of the future Buddha, Metteya.

I reflect on these works as a genre of millenarian writings that arose in the context of the nineteenth century challenge to the maintainability of the Buddhist galactic polity.  In 1774 C.E., Lānnā became a vassal kingdom of Siam.  By the late nineteenth century, this inland northern principality was dissolved in the process of provincial integration.  Thus, the nineteenth century represented an end to the era of the tradition of Buddhist kings and kingdoms in the region that was superceded by the creation of the modern Siamese nation-state and the dominance of the Chakri royal dynasty.

What is striking about these writings is that they convey a new discourse: a prediction of the future loss of righteous Buddhist kings and with that the ideal social order.  Prophetic writings like the Legend of King Inda present a description of a future in which the world will fall into social disorder and an explanation for why this collapse is destined to occur.   In particular, the cause is placed squarely on immoral rulers.  The absence of a righteous legitimate king, who is understood to be the axis of the cosmo-social order, is depicted in these prophetic works as precipitating a total system meltdown that begins from the top and cascades down.   According to these texts, the future breakdown of the cosmo-social order will entail kings oppressing the populace, rampant unrestrained warfare, crop failure, natural disasters, famine, and the unleashing of evil spirits.  Evil spirits in fact are believed to be the perpetrators of epidemics and agricultural failure.   This conceptualization of the king is based on the cultural belief that the righteous monarch protects his people from supernatural disasters (i.e. evil spirits) as well as communal ones caused by humans such as war and banditry.  Such prophetic writings not only foretell of future catastrophes but they diagnose its source—the loss of the ideal Buddhist king who has merit.  When a man lacking the required merit ascends to power not only does he abuse his position but he is missing that special magical ingredient (i.e. merit) without which the cosmic, social, and natural orders jointly disintegrate.

These Buddhist monastic writers responded to this loss of royal protection through the production of these very texts.  In particular, they attributed apotropaic powers to the manuscripts themselves.  We are told that the Buddha or Inda gave this book of prophecies not only to prepare man for the future but to act as a refuge, a source of protection.   Some compositions such as the Legend of King Inda contain a protection spell—a Pāli verse that will ward off the various evil spirits (yakhhas) destined to arise in the world of humans.  Through the worship of these palm leaf manuscripts, in addition to the practice of giving of dāna, keeping the moral precepts, listening to dhamma sermons, having loving-kindness (mettā), and meditation (phāvanā), one may be delivered from the various misfortunes that will likely arise in the course of one’s present lifetime.

In terms of the paradigmatic scheme, the king had the duty to ensure the purity of the sangha through symbolic ritual acts and patronage it.  The sangha, in return, would flourish and in doing so lend institutional legitimacy to the king. In the social world of Theravāda countries, a Buddhist collective led by a king as well as an inter-relationship between the king and sangha failed to endure modernization, with the exception of Siam.  One response to this historical disjunction was a new textual community and practice based upon prophetic writings. In essence, these writers imagined a world without a righteous Buddhist king according to a very magical understanding of the king and his merit.  A cultural conception of the king as the sovereign-protector, coupled with the decline in the powers of Lānnā kings, these Buddhist monastic writers engaged in apotropaic textual practices that used a millenarian language to capture the historical and cultural significance of this moment as a traumatic break in the cosmo-world-historical process of the religion and its ethical community.

As for categorizing this perception of the foreclosure on a local Buddhist monarchy, I tentatively suggest that we broadly describe it as a re-understanding of the institutions of the sangha, kingship, and laity that was heavily influenced by thinking stemming from the magical sciences of astrology and invulnerability practices. Also, we can juxtapose this nineteenth century reformulation of the Buddhist social and cosmological worldview that occurred at the periphery with those at the center of power such as Bangkok (i.e. Siam).  In comparison, the latter modernized the sangha through royal action, whereas in its vassal territory of Lānnā, the monastic institution was decoupled from the monarchial one and re-aligned in terms of the laity.  The path of action pursued by these northern Tai sangha writers was an extension of protection to the laity in lieu of the Buddhist king.   They appropriated a key role of the monarch in a manner inherent to the practices and symbolism of the sangha namely, the production of dhamma writings that used the sangha’s own field of merit to offer magical protection. 


Betty Nguyen PhD candidate, Dept. of Languages & Cultures of Asia, University of Wisconsin at Madison. USA.


An engaging question and answer session brought to a conclusion a very informative and entertaining evening. Betty had held an extremely knowledgeable audience captive for the entire duration of her presentation; they really appreciated what she had to say and the way in which she put it across.


Future Meetings:

333rd Meeting – Tuesday, April 19th 2011 

Tom / Trans / Thai

Writing Self Across Thai and Thai American Trans-masculinities

A talk and film presentation by Jai Arun Ravine

334th Meeting – Tuesday, May 10th 2011

Twisting Buddhism Through the Christian Lexicon: ‘Ordination’

A talk by Louis Gabaude


Next Meeting:

333rd Meeting – Tuesday, April 19th 2011. Meetings starts at 19.30 at the Alliance Française

Tom / Trans / Thai

Writing Self Across Thai and Thai American Trans-masculinities

A talk and film presentation by Jai Arun Ravine


Selected by the ComPeung Village of Creativity in Doi Saket to participate in this year's "ChiangMai Now!" art exhibition at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, I will screen a short experimental film on Thai trans-masculinities created as a resident artist at ComPeung, discuss my process and present research related to the project. The film "Tom / Trans / Thai" explores the intersections between tom identity, trans-masculinity (defined as culturally-specific masculine gender expression by individuals assigned the female sex at birth) and Thai identity in a transnational context through writing and dance.


As a trans-masculine Thai American and luk kreung writer, dancer, video and performance artist, I am interested in bridging critical discussions regarding trans-masculine gender identity formation within Thailand and the United States through an analysis of these gender formations as modalities of resistance. I interviewed other trans-masculine Thais, including toms, queers, butches and female-to-male (FTM) transgender spectrum Thais, and mixed race Thais or luk kreungs, living mainly in Chiang Mai and the US, and responded to their experiences in text and movement. My goal with this project is to create a mode of communication between Thai tom and Thai American trans-masculinity that de-stabilizes the language of tourism and imperialism and questions what it means to be "legible" as tom, trans, Thai.


The film "Tom / Trans / Thai" has been supported by ComPeung (http://www.compeung.org) as part of their contribution 'ComPeung featuring Jai Arun Ravine' for exhibition 'Chiang Mai Now' @ Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, April – June 2011. ComPeung is the first non-governmental artist-in-residence program in Thailand. Since 2005 ComPeung aspires to provide a platform for explorations and questioning in the arts.



http://jaiarunravine.wordpress.com | eucalyptusraven@gmail.com


2005 – 2007: MFA Writing & Poetics, Naropa University, Boulder, CO, USA

2001 – 2005: BA Interdisciplinary Studies (Asian Studies, Creative Writing, Dance), Hollins University, Roanoke, VA, USA

January - April 2004: Thai Studies Program, Payap University, Chiang Mai, Thailand


Full-length book of poems forthcoming from TinFish Press, 2011

Is This January (Corollary Press, 2010)

The Spiderboi Files, Volume 1 (Self-published, 2010)

“Across and Between: Translation as strategy within the work of Padcha Tuntha-obas and other poly-lingual texts” essay in Across and Between the Void with Padcha Tuntha-obas (Achiote Press, 2008)

Poetry, reviews, essays and visual art in various online and print magazines, journals and anthologies, including Journal of Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement, Lantern Review, TinFish 18, Here is a Pen: An Anthology of West Coast Kundiman Poets, Yellow as Turmeric, Fragrant as Cloves: A Contemporary Anthology of Asian American Women’s Poetry and forthcoming in Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora: Troubling the Borders of Literature and Art.

Fellowships and Residencies

March 9 - April 8, 2011

ComPeung Village of Creativity, Doi Saket, Thailand

June 2009

Kundiman Asian American Poetry Retreat, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, USA


August 23, 2009

"Gender Transgressive Individuals of the Asian Diaspora" panel

Butch Voices Conference, Oakland, CA, USA


April 7 - June 19, 2011

Tom / Trans / Thai, short experimental film

"ChiangMai Now!" art exhibition, Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, Bangkok, Thailand

November 7, 2009

!smileyfaceheart, short experimental film

Tranny Fest, San Francisco, CA, USA


February 25 - 26, 2011

Jai Arun Ravine: The Package Tour, multi-media live performance and installation

Subterranean Arthouse, Berkeley, CA, USA

September 19, 2010

Tomboi Gatoey Mango, multi-media live performance and installation

Subterranean Arthouse, Berkeley, CA, USA

2008 - 2009

The Rice Kings, an Asian & Pacific Islander drag king troupe