Fragmentation of the Sangha into a number of different orders has been a notable feature of Sri Lankan and Burmese Buddhism. In Thailand, however, the creation of new orders has been extremely rare. This anomaly is explained to a large extent by the fact that it is only in Thailand that the Sangha has enjoyed strong and uninterrupted royal support throughout its existence and has been spared the stresses of living under an unsympathetic colonial administration. The Thai abhorrence of conflict and lack of enthusiasm for doctrinal niceties have also played their part.
For the last 160 years, there have been two orders in Thailand: the Mahānikāya and Dhammayut nikāya. The word ‘nikāya’ is most commonly rendered as ‘sect’ but that term tends to suggest – misleadingly – doctrinal dispute. Nikāyas do not, in fact, differ in matters of belief or interpretation of the teachings, but rather to the practical application of the Vinaya.
In other words, it is on questions of orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy that they define themselves. The Dhammayut (‘bound with Dhamma’ or ‘Righteous’) nikāya is the more recent. It was established by King Mongkut in the 1830s during the period he spent in the monkhood prior to ascending the throne. His intention was that it should provide an elite group of monks that would act as a regenerative force within the Mahā (‘great’ or ‘greater’) nikāya.
The monastic order of the time was certainly in a parlous state. The destruction of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya in 1767 and the period of anarchy that followed it had dealt a crushing blow to the organization of an already corrupt system. Despite the repeated efforts at reform from the beginning of the Bangkok Era in the late eighteenth century, standards of Discipline were still very lax, and educational standards at a nadir.
King Mongkut had become a monk during the final illness of his father, King Buddha Loetla Nabhalai. When, despite his own superior claim to the throne, he was overlooked by the Privy Council in favour of his half- brother, he decided to pursue a monastic career until the day, if ever, when he might be called to secular power.
He soon became deeply disillusioned by what he found around him in the monasteries of Bangkok and, with a few like-minded followers, determined to re-establish what he saw as ancient standards that had been abandoned. His aim was a familiarly protestant one: to bring contemporary practices back in line with the teachings in the Buddhist scriptures. He supported a more rational, ‘scientific’ approach to the Dhamma with an eradication of superstitions, an increased study of the Pali texts, a new more ‘correct’ way of chanting, changes in ritual and in the wearing of the robe; and most importantly, a new strictness in adherence to the Vinaya.
This reflection by Ajahn Jayasaro is from the book, Stillness Flowing, (pdf) pp. 57-58.