Perseverance does pay in the end
Thanong Khanthong looks at the Thai crisis using ''The Story of Mahajanaka''
THE Thai crisis goes deeper than the financial, economic and social upheavals which encompass the general state of ignorance. In ''The Story of Mahajanaka'', authored by His Majesty the King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a City of Ignorance is depicted lavishly in a drawing on page 128.
It is a parody of the current Thai society, overwhelmed by lobha (greed), dosa (hatred) and moha (delusion). These attributes are the roots of bad actions which eventually lead the City of Ignorance into decadence.
So far the best-selling book, with more than 600,000 copies sold, has become the guiding spirit of a nation bewildered by the sudden change of fortune and confused by the roots of the crisis. Drawn from the ''Phra Trai Pitaka'', or the ''Three Buddhist Canons'', Mahajanaka's theme dwells on the virtues of perseverance. The book, for all its moral content, was His Majesty's gift to the nation.
In the famous drawing, people are trying to pull down a mango tree to collect all the fruit. Much worse, two learned men are employing modern technology to fell the tree. The other mango tree, not bearing fruit, is left idle. Mahajanaka, the main character and one of the 10 reincarnations of Lord Buddha before he was born as Prince Siddhartha, is left feeling sad when witnessing this scene. He muses: ''That tree is still beautifully green because it has no fruit. But this tree has been felled because it bore fruit. This throne is like a tree with fruit: peaceful retirement is like a tree with no fruit. Danger lurks around the one who has worries and does not menace the one without worries. We will not be like the tree with fruit; we will be like the one without fruit.''
At a television seminar held this month to discuss the theory of ''The Story of Mahajanaka'' to rebuild the Thai socio-economic structure, Dr Praves Vasi, a well-known social critic, said: ''Thais are short-sighted. They think of the mango as the economy. If they want mangoes, they just pull the tree down, without remembering the cause, which is the tree. Without the tree, there won't be any mangoes for further consumption.''
He looked upon the mango tree as the foundation of Thai society. If the mango tree is developed on firm ground, it will bear sweet fruits.
Former prime minister Anand Panyarachun said the scene does not only reflect the social problem of Thailand but also that of the world in general. ''There are some Thais who want the forest or the river when they see them. They are like children whose eyes glow when they see things they want,'' he said. ''In a political analogy, it reflects the fact that prestigious and powerful posts are subject to fights. Most politicians want honours, power and money without thinking about accountability, responsibility or transparency.''
The drawing of the City of Ignorance also depicts people drunk in sinful acts. The children grow under bad examples. Apart from the main building depicted in the drawing, there are three salas, metaphorically representing lobha, dosa and moha.
In the main building, an old man is committing adultery. The rest of the people in the salas are engaging in some kind of sinful act. The police are asleep while a group of people are gambling with cards. A woman is polluting the river while her son is looking on. A man is dancing with two girls. Thieves are travelling on a boat.
In a way, the drawing reflects the failure of Thailand's social and economic development. ''Problems arise from the fact that we've been developing the economy ahead of the society. If we had developed society first and then the economy, we wouldn't be living in this state of affairs. All the trees and forests have been destroyed,'' Sophon Suphaphong, managing director of Bangchak Petroleum Plc and winner of this year's Magsaysay Award, said. ''We hardly realise that the strength of Suwanaphum [Siam] is society.''
To overcome ignorance, His Majesty discusses educational reforms in ''The Story of Mahajanaka'' in a very subtle way. The fundamental aim is to help people overcome ignorance, build up technological knowledge, enlighten themselves, sharpen their wisdom and employ the knowledge they gain for the benefit of oneself and others. As noted by the academic Sumol Amornwiwat, His Majesty prefers to use the word ''learning'' rather than education in his book. To the King, learning is not the mere act of studying a subject but the process of acquiring knowledge in a holistic way.
In one episode, Mahajanaka sets his sights upon accomplishing an important mission, which is to establish ''an institute of higher learning''. Mahajanaka said: ''We are sure that time has come to establish that institute. In fact, it should have been established years ago. Today's events have shown the necessity. From the Viceroy down to the elephant mahouts and the horse handlers, and up from the horse handlers to the Viceroy, and especially the courtiers are all ignorant. They lack not only technical knowledge but also common knowledge, ie commonsense: They do not even know what is good for them. They like mangoes, but they destroy a good mango tree.''
The theme of ''The Story of Mahajanaka'' lies in the virtue of perseverance to overcome lobha, dosa, moha and all worldly obstacles for human perfection. The story first caught the King's attention in 1977 when he was listening to a sermon by Somdej Phra Maha Viravongsa (Vin Dhannasaro Mahathera) at Wat Rajapatikaram. The monarch took such interest in the story that he started researching ancient scriptures.
''Mahajanaka'' is a vastly different literary feat for His Majesty because he has translated an old Thai Buddhist scripture into everyday English and then re-written it again in the contemporary Thai tongue. Although the translations had actually been completed in 1988, His Majesty desired to publish the book on the fortuitous occasion of his Golden Jubilee in 1996.
In a way, Praves said, the book reflects the virtue of perseverance practised by His Majesty over the past 52 years of his reign. He quoted the old saying: ''If an individual practices the virtue of perseverance, he will not be indebted to his relatives, gods or his parents.''
Thailand has literally been called the ''Thaitanic'' during the present crisis. In a way, the country's predicament is similar to the fate of the young prince Mahajanaka during his attempt to contest for his throne in Mithila.
Mahajanaka set sail for Suwanaphum to do some trade and raise money for his war campaign. Unfortunately, the ship, with some 700 merchants on board, was wrecked as vividly described in the book, when Mahajanaka uses his wisdom to overcome the danger: ''All the passengers feared death; they cried and wailed, invoked and exhorted gods for help. But the Great Being [Mahajanaka] did not cry nor wail, did not invoke nor exhort the gods for help.
The prince knew that the ship would sink, so he mixed sugar with butter and had his fill of this mixture. Then he soaked two pieces of plain cloth in oil and wound them tightly around his body. He stood up, holding onto the mainmast. He climbed the mast as the ship was sinking.
The others became food for fish and turtles; the water all around took the colour of blood. The Great Being stood up on the top of the mast. He aimed in the direction of Mithila and jumped forwards off the mast, exerting his great strength to clear a school of fish and turtles, to a distance of one usabha [70 metres].''
The fate of the 700 drowned merchants is similar to that of the Thai people, at present who are blaming each other for the economic crisis. Instead of trying to find a practical solution to pull themselves out of the crisis, they are wailing as they wait for luck or a bail-out from the government.
Mahajanaka was determined to help himself. He swam the stormy waters for seven days and seven nights, then a miracle happened. A goddess named ''Mani Mekhala'' appeared before him. After they discussed the virtue of perseverance, Mani Mekhala helped the prince make it to Mithila, where he eventually became king.
Banthoon Lamsam, president of the Thai Farmers Bank, looked upon Mani Mekhala as the guardian angel. He said Thailand should muddle through the present economic crisis with knowledgeable self-help before the guardian angel comes to its critical rescue. Dr Prasarn Trairatvorakul, the deputy secretary-general of the Securities and Exchange Commission, had said: ''The crisis of Thailand shows that we all lack wisdom. Now we should see how we acquire the wisdom to solve the problem.''
Through his book, the King gives subtle blessings to his subjects: ''Bless you with perseverance, with a sharp wisdom and a good health.''