Thailand, however, is going in the opposite direction. As far as things are concerned in Thailand, Buddha is practically still teaching the class Himself. The Thai government is trying very hard to preserve Thailand’s Buddhist roots.
Recently, I became familiar with the timeless ‘Thamasooksa’ Test. Pronounced ‘tom-mah-sook-suh,’ the test ultimately descends from a bygone era of Kings, Queens, and even the occasional Asian elephant dual.
Measuring Thai Buddhist Knowledge, the Thamasooksa is a theocratic exam. It measures a high-schooler’s command of the Thai Buddhist Canon.
Tanakorn Udarasak is a Matthayom 3 (high school) student at Thailand’s prestigious Suankularb Wittayalai School, also known in English as the Rose Garden College. His family supported my interview request.
Buddhist Asia was once loaded with theocratic examinations. He explained that, in antiquity, they held the key to the best jobs and schools but that this is no longer the case. “In my opinion, they don’t do much. It doesn’t offer jobs,” he said.
Speaking in effortless English, Tanakorn explained that Thai Buddhist classes are still taught by veteran, high-ranking Buddhist Monks; just as in ages past.
“We call him Pra Ajarn, which kind of translates to Teacher Monk,” he said.
When asked if anything had been significantly modernised, he reached for his smartphone and it turned out that the first test was supposedly held in the Thai Buddhist year of 2472 (1929 AD). Originally a test for religious students, it has since found popularity with Thai high schoolers at-large because today’s students enjoy bringing home good religious grades.
He explained that there are several sections to the test. The first section is 100 multiple-choice questions about important Thai Buddhist history and VIPs. The next 100 multiple-choice questions are about total Buddhist teachings throughout time and the last 100 are about Buddhist rules and edicts.
Finally, however, is a writing examination. Called ‘Gra-too-tom’ (which we loosely translate as ‘the Buddhist Essays’), the writing exam works by focusing the student participant on one of Buddha’s lessons as rendered in a small translation.
The student is asked to define the text, compare the original passage to the Thai passage and then extend it by eigh to 13 lines. His job is to summarise the text, conclude it and, at times, synthesise the meanings of old and new versions.
“There are three levels to the test,” Tanakorn says. “The first level is offered to the youngest Matthayom (high school) students at grade M1.” The M1 student can only pass by providing at least one supporting reference from memory in his writing sample.
On Level 2, the student has to cite two supporting texts from memory in the Thai Buddhist Canon in order to pass. He can retake the test once per year until he passes.
Of course, the final exam is the most challenging. A student must be able to consistently quote three Canonical references per written response.
This year’s test was on Nov 29 and it was a five-hour exam. It consisted of three hours of multiple-choice testing before lunch hour, then two hours of written exams.
Thai Buddhist Knowledge exams are an invaluable asset in the contemporary world because they reinforce the transmission and preservation of Thai Buddhism or, more specifically, Theravada Buddhism – the most ancient form of Buddhism.
Ancient Buddhism has more superstition, God-worship, animism and folklore than does Western Buddhism; which is often secular in nature. They are practically two different religions at times.
Teaching Monks and Thamasooksa Tests vaccinate the Thai public against watered-down, ‘cookie-cutter’ Buddhism. The proactive preservation of Thai animism, God-worship and folklore etches tradition into stone and, perhaps more importantly, preserves its relevancy.
Little of this ‘sustained relevancy,’ by the way, is via accident. Thailand’s current constitution was passed, in notable part, because of a controversial provision that enshrined the protection of Thai Style Theravada Buddhism into State Law. As of the time of this writing, Buddhist Nationalists continue to press for total recognition as the preeminent religion of state.
Meanwhile, today’s Thai students find themselves caught in the middle of cultural tension. Thai law requires religious testing on Buddhism, Brahmin-Hinduism, Sikhism, Christianity and Islam, but often skews predominently towards Thai Buddhism.
From the outside, this has mislead certain academic organisations, NGOs, the US Department of State, and even many Thai parents to believe that Thailand’s current state rhetoric is being passively acquired by our youth in order to maintain today’s cultural requirements. But those who are close to the students know otherwise upon hearing certain famous songs that they play, or their counter-culture language.
Yet, despite all of that controversy, I explained to Tanakorn that Western Buddhism often lacks Thailand’s more colourful story-telling and that, in the West, tests like the Thamasooksa are becoming more infrequently used – an unfortunate march towards a bygone way of life.
Asked about his thoughts on that, the unusually-wise 14-year-old replied, “There is good and bad in every action. Religion is one of the basic things in civilisation. You should learn why your actions are important.”
“Life and death are not enemies, they’re old friends,” the teenage prodigy sagely stated.
Hmm… now there is a pithy thought.
All About Buddhism is a monthly column in The Phuket News where I take readers on my exotic journey into Thai Buddhism and debunk a number of myths about Buddhism. If you have any specific queries, or ideas for articles, please let us know. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will do my best to accommodate your interests.