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The King of Siam


King_of_SiamThe king of Siam has been, in a way, a victim of his own success.
 
The king I have in mind is commonly known in the English-speaking world as Rama IV or Mongkut, who ruled the Asian nation now known as Thailand from 1851 to 1868.
 
The western world probably would be oblivious Rama IV if it weren’t for the accounts in literature, film, and live theater, of the experiences of the English tutor Anna Leonowens.
 
As it is, however, these romanticized versions of the teacher’s interaction with the king have made him a well-known figure.
 
But the image of Rama IV that has been embedded in western consciousness, notably by Yul Brynner’s portrayals on film and on the stage, resembles the real man only vaguely if at all.
 
It is true that Rama wanted to protect Siam from being colonized by a European power and that he wanted to introduce modern ideas to the Siamese people.
 
And it is true that to some extent he achieved these goals, although the reality was not nearly as simple or successful as Oscar Hammerstein would have us believe.
 
In keeping with Siamese expectations for young men, Rama became a Buddhist monk when he was twenty years old, and he led a reform movement in monasticism.
 
He studied Latin, English, and astronomy, and he became a close friend of Bishop Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix, who was apostolic vicar in Bangkok, a popular and influential figure in Siam.
 
Rama’s philosophical inquiry attracted the attention of Thomas Merton—a student of Buddhism—who recorded in his journal the king’s observation that “There is nothing in this world which can be clung to blamelessly, or which a man clinging thereto could be without blame”—an idea that Pope Francis might endorse.
 
In his effort to establish Siam’s place among the community of nations, King Rama corresponded with world figures including United States presidents Franklin Pierce, James Buchannan, and Abraham Lincoln.
 
Although it has often been written that Rama offered to send Lincoln elephants to use against the Confederacy during the War Between the States, it appears that the king actually wrote to Buchanan, Lincoln’s predecessor, offering to send the animals for use as beasts of burden.
 
By the time the letter reached the United States, Lincoln was president, and he responded, explaining that the climate in North America might not be suitable to elephants and that Americans were relying on steam engines to do the heavy hauling.
 
As a part of this correspondence, Rama, in 1861, wrote an expansive letter to Pope Pius IX, addressing him as the “Holy Father of the Catholic Christian World.”
 
The letter was dictated by the king and taken down in Siamese by a scribe, and then was translated by the king into a rather stilted English and carried to Rome by Pallegoix. This letter is now in the Vatican Museum.
 
The king began by taking note of his friendship with Bishop Pallegoix. He then wrote that although Siamese monarchs for centuries had practiced Buddhism, they also had allowed people of other religions to practice their faith unmolested and had welcomed refugees from places such as China and the southern region of what is now Vietnam where Christians in particular were persecuted.
 
Rama mentioned that Pius IX, in a letter hand delivered by Pallegoix, in 1852 along with a mosaic of the Pantheon, had specifically asked that Catholic missionaries and other Christians in Siam be protected from harassment.
 
What is most compelling about this letter is the king’s frequent references to religious tolerance.
 
After all, he wrote, the path to internal happiness and eternal life “is in fact difficult to be exactly known.”
 
The king refers in this letter to “the Superagency of the Universe”—in other words, the one God whose nature is hard to ascertain. Rama asks this “Superagency” to confer “temporal and spiritual happiness” and eternal life on the pope.
 
And some commentators have pointed out that the notion of one God is not a part of Buddhist thought, and that the king probably used this expression out of deference to the pope’s beliefs.
 
Rama’s interaction with the pope and his comments in this letter suggest that he embraced an idea expressed by Pope Francis in his apostolic letter “Amoris Laetitia”:
 
“Keep an open mind. Don’t get bogged down in your own limited ideas and opinions, but be prepared to change or expand them. The combination of two different ways of thinking can lead to a synthesis that enriches both. …
We need to free ourselves from feeling that we all have to be alike.”
 
Rama IV was born on October 18, 1804.
 
This post first appeared in The Catholic Spirit, Diocsese of Metuchen.
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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