A 14th-century text on cosmology has much to teach us about the essence of Buddhism and the roots of Thai culture, scholars insist, recommending that it be given a more prominent place on the school curriculum
Mention the Traibhumi to a group of Thais, young or old, and the reaction is likely to be an outbreak of yawns. If, that is, anyone even knows what you are referring to.
But how could a text written more than seven centuries ago have any relevance to the lives of people in today's modern society?
Regarded as the most important literary work to survive from the Sukhothai era, the Traibhumi has significantly shaped the thinking of Thai people in a host of different ways, experts say. Its influence can be seen in traditional painting, sculpture, literature and architecture. Anecdotes from, and references to, this huge body of writing pop up again and again in court art, music and folk tales.
The original version - scholars now refer to this as Traibhumikatha - is accredited to King Lithai of Sukhothai who ruled from 1347 to 1376. Legend has it that this devoutly religious monarch consulted more than 30 ancient texts before having the fruits of his research into Buddhist cosmology engraved on folded palm leaves (this was long before the advent of paper).
Damage caused to this delicate manuscript by insects, humidity and tropical moulds made it necessary for scribes to continually produce new copies of this valuable text as the years went by. Some were faithful to King Lithai's original, others - like Traibhumlokavinijjai, commissioned by King Rama I in the 18th century - were modified or altered in various ways.
One of the most recent versions, a bilingual Thai-English edition, was published in 1985 as Traibhumikatha: The Story Of The Three Planes Of Existence. This ambitious translation was undertaken by the Asean Committee on Information and Culture as part of "Anthology of Asean Literatures", a project to promote understanding among members of the bloc.
This text was chosen, explained Khunying Kullasap Gesmankit, who chairs a committee on Thai literature set up by the Fine Arts Department, because it is widely regarded as the best example of literature from the Sukhothai period.
Khunying Kullasap was speaking at a seminar held in Bangkok late last month entitled ''Traibhumi And Its Influence On Thai Society''.
This massive text - the first volume of the Asean-sponsored edition contains 11 separate books and runs to almost 500 pages - contains illustrations and a detailed account of the origins of the Buddhist universe. All existence is divided into three planes - kamabhumi (sensuous), rupabhumi (corporeal) and arupabhumi (incorporeal) - which are further subdivided into domains - 31 in all - existing at different levels, ascending from animals and other creatures at the very bottom through the realms of spirits, demons and human beings to the abode of deities at the summit.
In addition to keeping it extant by making new copies, the essence of this cosmology has also been kept alive in the popular imagination through the media of painting, especially temple murals, and architecture.
A good example of the latter can be found in the layout of Bangkok's Wat Arun, whose main stupa - meant to represent Phra Sumeru, the central world-mountain in Buddhist cosmology - is surrounded by four smaller, satellite stupas which signify the four continents.
The skilled craftsmen who built temples around the Kingdom would also incorporate subtle references to the Traibhumi into some part of the sacred structure, expecting educated Buddhists to be able to decode the symbols.
For instance an architectural feature called plong chanai, which links the topmost spire to the body of a stupa, is often made up of 31 separate layers; in the Traibhumi, 31 is the total number of domains inhabited by different life-forms.
The Traibhumi has also served over the centuries as a social tool to maintain peace and order among the populace. This is because a significant portion of it deals with the cycle of birth and death in all creatures, human and non-human, and, in particular, with the assertion that the good or bad karma of each creature is what predetermines the domain in which he or she will be reborn in his/her next life.
At the seminar in June, hosted by the Ministry of Culture at a Bangkok hotel, Wattana Boonjub, an expert from the literature and history section at the Fine Arts Departments, said that King Lithai's aim in writing Traibhumikatha was to clarify the Lord Buddha's teachings on various points.
''But at the same time, the text allows each reader to interpret it differently, depending on background.
''But, all in all, this sacred text is like a guidebook for those seeking an end to the cycle of life and death,'' said Wattana, who did research on the Traibhumi and religious architecture for his PhD thesis.
''Some of its facts are obsolete - like the part that describes the Earth as flat and as being at the centre of the universe.
''But we have to take into account that it was written in ancient times and the writer had limited access to knowledge. Even so, there are parts that are scientific, like the section on the birth of mankind.''
It's important for young learners to have well-rounded teachers to guide them, he said, going on to voice concern that belief in some parts of the Traibhumi, especially the section involving good and bad deeds, appears to have faded especially in the younger generation.
''That's probably because the Traibhumi is not included on any school curricula nowadays. Parts of the text have been included on the optional external reading list,'' he said, comparing this to centuries past when Traibhumi philosophy was not just readily accessible, but strongly embedded in people's minds.
Since this text is at the root of every branch of Thai culture, it is vital that young people get a chance to study it, Wattana said.
Thanya Sangkhaphanthanon, a lecturer at Maha Sarakham University's Department of Humanities and Social Science, and a past winner of the Seawrite Award for literature, agreed with the importance of making the Traibhumi available to young learners.
While this text may look out of place in the modern world, the opposite is the case, he said. Content that dwells on the Lord Buddha's teachings is timeless, said Thanya, who did a doctoral thesis focused on the relations between humans and nature in the Traibhumi.
This ancient text deals with the issue of impermanence, as stated by the Lord Buddha, and that can be linked closely with dialectical theory in Western philosophy, he said.
''When it comes to the ecology, the Traibhumi refers to the state when nature is in balance and when it has lost its balance,'' said the lecturer, who writes under the pen name Paitoon Thanya. While the scholars at the seminar see the beauty of the language used in the Traibhumi, it was generally agreed that the archaic Thai terms used in the text may make it too difficult for young people today to follow. They agreed that new tools, like 3D animation, should be developed to make this ancient text more appealing to young learners.
They cited some of the graphic illustrations in the Traibhumi, especially those showing the different parts of hell and the suffering endured by the spirits - or preta (creatures) - consigned to its depths, that would make anyone who sees them more aware of the results of karma and encourage them to refrain from committing bad deeds.
Mae Chee Vimuttiya, a Buddhist nun who chairs the International Tripitaka Hall at the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, said that everyone who studies the Traibhumi should realise that its ultimate objective is to help the reader achieve nibbhana (nirvana).
Although it may seem that most people nowadays have little time for the concept of karma, she said, dismissing it as an old-fashioned belief, the truth is that the consequences of good and bad karma - barb (sin) and boon (good deeds) - never become outdated.
''Sin and good deeds and their consequences are deep inside our hearts,'' she said.
By Ploenpote Atthakor
24 July 2012
Phra Sumeru, the central world-mountain in Buddhist cosmology, with Tavatimsa, the abode of Indra, on its peak.