HIS HOLINESS SUPREME PATRIARCH | 1913-2013
His Holiness Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara, the Supreme Patriarch, was born on Oct 3, 1913 in Kanchanaburi province. He was formerly know n as Charoen Gajavatra.
The young Charoen grew up in a community that embraced the traditional Buddhist lifestyle, giving alms to monks every morning and attending temple services on religious days.
His father, Noi Gajavatra, died at the age of 38, leaving his three sons - Charoen, Chamnian and Samut (deceased) - to be raised by their mother Kimnoi.
One of Charoen's favourite games as a child was to dress up as a monk and give sermons to family members.
Charoen was a good student but very frail of health. During a particularly serious health scare, his mother prayed for the chance to let her son be ordained if he recovered.
When he completed Prathom 5, at the age of 14, he was ordained as a novice at Wat Devasangaram (Wat Nua), Kanchanaburi.
Within the first year, he was giving sermons under the guidance of Luang Por Dee, his spiritual mentor.
A year later, Novice Charoen was accepted by Somdet Phra Vajirananavong, the abbot of Wat Bowon Niwet, Bangkok, to undertake Buddhist studies, completing the basic curriculum as well as learning the Pali language.
Sixteen years after that first meeting, Somdet Phra Vajirananavong would be appointed the 13th Supreme Patriarch in 1945.
When Novice Charoen came of age in 1933, he was ordained as a monk in his hometown of Kanchanaburi. A few months after that, he underwent a second ordination into the Dhammayukti Order. The former abbot of Wat Bowon Niwet, Somdet Phra Vajirananavong, was his preceptor.
His Holiness was given the monastic name of Suwatano, a derivative of his name, Charoen, which means "to prosper".
With his learned nature, he rose quickly through the Sangha ranks, also becoming the private secretary to the Supreme Patriarch, Somdet Kromma Luang Vajirananavong, in 1946.
In 1956, as Phra Sobhaganabhorn, he was entrusted with the highest task any monk could have been given. He was appointed guardian and adviser to His Majesty the King during his traditional ordination.
Five years later, in 1961, he was named the 6th abbot of Wat Bowon Niwet while holding the title of Phra Sasanasobhon. In that capacity, he also served as head of the Dhammayukti Order in the country.
His Majesty the King bestowed the title of Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara - a special honour in the Thai monastic hierarchy reserved for monks who excelled in Vipassana meditation that had not been granted in over 150 years - to Phra Sasanasobhon in 1972.
In 1989, he was named Supreme Patriarch or Sangharaja by His Majesty the King.
The Supreme Patriarch served as head of the Sangha Supreme Council which oversees all Buddhist monks in Thailand.
Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara did much to further the studies of Buddhism, not only at Wat Bowon Niwet where Buddhist studies are offered to foreigners, but also at Wat Yanasangwararam, Chon Buri province, which places an emphasis on meditation techniques of the forest monastery tradition.
He sponsored campaigns to build schools, hospitals and temples in rural communities, as well as temples abroad for Thai emigrants.
His compassion and generosity is renowned. After making his alms rounds in the morning, he would often stop some of the novices and place some of his food into their alms bowls, knowing that they were often ignored by lay merit-makers and would often receive very little food.
Not only would he refrain from touching cash according to the Theravada rules, he would usually give donations back to the donor, saying that he wished to make contributions to the merit pool as well.
His books and talks have been compiled, translated and distributed widely.
The Supreme Patriarch continued to conduct his ecclesiastical duties until 1999, when deteriorating health prevented him from attending meetings of the Sangha Council.
He had been receiving treatment at Chulalongkorn Hospital since 2002, and underwent surgery for an internal bacterial infection on Oct 14.
In 2003, a special committee was appointed by the government to fulfill the duties of the Supreme Patriarch during his absence.
The following year, Somdet Phra Buddhacar ya (Kiaw Upaseno), abbot of Wat Saket of the Mahanikaya Order, was appointed chairman of the monastic panel acting on behalf of the Supreme Patriarch.
Somdet Kiaw passed away in August this year. The Sangha Supreme Council appointed Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangkhlachan, the abbot of Wat Paknam Phasi Charoen, as the new chairman.
With his death, the Supreme Patriarch leaves behind a Sangha community that is mired in controversy because of the feudal hierarchy established under the Sangha Act of 1962.
Revised under military dictatorship, this bill keeps the clergy under an autocratic system of the Sangha Supreme Council that cannot be challenged. Unaccountability for clergy misconduct and misappropriation of temple funds is rife. A total revision of the act has long been proposed and discussed, yet stifled.
It is expected that, by tradition of alteration between the two orders, the next Supreme Patriarch will come from the Mahanikaya Order. He will face a challenging task indeed.
The Supreme Patriarch never crossed out anything he wrote. His writing was careful and neat. If there was anything he wanted omitted, he would put it in parentheses.
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