washington University


Committee on Comparative Literature

Dissertation Examination Committee:

Robert E. Hegel, Chair

Joseph Claude Evans, Jr.

Beata Grant David Hadas Robert Henke

Stamos Metzidakis Richard Ruland




Namphueng Padamalangula

A dissertation presented to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of Washington University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree

of Doctor of Philosophy

December 2003

Saint Louis, Missouri

UMI Number: 3117081


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Many people have helped me to make the completion of this dissertation possible.

First and foremost, I wish to express my deep gratitude to the Anandamahidol Foundation under the royal patronage of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn for granting me a scholarship to pursue my study at Washington University.

I am profoundly grateful to Professor Robert Hegel, my dissertation advisor, whose intellectual guidance and mental support significantly contributed to the completion of this dissertation. The discussions I had with him not only helped me formulate my ideas and the scope of my study, but they also proved to be crucial and invaluable at every stage of the development of this project. I would not have been able to expand my dissertation to this present volume without his insightful advice, motivating comments and relentlessly enthusiastic interest in my topic. I will always be grateful for his kind concern, patience, and understanding, which sustained my spirit throughout the course of writing.

I also wish to extend my gratitude to all of my dissertation committee members for their valuable time in discussing this project with me and for their stimulating comments that enabled me to effectively improve my dissertation. My special debt of gratitude is owed to Professor Richard Ruland, who put in a considerable amount of time in teaching and helping me develop my critical thinking. His intellectual guidance played an important part in my academic development. I am thankful for his patience, valuable


advice, and straightforward comments that kept me practical and motivated me to work more productively.

A heartfelt gratitude is owed to Professor Stamos Metzidakis, who inspired my interest in literary theory. His keen insight and extensive knowledge on research always helped me move forward and contributed greatly in expanding the horizon of my vision. My deep gratitude also goes to Professor Beata Grant for her attentive reading, insightful questions, and perceptive suggestions that proved to be very helpful in clarifying my thought and improving my argument. I also wish to thank Professor David Hadas for introducing me to reading religious texts as literature, and for his kind advice and concern throughout the time of my study.

I am deeply grateful to Professor Robert Henke for his critical reading and enthusiastic interest in my dissertation. His inspiration and valuable suggestions were beneficial not only to this project but also to my future career. I am privileged to have Professor Joseph Claude Evans as a member of my committee. His stimulating comments and philosophical insight sharpened my analytical thinking, which helped increase my confidence in the quality of this work.

I also would like to express my gratitude to all of my teachers at Washington University, particularly to Professor Robert Milder, whose comments on my Emerson paper essentially changed the way I studied literature, and to Professor Randolph Pope, Former Chair of Comparative Literature, for giving me a chance to study in this program and for his advice throughout the time I was under his supervision. My deep gratitude also goes to Ms. Doreen Salli, who kindly gave me a considerable amount of time in


teaching and improving my background in writing and literature. I am grateful for her patience and guidance, which proved to be very helpful to my overall writing and reading ability. I am also thankful to Ms. Carolyn Smith for the kind support and thoughtful caring that she has shown me since my first class with her.

My profound gratitude also goes to Ajarn Suchitra Chongstitvatana, my teacher at Chulalongkorn University, for her kind and loving guidance in shaping my academic path and in encouraging me to pursue my graduate study here. I am indebted to all committee members of the Anandamahidol Foundation, especially to Ajarn Maneepin Phromsuthirak, who has been very kind and helpful to me since the time I was under her


I also would like to acknowledge the staff of the Anandamahidol Foundation, the Olin Library, and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences for the assistance they have provided. I am particularly thankful to Ms. Ann Cooper and Ms. Martha Turner for their kind assistance throughout the time I have studied here. A special note of appreciation also goes to Ray Shea for all his help, constant support, and comforting encouragement.

I am very grateful to my family for their patience and understanding. My deepest gratitude is owed to my parents, who have fostered me with their love and unfailing faith. Their confidence in me and in my study gave me the strength to overcome any difficulties I faced. With love and profound gratitude, this dissertation is dedicated to them. Special thanks also go to my older sister, Chantana, and my big brothers, Theerawat and Niphon, for their love and support; and to my dear friends, Darin Pradittatsanee and Sutanit Puttapanom, for their invaluable friendship, generous assistance, and cordial comfort.


Finally, I would like to express my loving gratitude to Saravut Charcranoon for his inspiration and insightful suggestions. I am very grateful for his loving care and understanding that have nourished my spirit throughout the course of my study. Without his unfailing faith and tremendous spiritual support, this dissertation would have never been accomplished. A special debt of gratitude is also owed to his parents for their kind concern and words of encouragement.


To my parents,

Petchtree and Kanok Padamalangula



Acknowledgements Table of Contents List of Figures Abstract Introduction Chapter One: Traiphum Phra Ruang:

Its Background and Influences on Thai Society Chapter Two: The Traiphum's Cosmography:

Displacement and the Play of the Structure Chapter Three: Putting Hierarchy "Under Erasure":

An Undecidability in the Traiphum's Notion of Hierarchy 145








Chapter Four: The Discourse on Nibbana:

An Interplay between Presence and Absence

203 254 259 269


Appendix Bibliography



Figure Page
1. The "Three World" cosmology 36
2. The Prang at The Temple ofthe Dawn, Thailand 64
3. Pra Pathom Chedi, Thailand 65
4. An example of a pyramidal roof from the Mondhop
at the Shrine of the Buddha's Footprint, Thailand 66
5. A diagonal view of the universe (cakkavala) and
the elements that sustain it 88
6. A horizontal view of the universe (cakkavala) and
the elements that sustain it 89
7. The division of Hell, Earth, Heaven of the universe
(cakkavala) surrounded by the Cakkavala Wall 90
8. The universe (cakkavala) and its concentric frames 92
9. An image of the Hindu cosmography 107
10. Another image of the Hindu cosmography 108
11. Three universes and the Lokanta hell 122
12. An image of multiple universes and Lokanta hells 123
13. The Lokanta hell as the frame of the universe 136
14. A circle in a square 142 Vll

ABSTRACT OF THE DISSERTATION The Play of Undecidability:

A Deconstructive Analysis of Traiphum Phra Ruang (Three Worlds According to King Ruang)


Namphueng Padamalangula

Doctor of Philosophy in Comparative Literature Washington University in St. Louis, 2003 Professor Robert E. Hegel, Chairperson

This study is an attempt to offer a new approach in analyzing Traiphum Phra Ruang, a Thai Theravada cosmological narrative and the most influential text in Thai literary history. By applying deconstructive criticism to the structural analysis of this text, this study explores the "ruptures" in the discourse that formulate a pattern of undecidability, which produces logical irresolvability to the overall structure of the text. Since deconstructive ruptures usually appear as marginal elements, this study highlights the textual elements that tend to be disregarded, especially in terms of their effects on the overall structure of the Traiphum.

Chapter 1 reviews the historical context of the Traiphum and its influences on Thai society, culture, and arts. This chapter also reviews recent scholarship on the Traiphum and shows the limitations of the scholarship in terms of textual strategy. Chapter 2 focuses on the traiphum cosmographical structure. By applying Derrida's


notions of displacement, decentering, and paregonality, this chapter proves that the Traiphum's cosmology illustrates a "play of the structure" in which the notions of center, frame, and the totality of the universe itself are an put in question. Chapter 3 investigates hierarchy and the ways this notion is disrupted. By being put "under erasure," hierarchy here is simultaneously asserted and denied, making the structure of the Traiphum operate inside and outside hierarchy at once. Chapter 4 underscores the representation of nibbana (nirvana) in the Traiphum and its relation to the overall structure of the text. Under the light ofDerrida's denegation and supplementarity, nibbana becomes a "double gesture" that not only eludes categorization in terms of presence and absence, but also represents another rupture that makes the entire discourse of the Traiphum's narrative "slide."

As this study reveals, the notions of center, frame, totality, hierarchy, and presence, which are the key concepts that deconstruction aims to subvert, are all put into question in the Traiphum. But instead of the end in itself, the play of undecidability in the Traiphum is a means to subvert all notions of self-presence in order to convey the Theravada teaching on anatta or non-substantiality as the underlying logic of the text.



1. Thinking Deconstructively

In the opening paragraph of "Plato's Pharmacy," Jacques Derrida writes: "A text

is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its

composition and the rules of its game."} It seems that for Derrida, one of the differences

between a "text" and a "book" lies in the notion of "play." One might say that while a

book like a history or an encyclopedia focuses on providing details and information, a

text in a deconstructive sense underscores instead the play of the elements manifested in

the narrative. The concept of a book accordingly relies on the clarity of meaning and

signification while the notion of a text places its emphasis instead on putting the process

of signification itself into play. "The good writing," as Derrida once notes,

has therefore always been comprehended. Comprehended as that which

had to be comprehended ... within a totality, and enveloped in a volume

or a book. The idea of the book is the idea of a totality. . .. [But] the

idea of the book, which always refers to a natural totality is profoundly

alien to the sense of writing. It is the encyclopedic protection of theology

and of logocentrism against the disruption of writing, against its aphoristic

energy, and ... against difference in general. If I distinguish the text from

I Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981) 63.


the book, I shan say that the destruction of the book, as it is now under

way in all domains, denudes the surface of the text?

To read a book as a text therefore is to see difference in coherence, displacement in order,

rupture in closure and totality. In short, in order to read a book as a text, "one must think

of writing as a game within language.t"

Thus, despite the negative responses it may elicit, deconstruction is in fact a mode

of reading and interpretation-a strategy of textual analysis that aims to reveal the

"game" hidden in the narrative. "What is deconstructed in deconstructive analyses,"

therefore, "is not the text itself but the text as it is read, the combination of text and the

readings that articulate it. What is put in question are the presuppositions and decisions

that convert a complex pattern of internal differences into alternative positions or

interpretations.?" In fact, as Barbara Johnson points out, "the word 'de-construction' is

closely related not to the word 'destruction' but to the word 'analysis,' which

etymologically means 'to undo'-a virtual synonym for 'to de-construct'." In Johnson's

view, "the deconstruction of a text does not proceed by random doubt or generalized

skepticism, but by the careful teasing out of warring forces of signification within the text

itself. If anything is destroyed in a deconstructive reading, it is not meaning but the claim

2 Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore:

Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976) 18.

3 Derrida, Of Grammatology, 50.

4 Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca:

Cornell University Press, 1982) 215.


to unequivocal domination of one mode of signifying over another."s In addition,

according to Rodolphe Gasche, the main concepts to which deconstruction can be traced

are the concept of Abbau (dismantling) in the later work of Husserl and the concept of

Destruktion (destruction) in the early philosophy of Heidegger. Despite their negative

terminology and the differences among these three terms, "all three are in essence

positive movements, never negative in the usual sense, and certainly not 'purely

negative'; and all three attempt to construct, in a more or less systematic fashion, grounds

of greater generality for what is to be accounted for.,,6

Although its criticism of the traditional ways of reading tends to make

deconstruction appear as a negative operation seeking to eradicate all conventional

thinking, Derrida in fact never urges his readers to completely discard traditional

criticism. Rather, what Derrida aims to encourage is for the reader to break off from the

limitation of the traditional ways of reading. To Derrida, traditional criticism has a

twofold effect on the task of textual analysis because while serving as a guideline of

interpretation, traditional criticism also limits the scope of interpretation only within

certain parameters. "To recognize and respect all its classical exigencies," as Derrida

remarks, "is not easy and requires all the instruments of traditional criticism. Without

this recognition and this respect, critical production would risk developing in any

5 Barbara Johnson, "Translator's Introduction," Dissemination, xiv. (Original emphasis)

6 Rodolphe Gasche, The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986) 109-18.


direction at all and authorize itself to say almost anything. But this indispensable

guardrail has always only protected, it has never opened, a reading.:" To put it in Vincent

B. Leitch's words:

In the past, critical reading worked within and with the elements of the

logocentric system, foregoing its own potentially corrosive powers of

criticism by repeating endless variations on given precepts. Fine-tuning

the myriad mechanisms of logocentrism, traditional commentary never

opened these precepts to criticism. In the past, as Derrida construes it,

reading was more often refinement of the given than inquiry into founding


The task of deconstruction as Derrida perceives it therefore is to open up the reading-to

"breach" the limitation of traditional criticism by "reinscribing" interpretation in another

way.9 The goal that deconstructive criticism seeks to accomplish accordingly is "to

analyze the way in which texts are made"lO and to explore the "phenomena of

7 Derrida, Of Grammatology, 158.

8 Vincent B. Leitch, Deconstructive Criticism: An Advanced Introduction (New York:

Columbia University Press, 1983) 176.

9 The word "breach" here is intended to be a translation of the German word Bahnung, According to Alan Bass, Bahnung, which is derived from Bahn (road), literally means pathbreaking. The word "breaching" can signify both "the sense of the force that breaks open a pathway, and the space opened by this force." See Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978) 200 and 329.

10 Jacques Derrida, Positions,trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981) 49.


textuality'Y' in its furthest extent. In a deconstructive analysis, reading is not "carried out

as a simple table of concepts or words, as a static or statistical sort of punctuation."

Rather, we "must reconstitute a chain in motion, the effects of a network and the play of a

syntax.,,12 In this sense, one can say that deconstructive criticism is "a reading that

produces rather than protects,,,13 and "however negative it may sound, deconstruction

implies the possibility of rebuilding.v'"

To read a text in a deconstructive way therefore is to pay close attention to the

interaction of textual elements in the narrative. Deconstructive criticism can be viewed as

a kind of close reading. But as Culler points out, "the 'closeness' of deconstructive

readings lies not in word-by-word or line-by-line commentary but in attention to what

resists other modes of understanding." 15 Generally, this can refer to the ways the text

differs from itself by subverting the textual logic that the text appears to set up:

At its simplest and least specifically deconstructive, this involves an

interest in anything in the text that counters an authoritative interpretation,

including interpretations that the work appears most emphatically to

11 Culler, 225.

12 Derrida, "The Double Session," Dissemination, 194.

13 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "Translator's Preface," Of Grammatology, lxxv.

14 Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, Theory and History of Literature, Vol. 7 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983) 140.

15 Culler, 256.


encourage. Whatever themes, arguments, or patterns are cited in defining

the identity of a particular work, there will be ways in which it differs from

the self so defined, systematically or obliquely putting in question the

decisions at work in that definition"

Thus, to explore the logic underlying the narrative is clearly a significant part of

deconstructive criticism. In some texts, the play of conflicting logic at work in the

narrative does not simply reveal the self-subversive aspects of the text in undermining its

own rules. But the operation of this play also puts the system of dialectical thinking itself

in question. Instead of being a play that can be explained by formal logic, the play of

logic in terms of deconstruction operates in another system. It is a system that replaces

dialectical closure with what Derrida calls the "undecidable."

In "The Double Session," Derrida explains an "operation" that he calls

"undecidable" by referring to a highly acclaimed theorem of Kurt Godel, a renowned

mathematical logician. 17 As Derrida writes: "An undecidable proposition, as Godel

16 Culler, 213-14.

17 Kurt Godel was born in Austria-Hungary in 1906. He entered the University of Vienna in 1923. After completing his doctoral dissertation in 1929, Godel became a faculty member of the same university. In 1938, Godel joined the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, New Jersey. He became Chair of the Institute in 1953 and remained with the Institute until his death in 1978. During his life time, Godel received several honors including the Einstein Award and the National Medal of Science. Murray Gell-Mann, who was awarded the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physics, mentions that Godel and Albert Einstein were good friends. While working at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Gell-Mann used to see Godel and Einstein walked to work together. See Murray Gell-Mann, The Quark and the Jaguar:

Adventures in the Simple and the Complex (New York: W~H. Freeman and Company, 1994) 39. Also, for further reading on GOdel's life and work, see John L. Casti and Werner DePauli, Godel:

A Life of Logic (Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus, 2000).


demonstrated in 1931, is a proposition which, given a system of axioms governing a

multiplicity, is neither an analytical nor deductive consequence of those axioms, nor in

contradiction with them, neither true nor false with respect to those axioms. Tertium

datur, without synthesis.,,18 According to Cristian S. Calude, Kurt Godel "was the

greatest logician of the twentieth century. There is no trace of exaggeration in saying,

following Wang,19 that Godel's contribution to mathematics has the same status as

Freudian psychology, Einstein's theory of relativity, Bohr's principle of complementarity,

Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, Keynesian economics, and Watson and Crick double

helix model ofDNA.,,2o Godel's most important work, which is a great contribution to

mathematics and logic, is his revolutionary paper entitled "On Formally Undecidable

Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems" published in 1931.21

By being a discovery that challenged some basic assumptions underlying

mathematics and logic, this paper of Godel is highly praised as "[an] epoch-making

18 Derrida, Dissemination, 219. Another reference to Godel can be found in Jacques Derrida, Edmund HusserI's Origin of Geometry: An Introduction, trans. John P. Leavey, Jr. (New York: Nicolas Hays, 1978) 53.

19 See Hao Wang, A Logical Journey: From GOdel to Philosophy (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1996).

20 Cristian S. Calude, "A Genius' Story: Two Books on Godel," CDMTCS Research

. Report Series 39 (June, 1997). CDMTCS. Online. http://www.cs.auckland.ac.nz/CDMTCS. 27 Dec. 2002: 1.

21 The original title of the paper is "tiber formal unentscheidbare Satze der Principia Mathematica und verwandter Systeme I," published in the Monatshefte fur Mathematik und Physik, v. 38,1931: 173-198. For an English version of this paper, see Kurt Godel, On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems, trans. B. Meltzer (New York: Dover Publications, 1992)


discovery,,22 and "a milestone in the history of logic and mathematics.v'" Until Godel's

time, mathematicians had believed that the mathematical formal system which is

primarily based on a system of axioms and rules of reasoning could be proved to be

consistent and to be "used in principle to derive the truth or falsity of mathematical

propositions." But "Go del showed that neither of those goals is attainable.v" The proof

that Godel proposed therefore stunned the world of mathematics in the early 1930s and

proved to be "one of the most important contributions to logic since Aristotle.,,25 His

discovery, as Douglas R. Hofstadter puts it,

destroyed the hopes of those who believed that mathematical thinking is

capturable by the rigidity of axiomatic systems, and he thereby forced

mathematicians, logicians, and philosophers to explore the mysterious

newly found chasm irrevocably separating provability from truth. Ever

since Godel, it has been realized how subtle and deep the art of

22 R.B. Braithwaite, "Introduction," On Formally Undecidable, 1. Braithwaite also mentions that when Harvard University awarded Godel an honorary degree in 1952, the work was described in the citation as "one of the most important advances in logic in modern times."

23 Ernest Nagel and James R. Newman, GOdel' s Proof (New York: New York University Press, 2001) 1.

24 GeH-Mann, 39.

25 B. Meltzer, "Preface" On Formally Undecidable, vii.


mathematical thinking is, and the once-bright hope of mechanizing human

mathematical thought starts to seem shaky, if not utterly quixotic.i"

According to Godel's proof, the system of axioms is incomplete because there are

some propositions which can neither be proved nor be disproved within the system?7

That is to say, "given any system of axioms for mathematics, there will always be

propositions that are undecidable on the basis of those axioms, in other words, there are

propositions that cannot, in principle, be shown to be either true or false.,,28 This proof of

Godel in its absolutely barest form, as Hofstadter points out, involves a translation of

"Epimenides paradox" or "liar paradox" into mathematical terms.29 In the Epimenides

paradox, Epimenides, who was a Cretan, said: "All Cretans are liars." If Epimenides was

telling a truth, all Cretans would be liars. But since Epimenides was also a Cretan, his

statement was supposed to be a lie; then the statement: "All Cretans are liars" must be

false. On the other hand, if Epimenides was telling a lie, his statement: "All Cretans are

26 Douglas R. Hofstadter, "Forward," Gadel's Proof, xiv, Gregory J. Chaitin also mentions that Godel' s theorem of undecidability "was a great shock and caused much uncertainty and depression among mathematicians sensitive to foundational issues, since it seemed to pull the rug out from under mathematical certainty, objectivity, and rigor." (1) See Gregory J. Chaitin, "Godels Theorem and Information," International Journal of Theoretical Physics 22(1982): 941-54. CDMTCS. Online. http://www.cs.auckland.ac.nzlCDMTCS/chaitin. 27 Dec. 2002.

27 In its original statements: "Proposition VI: To every m-consisrent recursive class c of formulae there correspond recursive class-signs r, such that neither v Gen r nor Neg (v Gen r) belongs to FIg (c) (where v is the free variable of r)." GOde!, On Formally Undecidable, 57.

28 Gell-Mann, 39.

29 DouglasR. Hofstadter, GOdel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (New York:

Basic Books, 1999) 17.


liars" must be false as well. The paradox of this statement therefore lies in the way that

the same statement can carry the values of a truth and a lie at the same time_3o In Godel's

proof, Godel translates the Epimenides paradox into the number theory framework. "His

final transplant of Epimenides did not say, 'This statement of number theory is false', but

rather, 'This statement of number theory does not have any proof' .,,31 To prove this

statement is to engage in a circular dialogue. First, let us assign a proposition P = "This

statement does not have any proof." If P can be proved, it means that "This statement

does not have any proof' is true. But if "This statement does not have any proof' is true,

then it cannot be proved. On the other hand, if P cannot be proved, this failure of proving

does confirm that "This statement does not have any proof' is true; then it becomes that

this statement is proved. Such inconsistency of proof reveals that in fact, similar to what

Godel discovered in terms of the number theory, there are propositions that are

undecidable and cannot be proved or disproved within the system.

Godels theorem of undecidable propositions clearly has a direct influence on

Derrida's notion of undecidability. According to Derrida, "undecidability" cannot be

defined as a concept. Rather, it should be perceived in terms of an operation

30 For further reading on liar paradox, see Jon Barwise and John Etchemendy, The Liar:

An Essay on Truth and Circularity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); Robert Martin, ed., The Paradox of the Liar (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970); W.V. Quine, The Ways of Paradox and Other Essays (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976).

31 Hofstadter, Godel, Escher, Bach, 18.


characterized as "certain marks" that "by analogy" he cans "undecidables." These marks,

as Derrida explains,

[are] unities of simulacrum, 'false' verbal properties (nominal or semantic)

that can no longer be included within philosophical (binary) opposition,

but which, however, inhabit philosophical opposition, resisting and

disorganizing it, without ever constituting a third term, without ever

leaving room for a solution in the form of speculative dialectics.

Neither/nor, that is, simultaneously either or_32

Since these undecidable marks do not follow the rules of logic, they appear merely as

"false" verbal properties in discursive discourse. Despite operating in the form of

opposition, "undecidables" are not logical contradictions. Instead, they work to subvert

reasoning within the binary opposition itself. This must be a reason why Derrida

emphasizes that he uses the term "undecidable" only "by analogy.,,33 In Derrida's view,

the term "undecidable" still has "a sense by some irreducible reference to the ideal of

decidability." It is "essentially and intrinsically haunted in its sense of origin by the telos

of decidability.v'" To use the term "undecidable" only by analogy therefore is to relieve

the operation from the relation between "decidable" and "undecidable," which is a

32 Derrida, Positions, 42-43. (Original emphasis) Cf. note 18 above. Perhaps it should be noted here that sometimes Derrida uses "undecidables" as a plural noun of the term.

33 Derrida also mentions his emphasis on the words "by analogy" once again in Dissemination, 219.

34 Derrida, Edmund HusserI' s Origin of Geometry, 53.


relation within the binary opposition that the operation aims to subvert. Thus, it may be

proper to keep in mind that undecidability in a deconstructive term operates in "a level

vaster than that which is encompassed by the opposition between what is decidable and


In terms of its mode of operation, this kind of undecidability involves syntax

rather than semantics. An element becomes undecidable not because of its vagueness,

lack of clarity, or polysemous meanings of the term but "rather because of the way in

which the words are inscribed in the text, or in other words, because of the relationship

they have with others in the text that makes the meaning of those terms undecidables or

paradoxes.T" Derrida himself also points out this aspect of undecidability quite clearly in

"The Double Session," when he discusses Mallarme's work. As he explains:

'Undecidability' is not caused here by some enigmatic equivocality, some

inexhaustible ambivalence of a word in a 'natural' language, .... What

counts here is not the lexical richness, the semantic infiniteness of a word

or concept, its depth or breadth, the sedimentation that has produced inside

it two contradictory layers of signification (continuity and discontinuity,

35 Gasche, 241.

36 Hongchu Fu, "Deconstruction and Taoism: Comparisons Reconsidered," Comparative Literature Studies 29.3 (1992): 298.


inside and outside, identity and difference, etc.). What counts here is the formal or syntactical praxis that composes and decomposes it.37

To put it briefly, an element becomes undecidable because it produces "a structure of logical irresolvability'Y' that subverts the notion of self-presence and any possibility for synthesis and closure. To view undecidability merely as a paradox or a semantic ambiguity would be a misreading of its complexity.

In addition, even though undecidability operates outside the rules of typical contradiction, it is not contradiction in the Hegelian form of contradiction either.39 In fact, undecidability can be viewed as an operation that functions in an opposite direction to the Hegelian dialectical method. For Hegel, the basic strategy for the creation of categories or determinations of the Concept is based on two assumptions. First, for every category, there is an opposing one that can reveal itself upon closer analysis to be the true meaning of the category it is opposing. Secondly, for every two categories opposing each other in this manner, there will be a third category whose meaning is determined by that which makes the two opposing categories compatible. In Hegel's view, only these two assumptions can constitute the means that leads to a complete and non-contingent system of category. In other words, Hegel perceives contradiction as analogous to positive and negative determinations that can neutralize each other and constitute in the process

37 Derrida, Dissemination, 220. 38 Culler, 202.

39 Derrida, Positions, 101 (n. 13).


something informative about the object to which the neutralizing determinations apply.4o

Hegel's logic consequently aims to produce synthesis in which contradiction resolves

itself. It is "[the] ceaseless vanishing of the opposites into themselves;" for each of an

opposition "is simply the transition or rather the self-transposition of itself into its

. ,,41 opposite.

The deconstructive undecidability, on the other hand, does not resolve the

contradiction in the way Hegelian dialectics does but rather puts the notion of

contradiction itself into play. While Hegel's concept of contradiction aims to produce

synthesis or dialectical sublation, Derrida's "undecidables" produce instead irresolvability

that removes the idea of unity and closure. Hegel's dialectics asserts the neutralization of

opposites whereas the undecidability of any element "cuts [that element] off from

(prevents it from depending on) every-and hence any-signified, whether antithetic or

synthetic.,,42 Derrida also mentions several times that his deconstructive operation is

meant to subvert Hegelian notion of Aujhebung or dialectical sublation.

In fact, I attempt to bring the critical operation to bear against the

unceasing reappropriation of this work of the simulacrum by a dialectics of

40 The above summary of Hegel's dialectical method is derived from Rolf-Peter Horstmann, "Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel," Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1998 ed. For further reading of Hegel's philosophy, see Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Science of Logic, trans. A. V. Miller (New York: Humanities, 1969).

41 Hegel, 433.

42 Derrida, Dissemination, 261. (Original italic and parenthesis)


the Hegelian type (which ever idealizes and 'sematizes' the value of

work), for Hegelian idealism consists precisely of a releve of the binary

oppositions of classical idealism.f a resolution of contradiction into a

third term that comes in order to aufheben, to deny while raising up, while

idealizing, while sublimating into an anamnesic interiority iErrinnerung),

while interning difference in a self-presence."

To Derrida, Hegel "determines difference as contradiction only in order to resolve it, to

interiorize it, to lift it up (according to the syllogistic process of speculative dialectics)

into the self-presence of an onto-theological or onto-teleological synthesis." It is a

process that allows resolution in order to assert the notion of self-presence. But as for

undecidability, its "conflictuality" can neither be "totally resolved" nor "governed by a

referent in the classical sense, that is, by a thing or by a transcendental signified that

43 According to Alan Bass who translates this interview with Derrida, "releve" in the technical sense "is Derrida' s translation of the Hegelian term Aujhebung, which means to preserve and to negate in a spiritual 'lifting up' to a 'higher level.' Although the English 'lifting up' has some relationship to Aujhebung, it is not an appropriate technical translation of the Hegelian term. Thus, throughout this interview, whenever releve is used in the technical sense I have left it untranslated." See Derrida, Positions, 99 (n. 2). In another translation of Derrida' s works, Bass also explains Aufhebung as containing "the double meaning of conservation and negation. For Hegel, dialectics is a process of Aufhebung: every concept is to be negated and lifted up to a higher sphere in which it is thereby conserved." See Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982) 20 (n. 23); 43 (n, 15); 88 (n. 16); 258 (n. 61). A similar explanation could also be found in Derrida, Writing and Difference, 335 (n, 13).

44 Derrida, Positions, 43. (Original emphasis)


would regulate its movement.v" Rather, undecidability is an operation that preserves

differences while subverting the notions of unity, essence, closure, self-presence or any

forms of transcendental signified.

Instead of being an interplay between "either/or" of an opposition, undecidability

operates as an interplay between the logic of participation and that of exclusion,

producing "an essential indecision" which leaves the element in question up in the air.46

This interplay, as Derrida puts it succinctly, can be described as "neither/nor, that is,

simultaneously either or.,,47 That is to say, if A and Not-A represent a pair of opposition

and P is an element involving these two opposing terms, P will be an "undecidable"

when it assumes all of the following four positions at once:48

1. Pis A.

45 Derrida, Positions, 44. Though the quotations above are derived from Derrida' s discussion of differance, they can be applied to his notion of undecidability as well. As Derrida once remarks that differance is the destruction of Hegel's releve. "If there were a definition of differance, it would be precisely the limit, the interruption, the destruction of the Hegelian releve wherever it operates." Derrida, Positions, 40-41.

46 Derrida, Dissemination, 177.

47 See note 32 above.

48 See examples of this mode in the chapters below. It should be pointed out here as well that Derrida's "neither/nor, that is, simultaneously either or," which implies all of these four positions at once, is also similar to catuskoti (tetralemma or "a four-branched dilemma") in Buddhist logic. Since the focus of this study is less on investigating the similarity between Derrida's thought and Buddhist philosophy than on applying deconstruction to the study of Traiphum Phra Ruang, I will not pursue the discussion on the similarity between Derrida's "undecidable" and catuskoti in Buddhist logic but leave it for future studies. For further reading on Buddhist logic, see F. Th. Stcherbatsky, Buddhist Logic, 2 vols. (New York: Dover, 1962); and KN. Jayatilleke, Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1963)


2. P is Not-A.

3. P is both A and Not-A.

4. P is neither A nor Not-A.

The key word here is the word "simultaneously" or "at once.,,49 By being each and every

position at one and the same time, the element P becomes an "undecidable" that

confounds and suspends an logical conclusions regarding its positions. Since an

"undecidable" cannot be registered in terms of either plus or minus, either positive or

negative or any other forms of binary opposition, it is the play that operates outside

formal logic, which is predominantly regulated by the principle of bivalence.i"

According to the principle of bivalence, for any proposition P, it must be either P is true

49 As Derrida points out in "Plato's Pharmacy": '''At once' means that the being-present (on) in its truth, in the presence of its identity and in the identity of its presence, is doubled as soon as it appears, as soon as it presents itself." Also, in "The Double Session," Derrida maintains once again that "[aJt the same time: this is what we must account for." See Derrida, Dissemination, 168,202.

50 Certainly, Derrida's undecidability is not the only Western mode of thinking that does not conform to formal logic. Many-Valued logic, which was developed around 1920s by Jan Lukasiewicz, a renowned mathematical logician, and fuzzy logic, which is a kind of many-valued logic, can serve as examples of the modes of reasoning that reject the principle of bivalence. In fuzzy logical system, for example, everything is a matter of degree or partial occurrence of relations. In contrast to formal logic or bivalent thinking, the truth-values in fuzzy logic can be true, false, and indeterminate. The third truth-value, "indeterminate," is the borderline case or a class that cannot be identified as true or false. The similarity between fuzzy logic and Buddhist logic in terms of their non-binary modes of reasoning is also a subject of study by recent mathematical scholars. For further reading on Logic, see John P. Cleave, A Study of Logics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991). For reading on many-valued logic, see Grzegorz Malinowski, Many-valued Logics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993); Nicholas Rescher, Many-Valued Logic (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969). For reading on indetermination, see Roy A. Sorensen, Vagueness and Contradiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); Timothy Williamson, Vagueness (New York: Routledge, 1994). For reading on fuzzy logic, see Daniel McNeill and Paul Freiberger, Fuzzy Logic (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994); Bart Kosko, Fuzzy Thinking: the New Science of Fuzzy Logic (New York: Hyperion, 1993).


or P is false. There are only two truth-values which cannot be true at the same time. If P

is not true, then it has to be false. In terms of other oppositions, if it is not one, then it

must be the other. When Derrida describes undecidability as "neither/nor, that is,

simultaneously either or," this statement already implies its self-contradiction. Since

"neither/nor" signifies the negation of both, logically it cannot be "either." In addition, it

should be pointed out here that normally "either/or" can signify two forms of disjunction.

One is an exclusive disjunction or the disjunction in which only one of the alternatives

can be true. The other is an inclusive disjunction or the disjunction in which one or the

other or both of the alternatives can be true. Thus, in general, when "either/or" is applied

to an opposition, it can represent only an exclusive disjunction." But in Derrida's

"neither/nor, that is, simultaneously either or," his use of "either or" here tends to suggest

an inclusive disjunction instead. By using the word "either or" with an emphasis on the

word "or" and without a slash between "either" and "or," as contrast to "neither/nor" in

the beginning of the statement, Derrida seems to stress the alternate positions of his

"either or" rather than a choice between a binary opposition.V To put it in other words,

51 In its broadest sense, a disjunction "means that at least one of the propositions is true."

See Edith Watson Schipper and Edward Schuh, A First Course in Modem Logic (New York:

Holt, rinehart and Winston, 1966) 101-104. For further reading on disjunction, see Rowan Gamier and John Taylor, 100% Mathematical Proof (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1996) 19- 20; Daniel J. Velleman, How to Prove It: A Structured Approach (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 14.

52 Although "either/or" in general is a choosing between two alternatives that are not necessary to be in opposition, "either/or" involving the deconstructive undecidability as Derrida mentions here always refers to choices in tenus of two opposing alternatives.


Derrida's "either or" does not simply mean only "one" in the choice of two but rather

"one" or "the other" or "both."

An element that can be Derrida's "neither/nor, that is, simultaneously either or,"

therefore is an element that can be "either," "both/and" and "neither/nor" at the same

time.53 To use the example cited earlier, any undecidable P is an element that can be 'A;'

'Not-A;' 'both A and Not-A;' and 'neither A nor Not-A' at once. But since this element P

can be all of these positions simultaneously, it produces logical conflictuality that can

never be resolved. That is to say, if P is A, it cannot be Not-A and vice versa. If P is both

A and Not-A, it cannot be neither A nor Not-A. If P is neither A nor Not-A, it cannot be

either A or Not_A.54 Any attempt to define P becomes in vain for the identity of P turns

out to be entangled in a circularity that is logically irresolvable. The element P can be all

of these four positions. But since it can be all of the four positions, it simultaneously

represents none of these positions, for the validity of each position is nullified by the

others. Each position of A; Not-A; both A and Not-A; neither A nor Not-A; in relation to P

is both asserted and denied in this process. One cannot positively say that the element P

represents each or all of these positions because each of these positions is in fact negated

53 In "The Double Session," Derrida also refers to undecidability as "neither one nor the other and both at once." Derrida, Dissemination, 259.

54 Derrida also once mentions that he prefers the term "undecidability" to "indeterminacy" because "undecidability is always a determinate oscillation between possibilities." As Derrida further explains, "[undecidability is] not at all some vague 'indeterminacy.' I say 'undecidability" rather than "indeterminacy" because I am interested more in relations of force, in differences of force .... " See Jacques Derrida, "Afterword:

Toward An Ethic of Discussion," Limited Inc (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988) 148-49.


by the others. Yet at the same time, one can neither say that P does not represent any of these positions because it indeed represents all of them. Any inference regarding the element P and its relations to A and Not-A becomes suspended for P is and is not each position at once.

By being an operation that performs assertion and denial simultaneously, undecidability cannot be viewed simply as a negative operation intended to reveal annihilation as its ultimate meaning. In fact, what undecidability aims to propose is a more constructive goal in seeking a way to break off from the conventional way of thinking which is predominantly controlled by the system of binary opposition. As Derrida explains:

Our intention here is not, through the simple motions of balancing, equilibration or overturning, to oppose duration to space, quality to quantity, force to form, the depth of meaning or value to the surface of figures. Quite to the contrary. To counter this simple alternative, to counter the simple choice of one of the terms or one of the series against the other, we maintain that it is necessary to seek new concepts and new models, an economy escaping this system of metaphysical oppositions. Our discourse irreducibly belongs to the system of metaphysical oppositions. The break with this structure of belonging can be announced only through a certain organization, a certain strategic arrangement,


which, within the field of metaphysical opposition uses the strengths of the

field to turns its own stratagems against it, producing a force of dislocation

that spreads itself throughout the entire system, fissuring it in every

direction and thoroughly delimiting it.55

Instead of undermining the system of binary opposition from outside, undecidability

operates within the system of binary opposition only to subvert it from inside. Since

undecidability still works in the form of binary opposition, this subversion cannot mean

erasing the binary system but rather breaching its limits by putting the whole system into

play. It is the play that operates inside and outside the system of binary opposition at

once. Thus, as its term implies, the play of undecidability is an irreducible operation that

does not yield any sense of closure. Its logical irresolvability does not only confound our

reasoning but also evokes "anxiety," which, according to Derrida, is "invariably the result

of a certain mode of being implicated in the game, of being caught by the game, of being

as it were at stake in the game from the outset."S6

2. Introducing the Traiphum

Although Derrida discusses his operation of undecidability only in the context of

Western texts, this operation surprisingly turns out to be a useful tool in analyzing

55 Jacques Derrida, Force and Signification," Writing and Difference, 19-20.

56 Derrida, "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," Writing and Difference, 279.


Traiphum Phra Ruang, the most influential cosmological narrative in Thai literature."

Composed in 1345 C.B. by King Lithai of Sukhothai, the first dynasty of the Thai

kingdom, Traiphum Phra Ruang is a text concerning the concept of universe from the

Theravada perspective. According to the Theravada Buddhist tradition, a universe

consists of three Worlds situated one World above the other. These three Worlds also

divide into thirty-one realms representing different levels of destination where rebirth

takes place. Since the future destiny of each being is determined by its own kamma58

performed in its previous and present births, there is no certainty that the beings who are

born as human beings in this life will be reborn as human beings in their next lives.

Depending on their kamma, these beings could be. reborn whether in a higher realm, a

lower realm, or the same realm as they are now. Unless they attain nibbana (or nirvana

in Sanskrit), beings are destined to be born and reborn endlessly in these three Worlds.

For most readers, the fact that King Lithai compiled the Traiphums9 from more than thirty

Buddhist scriptures and commentaries, and the style of writing which is rich in details

that are consistent with those doctrines, validates the Traiphum to be a documentary

narrative containing comprehensive details on Buddhist cosmology rather than simply a

57 See more details of ~hum Phra Ruang in Chapter 1 below.

58 Literally, kamma(or karma in Sanskrit) means deed. The Buddhists regard kamma as the fundamental factor in the law of causality which is the law that explain the nature and existence of all beings.

59 Following the Thai custom, I will use the term "Traiphum" as an abbreviated title of this text.


fictive story.60 In fact, the Traiphum has always been perceived as the most authoritative

reference on Thai Buddhist cosmology. Thus, despite having some beautiful rhetoric

which enables the Traiphum to be classified as a literary text, most of the narrative in the

Traiphum is somewhat dry and doctrinal. Many readers therefore read the Traiphum only

to obtain information concerning the concept of the universe by following the thread of

details that the narrative provides.

But if a "text" in a deconstructive sense is defined by the way "it hides from the

first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game,"?'

the Traiphum would be a good illustration of a deconstructive text that conceals the

subtlety of its play quite well beneath its seemingly straightforward narrative. There is

nothing wrong with reading the Traiphum for its details but that kind of reading would be

a reading of the Traiphum as a "book" rather than as a "text.,,62 In fact, reading the

Traiphum as a book is the reading that obscures the play within the narrative. As

mentioned earlier, a book is always characterized by the notion of totality. Reading the

Traiphum as a book therefore is the reading that is predominantly controlled by the desire

to connect the details in order to make a whole of the narrative. With this kind of

60 See the list of the Buddhist doctrines from which King Lithai derives his text in the Prologue and the Epilogue of the Traiphum.

61 See note 1 above.

62 As David E. Klemm points out, in terms of textual practices, "deconstruction and hermeneutics are different. Deconstruction is figured by the disruptive play of signs. Hermeneutics is figured by the continuity of meaning in the word." (20) See David E. Klemm, "Open Secrets: Derrida and Negative Theology," Negation and Theology, Robert P. Scharlemann (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992) 8-24.


reading, any minor elements that do not seem to fit in with the logic and the structure of

the narrative would be overlooked and considered merely as "accidental aberration,,63 that

does not have any significance to the overall meaning of the narrative. In a

deconstructive reading, on the contrary, these seeming aberrations are indeed the focus of

reading because, regardless of their appearance of insignificance and marginality, these

elements can serve as the clues to reveal the play hidden in the narrative.64 To read the

Traiphum as a "text" therefore is not to read in order to capture the totality and the

coherence of its details but rather to read in order to find "ruptures" within the narrative.

In terms of deconstruction, ruptures are not simply the points where differences

occur but these differences must have a certain impact on the overall structure of the text.

To put it in other words, a rupture can be located in the moment when the text differs

from itself by subverting the logic that it appears to set up. It is "the place in a pattern"

63 This phrase is borrowed from Derrida's discussion of Saussure. See Derrida, Of Grammatology, 40.

64 Deconstructive criticism is very well-known in placing its emphasis on marginality.

The deconstructive operation usually involves employing marginal elements to subvert the structure. As Leitch points out: "Often deconstruction interrogates some seemingly unimportant item=-a word, an isolated letter, a title, a phrase, a printing error, a piece of punctuation-in order to break down a concept, passage, or text." See Leitch, 253. A good illustration of this operation can be viewed from Derrida himself. According to Spivak, Derrida "often devotes his attention to the text in its margins, so to speak. He examines the minute particulars of an undecidable moment, nearly imperceptible displacements, that might otherwise escape the reader's eye. Reading Foucault, he concentrates on three pages out of 673. Reading Rousseau, he chooses a text that is far from 'central.' Reading Heidegger, he proceeds to write a note on a note to Sein und Zeit." See Spivak, lxxvi.


that "slide]s] and makers] the entire discourse slide.,,65 The operation of undecidability

that we discussed earlier is in fact a form of rupture. By inhabiting the binary opposition

but eluding being classified in terms of opposition, an "undecidable" is a "double

gesture" that slides and makes the whole system of binary oppositions slide.66 It is a

rupture within the system of binary opposition that "keeps itself beyond the opposition of

the positive and the negative.t''" When this "undecidable" appears as "a mark" in the

text, it also becomes a rupture of the discourse. For its "double, contradictory,

undecidable value,,68 does not only affect the property of the element that it characterizes.

But the indecision and instability produced by an undecidable element also "propagate its

effects throughout the entire chain of discourse.,,69 Having these effects, an

"undecidable" becomes an element that slides and makes the entire discourse slide. It is a

form of rupture which, despite its apparent insignificance and arbitrariness, is not a

mistake or an accident aberration that haphazardly happens in the narrative. Rather, an

"undecidable" is indeed a structural property of the discourse itself.

65 Derrida, "From Restricted to General Economy: A Hegelianism without Reserve," Writing and Difference, 264.

66 In fact, the term "making slide" tends to be the term that is most equivalent to "deconstructing" for to deconstruct any system is to make that system slide rather than to exterminate it. As Derrida mentions in an interview with Henri Ronse regarding his deconstructive operation that "[he tries] to respect as rigorously as possible the internal, regulated play of philosophemes or epistimemes by making them slide-without mistreating them-to the point of their nonpertinence, their exhaustion, their closure." Derrida, Positions, 6.

67 Derrida, Writing and Difference, 271-72.

68 Derrida, Dissemination, 221.


Thus, in this dissertation, I intend to explore the "ruptures" or the "sliding" of the discourse in Traiphum Phra Ruang, particularly in the ways these ruptures form a pattern of undecidability that produces logical irresolvability both to the elements that embody these ruptures and to the overall structure of the narrative. Since ruptures can usually be located in the form of marginal elements, the focus of my study will be on the elements that tend to be disregarded or never have been investigated in terms of their effects to the structure of the Traiphum. By analyzing these elements, I will demonstrate that despite their appearance of insignificance and arbitrariness, these elements in fact serve as the clues to reveal the play of undecidability in the Traiphum' s narrative, a complex design that enables the Traiphum to be not simply a "book" on Buddhist cosmology but also a

deconstructive "text."

3. An Outline of the Study

Since the Traiphum is a text rarely known by Western audiences, Chapter One of this dissertation will provide some background of the Traiphum concerning the history of composition, the historical and political dimensions of the text as well as its influences on Thai society, culture and arts. This chapter also offers a brief review of the scholarship on the Traiphum in order to point out that the studies of this text have been more "refinement of the given than inquiry into founding mechanisms.,,7o There has never been a critical study on the textual strategy of the Traiphum in terms of the interactions of textual elements and the effects these interactions produce to the overall structure of the

69 Derrida, Writing and Difference, 272. 26

text. As the findings of this survey reveal, the previous studies of the Traiphum seem to fall into only two categories. One is the study of the Traiphum that concentrates on the historical, political and ideological aspects of the text The other is the study that examines the details of the text simply as a descriptive analysis on the concept of Buddhist universe. By shifting the focus to the textual operation of the Traiphum itself, this present study opens up a new approach in analyzing this text.

In Chapter Two, the emphasis of investigation will be on the cosmographical structure of the universe depicted in the Traiphum. Although the Buddhist universe is commonly perceived as a complete and clearly defined unit of which Mount Sumeru is the center, this chapter will prove that this seemingly rigid structure is in fact a good illustration of Derrida' s "play of the structure." By focusing on the Jambu continent and the Lokanta hell, I will demonstrate that both elements function as two significant ruptures which produce undecidability to the notions of center, frame, and even to the totality of the universe itself, making the entire structure of the Traiphum's universe slide.

The analysis on "the play of the structure" is developed further in Chapter Three.

In this chapter, I will examine two aspects of hierarchy displayed in the Traiphum: One is the hierarchy in the organization of the universe; the other is the hierarchy in the organization of society. Even though the notion of hierarchy seems to be an underlying logic of this text, I will argue that actually there are ruptures in both aspects of hierarchy making the notion of hierarchy itself as wen as the cosmological and the social structures

70 See note 8 above.


that the text appears to set up slide. As an effect of these ruptures, one can no longer determine the position of the Traiphum regarding the notion of hierarchy, for hierarchy is both asserted and denied at once, and consequently presents itself as another "undecidable" in the Traiphum's discourse.

In Chapter Four, I will concentrate on the representation of Nibbana and its relations to the overall structure of the narrative. For most readers, the roles of Nibbana in the text tend to be overlooked. Despite its significance as an ultimate goal of Buddhism as wen as the purpose of narrating the Traiphum, Nibbana is perceived simply as a marginal element, a point of reference mentioned in the text merely as an opposite of the story of the Three Worlds, which apparently assumes the role of the center of the narrative. In my study, however, I will demonstrate that Nibbana in fact functions as another rupture participating in the play of undecidability in the Traiphum's narrative. The focus of my discussion will be on the ways Nibbana is represented as a textual element that cannot be registered in terms of either presence or absence, either central or marginal. Rather, the presence of Nibbana in the Traiphum always remains "a double gesture" that eludes categorization in the system of binary opposition.

The notions of center, frame, totality, hierarchy, presence, which are the key concepts that deconstruction aims to undermine, are all put into play in the Traiphum. But instead of simply recapitulating the similarity between Derrida's deconstruction and the play of undecidability in the Traiphum, the concluding chapter of my study also


stresses the relation between the play of undecidability in the Traiphum and the Buddhist teachings on anatta or non-substantiality. From my perspective, the play of undecidability as manifested in the Traiphum is not designed to leave the reader with the notion of undecidability itself. Rather, this play is employed as a means to subvert the bivalent thinking in order to convey anatta or non-substantiality as the underlying logic of the text. Although the notion of play in terms of deconstruction should not result in any form of closure or a totalization of meaning, having anatta as the unified meaning of the play in the Traiphum in no way contradicts the deconstructive frame I have outlined for this study. As Derrida maintains, what he deprecates in the totalization or the selfpresence of meaning is what he identifies as a "transcendental signified," the signified that does not participate in the play but governs it from the outside. In this sense, despite being the unified meaning of the play in the Traiphum, anatta is not a transcendental signified that Derrida opposes. For by representing the denial of self-presence which at the same time is not absence in terms of an opposition of presence, anatta eludes any binary categorization and thus could be viewed as participating in the play of undecidability as well.

Since cosmology is usually considered a philosophical genre rather than a literary text, most studies of Buddhist cosmology tend to focus exclusively on investigating the metaphysics of the universe. To apply deconstructive criticism in analyzing the Traiphum as presented in this study therefore is a new approach in studying this text as well as a


new way in viewing Buddhist cosmology. Furthermore, since there has never been a

critical study on classical Thai literature and Thai Buddhist literary texts by using

deconstructive criticism, this study sheds a new light not only to the study of the

TraiQhum itself but also to the study of Thai literature in general. Although I deploy

deconstruction as a tool to help explain the play of undecidability manifested in the

Traiphum, the surprising similarity between Derrida's thought and the textual strategy of

the Traiphum in turn helps illuminate the deconstructive notion of undecidability, which

has never been discussed in the way outlined in this present study."

Perhaps, it should be pointed out here as wen that the similarity between Derrida's

deconstruction and Eastern philosophy is also a subject of studies by contemporary

scholars. Nonetheless, these studies focus on comparative philosophy, particularly

between Derrida and Mahayana tradition, rather than on textual strategy or an application

of deconstruction to textual analysis. For example, in Derrida and Indian Philosophy,n

Harold Coward examines the theory of language in Derrida's philosophy and compares it

to Madhyamika Buddhism and other schools of Indian philosophy. According to

Coward, though there are some similarities between Derrida's and Nagarjuna's approach,

71 Although there are a number of studies on deconstruction, an investigation on Derrida's notion of undecidability itself as well as a study that applies this notion to textual analysis are limited. This study therefore may offer a new perspective to the discussion on the deconstructive notion of undecidability in both aspects.

72. Harold Coward, Derrida and Indian Philosophy (New York: State University of New York Press, 1990).


their assumptions regarding the nature of language and their goal are different.t' For

instance, in Derrida's view, "language is the means for the experience of the real,"

whereas for Nagarjuna, language is considered as "imaginary construction," an "obstacle"

that has to be removed "if the real is to be seen." In Nagarjuna' s view, the ultimately

reality can be experienced "only when language is completely negated." But for Derrida,

"it is only a question of keeping the tension even between the opposites, through

continual deconstruction so that neither extreme ever triumphs." In Derrida's view,

"there is nothing outside of the texts. Deconstruction of language is the process of

becoming self-aware, of self-realization." Derrida sees "language to be rooted in reality"

and "it is through language, continually deconstructed from its extremes, that reality is

realized." As for Nagarjuna, "language is empty of reality and must be transcended for

reality to be realized.,,74 Since other studies of Derrida and Buddhism also have similar

emphases on comparing Derrida to Mahayana philosophy, a subject that is beyond the

73 Nagarjuna was a prominent scholar of Madhyamika school of Mahayana Buddhism.

Although Theravada and Mahayana schools share the fundamental Buddhist doctrines, both schools have different interpretations regarding certain aspects of the doctrines. For more details on Mahayana Buddhism, see Brian Carr and Indira Mahalingam, eds., Companion Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 1977); Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations (New York: Routledge, 1989). For further reading on Nagarjuna's philosophy and Madhyamika school of Buddhism in particular, see Nancy McCagney, NagaIjuna and the Philosophy of Openness (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997).

74 Coward, 138-40.


extent of this study,75 it suffices to say that a comparative study on an application of

deconstructive criticism to the textual strategy of a Buddhist text is very rare.

Traiphum is a text rich in details. But due to the fact that these details can distract

the reader from "the law of its composition and the rules of its game,,,76 and the fact that

the approach of this study is to find "ruptures" in the logic and the structure of the text,

the reference to the details of the Traiphum will be limited only to the parts that are

relevant to the discussion. In addition, since this study is not intended as an investigation

of deconstruction per se but an application of deconstructive criticism to the study of the

Traiphum, the discussion of deconstruction here will not be conclusive but will highlight

only the points that can be helpful in explaining the textual strategy of the Traiphum's

narrative. It is always difficult to quote Derrida for, as Barbara Johnson points out,

"Derrida's text is constructed as a moving chain or network, it constantly frustrates the

75 Other studies on Derrida and Mahayana school of Buddhism can be found in David Loy, "The Deconstruction of Buddhism," Derrida and Negative Theology, ed. Harold Coward and Toby Foshay (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992) 227-53; Toby Avard Foshay, "Denegation, Nonduality, and Language in Derrida and Dogen," Philosophy East & West 44.3 (1994): 543-58; Zongqi Cai, "Derrida and Seng-Zhao: Linguistic and Philosophical Deconstructions," Philosophy East & West 43.3 (1993): 389-404; Newman Robert Glass, Working Emptiness: Toward a Third Reading of Emptiness in Buddhism and Postmodern Thought (Atlanta: Scholars, 1995). Although Glass does not discuss Derrida directly, his study provides some interesting aspects on deconstruction and Mahayana Buddhism. Some studies also include Taoism in their comparative studies of Derrida and Eastern philosophy, see for example, Hongchu Fu, "Deconstruction and Taoism: Comparisons Reconsidered," Comparative Literature Studies 29.3 (1992): 296-321; Robert Magliola, Derrida on the Mend (Lafayette:

Purdue University Press, 1984).

76 See note 1 above.


desire to 'get to the point' :,77 Although Derrida usually develops his ideas through his

criticism of the Western texts, I intend not to include Derrida's discussions of these texts

in my study for fear that they might divert the subject at hand. Nonetheless, all citations

of Derrida in this study are quoted with an attempt to preserve their original contexts.

Unless otherwise noted, all English citations of the Traiphum in this study are

from Frank E. and Mani B. Reynolds's Three Worlds According to King Ruang: A Thai

Buddhist Cosmology.78 I choose the Reynolds' translation because it provides many

extensive explanatory notes that might be useful for the Western readers who are not

familiar with the Traiphum. Although I do not quote from the original Thai text, all

citations will be equipped with page numbers of both Thai and English versions of the

text; the first page numbers are from the Thai text, Traibhumikatha or Traiphum Phra

Ruang: Revised Edition;79 the second from the Reynolds's translation. The term

"Buddhism" used in this study primarily refers to but is not necessarily limited to

Theravada Buddhism. In referring to Buddhist technical terms, I will not use Sanskrit but

77 Johnson, "Translator's Introduction," Dissemination, xvi.

78 FrankE. and Mani B. Reynolds, Three Worlds According to King Ruang: A Thai Buddhist Cosmology, Berkeley Buddhist Studies Ser. 4 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).

79 Phaya Lithai, Traibhumikatha or Traiphum Phra Ruang: Revised Edition, ed. Phitoon Maliwan (Bangkok: The Department of Fine Arts, Ministry of Education, 1983).


Pali transliteration, which is the canonical language in the Theravada tradition.8o Except

for the proper nouns, an Pali, Thai, and other foreign terms will be in italics.

80 For further reading on Pali language, see Steven Collins, "What is Pali?," Nirvana and Other Buddhist Felicities: Utopias of the Pali Imaginaire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 46-53; A.K. Warder, Introduction to Pali (London: Pali Text Society, 1963); Wilhelm Geiger, A Pali Grammar, rev. K.R. Norman (London: Pali Text Society, 1994).





Traiphum Phra Ruang or the Three Worlds According to King Ruang is a Thai

Theravada1 cosmological narrative describing various places where rebirth takes place.'

Although iconographically the "Three Worlds" could be viewed as the three planes of

Heaven, Earth, and Hell, they in fact refer to the World of Desire, the World of Form, and

the World of Formlessness-the "Three Worlds" that are defined by the refinement of

form and mind? As illustrated in the Traiphum, the future destiny of each being is

l Theravada or the "Teaching of the Elders," is an orthodox school of Buddhism which places great emphasis on the Buddha and the ultimate release of nibbana. For more details on the differences between Theravada and other schools of Buddhism see Charles S. Prebish, ed., Buddhism: A Modern Perspective (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975); Andre Bareau, "Hinayana Buddhism," The Encyclopedia of Religion, 1987 ed.; Nakamura Hajime, "Mahayana Buddhism," The Encyclopedia of Religion 1987 ed.

2 Since Buddhism believes in reincarnation or the cycle of birth and rebirth, death is regarded as a transmigration of the soul into another place and another form of life.

3 According to the Traiphum, the World of Desire comprises eleven realms of the beings who are predominantly controlled by worldly desire. These eleven realms are the realm of hellbeings, the realm of animals, the realm of suffering ghosts, the realm of asura or giants, the realm of human beings, and six realms of devata, the divine beings who still enjoy their desire. The World of Form consists of sixteen realms of brahma, the divine beings who have more refined state of mind and thereby possess only physical forms but no sense of desire. The World of Formlessness consists of four realms of brahma who, due to their supreme states of mind, neither have bodies nor desire, but exist only as pure consciousness. The total numbers of realms within the Three Worlds therefore are thirty-one realms. (See Figure 1 and Chapter 3 below) Since the realm of suffering ghosts, the realm of animals, the realm of asura, and the realm of men all share the same space on earth while all divine beings reside in various levels of heaven, these thirty-one realms could be viewed iconographically as the three planes of Hen, Earth, and Heaven.


Traiphum I
I I 1
Kamabhumi Rupabhumi Arupabhurni
(The World of Desire) (The World of Form) (The World of
I Formlessness)
Parisajjabhurni I

Nirayabhumi Akasanancaya-
(hells) Purohitabhumi tanabhumi
(the realm of the
Tiracchanabhumi Mahabrahmabhumi infinity of space)
(the realm of animals) Vinnanancayata-

Parittabhabhumi nabhumi
Petavisayabhumi (the realm of
(the realm of suffering Appamanabhabhumi infinite mental
ghosts) process)

Abhassarabhumi Akincannayatana-
(the realm of asura) bhurni
Parittasubhabhumi (the realm of
(the realm of human Appamanasubhabhumi
beings) - Nevasannana-
Subhakinhabhumi sannayatana-
Catumaharajikabhumi bhumi
(the realm of
Vehapphalabhumi neither perception
Tavatimsabhumi nor non-

Tusitabhumi Atappabhumi

Nimmanaratibhumi Sudassabhumi
Paranimmitavasavatti- Sudassibhumi

Akanitthabhumi Figure 1

"Three World" cosmology


determined by its own kamma4 performed in its previous and present lives. There is no

certainty that the beings who are born as human beings in this life will be reborn as

human beings in their next lives. Depending on their kamma, they could be reborn either

in a higher realm, in a lower realm, or in the same realm as they are now. Unless these

beings attain the final release or nibbana.' they are destined to be born and reborn

"wanderjing] around and back and forth in these three worlds; and these go on

continuously without ever ceasing." (124/271) Although the Traiphum appears merely as

an account of the Theravada universe and of the different kinds of beings who reside in

this cosmological system, it is indeed a complex text that could be interpreted on many

levels. In fact, besides being the first Thai Buddhist text, Traiphum Phra Ruang is the

most complicated and the most influential text in Thai literary history. Thus, in order to

introduce this text to Western readers, I will review the historical context of the Traiphum

4 In Thai, the word "kamma," which literally means deed, could signify both the cause and the consequence of a deed. When signifying the cause, the word kamma usually has a neutral meaning of "a previous deed." But when it is used to refer to the consequence of a deed, kamma commonly denotes the result of an evil deed, as contrast to punya or "merit," which is the result of a meritorious deed. Buddhists regard kamma as the fundamental factor of the cycle of birth and rebirth. In other words, kamma is the cause of existence of an beings. For more details on rebirth and kamma, see Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990); and David J. Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1976).

5 Nibbana (or "nirvana" in Sanskrit) is the highest Truth and the ultimate cessation of suffering in Theravada Buddhism. The attainment of nibbana guarantees that the being will never be born in the Three Worlds again. For further reading on nibbana in the Theravada tradition, see Chinda Chandrkaew, Nibbana: The Ultimate Truth of Buddhism (Bangkok:

Kurusapha, 1982); Ninian Smart, "Theravada and Processes: Nirvana as a Meta-process," Pali Buddhism, ed, Frank J. Hoffman and Deegalle Mahinda (Surrey, Britain: Curzon, 1996) 196- 205. For further discussion of nibbana in the Traiphum, see Chapter 4 below.


as wen as its various influences on Thai society. In addition, in order to demonstrate that

despite being an important text to the development of Thai culture and literature, further

study of the Traiphum is still warranted, the last section of this chapter will discuss the

limitations of recent scholarship on this text.

1. Background and Contexts of Traiphum Phra Ruang

1.1 Title

Traiphum Phra Ruang is considered the first text written in Thai.6 Its original title

is "Traibhumikatha," which literally means a discourse or a sermon on the Three Worlds.

The word "traiphum"means "Three Worlds" ("trai" means three; "phum" is derived

from "bhumi" which means place, realm, or plane of existence; and "katha" means

discourse or sermon). The name "Traiphum Phra Ruang" is a new title given by Prince

Damrongrajanuphab, the editor-in-chief who authorized the publication of this text for the

first time in 1912. Generally speaking, the term "Phra Ruang,,7 is a common name for

the kings of Sukhothai, the first dynasty of the Thai kingdoru' Although there is no solid

6 The Thai script was established in 1283 C.E. Since there is no evidence that there were any other texts dated before the Traiphum, most scholars agree that the Traiphum is the first Thai text as well as the earliest Buddhist literature written in Thai. For more details on the history of Thai literature, see P. Schweisguth, Etude sur la Litterature Siamoise (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1951).

7 The word "phra," which literally means excellence, is a title commonly used in front of the wide variety of names, such as the names of the Buddha, gods, kings, monks, royal monuments, sacred objects and places.

8 The history of Thailand is divided into four dynasties, namely Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, Thonburi, and Ratanakosin. Except the Ratanakosin dynasty, which has Bangkok as its capital, all other dynasties have the capitals at the cities from which the names of the dynasty are derived.


explanation regarding the source of the name "Ruang" it is believed, according to a folk

tale, that the first Phra Ruang'' was a person with high merit who had sacred words that

could make things happen according to his command. "Phra Ruang" therefore became a

term associated with merit and power. With this implication of the term, every king of

Sukhothai was thus commonly caned "Phra Ruang." Since the Traiphum is the text

composed by Phaya Lithai, the fifth king of Sukhothai, the title of "Traibhumikatha" was

changed to "Traiphum Phra Ruang." According to his introduction in the first edition of

the Traiphum, Prince Damrong explained that he changed the title of the text into

"Traiphum Phra Ruang" in order that this text would be in the same collection with

Suphasit Phra Ruang (Phra Ruang's Maxims), another literary text that he believed to

have been composed in the same period" Although several years later Prince Damrong

expressed his regret regarding his change of the Traiphum's title,l1 by binding the text to

the royal status of its author, the term "Phra Ruang" plays an important part in increasing

the credibility and authority of this text among the reading public.

1.2 Author

For further details on the history of Thailand, see David K. Wyatt, Thailand: A Short History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984).

9 In order to distinguish a general term from a proper name, I will italicize only the general term. This will be the rule that applies to all reference of foreign words in this study.

10 See Damrongrajanuphab, "Introduction," Traiphum Phra Ruang, by Phaya Lithai, 8th ed. (Bangkok: Silapabannakan, 1970) (1)-(7).

II See Sompong Chaolam, Traibhumikatha chabab khoy yang chua [Traibhumikatha: An Easier Version] (Bangkok: Rung-reung Sam, n.d.) 1.


Despite questions of some contemporary historians concerning the authenticity of

the Traiphum's authorship.f most Thai literary scholars still believe that Traiphum Phra

Ruang was composed by Phaya Lithai in 1345 C.R, when he was an uparaja, the "second

king" or heir apparent to the throne, governing Srisachanalai, the second most important

city of the Sukhothai kingdom. The evidence that supports this opinion can be found in

the Words of Praise, the Prologue, and the Epilogue as follows:

In the Words of Praise:

The king, who prospers with the populace, possesses wisdom as his golden

palace, holds fast to the fruits of the tree of faith, and harbors truth and

liberality in his arms; who supports the lesser kings who tremble; who

wins the hearts of heroes, whose name is Lithai and who is the son of the

king of Sukhothai; ... this king has composed this account concerning the

"three worlds" in the Thai language in the city of Srisachanalai in order

that the religion might be complete and spread universally. (1/43-44)

In the Prologue:

Who is the one who carried out this extensive inquiry? It was [Phaya]

Lithai, the son of [Phaya] Lelithai, who reigned in the city of Srisachanalai

and Sukhothai. This [Phaya] Lithai is the grandson of King

12 For further details on this controversy, see the section on the scholarship of the Traiphum below.


Ramkhamhaeng.i'' who was in the solar lineage. [Phaya] Lithai reigned in

Srisachanalai for six years, and then he composed this Sermon on the

Three Worlds. (2/45)

In the Epilogue:

Who composed it? It was [Phaya] Lithai, who was the son of [Phaya]

Lelithai ... and the grandson of King Ramkhamhaeng who was of the

solar lineage. After he had reigned at Srisachanalai for six years he wrote

the sermon. (156/349)

According to the stone inscriptions dated from the Sukhothai period, it can be assumed

that Phaya Lithai ruled over Srisachanalai from around 1339 C.B. Six years after he had

taken the throne at Srisachanalai, when he composed the Traiphum, therefore would be

around 1345 C.E.14

13 King Ramkhamhaeng the Great was the third king of the Sukhothai kingdom. He is famous for being a great ruler who not only expanded much of Sukhothai's territory but also invented the Thai script, which marked the beginning of Thai literature. For some historians, the reference to King Ramkhamhaeng here does not simply indicate a genealogy. Rather, this reference of genealogy also serves to emphasize Phaya Lithia's influential lineage and his legitimation of power over the Sukhothai kingdom. This interpretation seems to be supported by the fact that Phaya Lithai had to fight for his throne against a usurper. The affirmation of his royal lineage, especially to King Ramkhamhaeng, who was highly esteemed, therefore could serve as a valid justification of his kingship. For further details on this subject, see Sombat Chandarawong, "Phraya jakraphadiraj nai traiphum phra ruang: Khan sangket bang prakarn kiew kab khwammai thang kammeung [The Universal Monarch in Traiphum Phra Ruang: Some Remarks on Its Political Implications]," Warasarn prawattisat 4.1 (1979): 1-17.

14 For further details concerning the Sukhothai stone inscriptions, see George Coedes, Receuil des Inscriptions (Bangkok: Bangkok Times, 1924); and A.B. Griswold and Prasert Na Nagara, "Epigraphic and Historical Studies no. 9: The Inscription of Ramkamhaeng of Sukhothai (1292 A.D.)," Journal of the Siam Society 7.2 (1971): 179-229.


1.3 Buddhism and the Sukhothai Monarchy

Buddhism is regarded as an integral part of Thai identity since the establishment

of the nation. In relation to the Thai kingship, Buddhism is a major factor that helps

justify the royal power and helps reinforce the position of kings throughout Thai history.

Particularly in the Sukhothai period when the nation was first established.f the king's

lavish patronage of Buddhism could contribute to peace and prosperity within the

kingdom as wen as to greater prestige and desirable alliances with neighboring states.

During the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng, Phaya Lithai's grandfather, Sukhothai

succeeded in becoming a very strong and well-established kingdom in Southeast Asia. A

major part of this success came from the fact that King Ramkhamhaeng was both a

powerful ruler, who expanded much of Sukhothai's territory, and a devout supporter of

Theravada Buddhism, which at that time was becoming influential throughout the

region.i'' As described in the inscriptions from the Sukhothai period, the reign of King

Ramkhamhaeng was notably moral and prosperous. People did not need to be concerned

about their living because the land provided such an abundant supply of food and the

15 The history of the Thai nation began in the early thirteenth century when King Sri Indrathitya, Phaya Lithai's great grandfather, established Sukhothai as a sovereign state by declaring independence from a Khmer king of Angkor, who had previously dominated the Sukhothai area and its vicinity.

16 Theravada Buddhism originally had its center in Sri Lanka and later expanded its influence to the Southeast Asian countries. For an overview of Theravada Buddhism and Southeast Asia, see Robert C. Lester, Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia (Ann Arbor:

University of Michigan P, 1973); D. R. SarDesai, Southeast Asia: Past and Present, 4th ed. (Boulder: Westview, 1997); and Nicholas Tarling, ed., The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, 2 vols. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).


authorities exercised their power with justice. The benevolence that King

Ramkhamhaeng had toward his people was usually described in terms of paternal

kindness. If anyone had sickness or grievance and needed to address to the king, he could

ring the ben which the king hung at the gate of his palace. Also, at the center of his city,

King Ramkhamhaeng placed a stone throne where he himself listened to people's plaints

and petitions, and where monks weekly preached Dhamma to the public.17 The social

relationship between the king and his people therefore was very close. In fact, besides

representing the picture of an idyllic society characterized by the king's paternal

benevolence and accessibility, the above description of Sukhothai in King

Ramkhamhaeng's reign reveals the close connection between kingship and Buddhism.

As symbolized by the act of alternately taking the stone throne between the king and the

monks mentioned earlier, kingship and Buddhism cooperated in the way that both

supported each other in the administration of the state.

After the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng, the stability and prosperity of Sukhothai

went into decline and the kingdom lost many of its vassals. When Phaya Lithai

succeeded his father, Phaya Lelithai, in 1347 C.B., he inevitably confronted the problems

of improving the administration, of reconstructing the alliances, and of restoring some of

17 The word "Dhamma" here means moral, wisdom, and truth in the Buddha's teachings.

For further details on King Ramkhamhaeng' s reign, see Griswold and na Nagara, 179-229.


the kingdom's prestige which had waned during his father's reign. IS As it is recorded in

the inscriptions from his period, Phaya Lithai was a just ruler who was willing to limit his

own power for his people's wen-being:

[B]y tradition, the king was entitled to one-tenth of the harvest

isassamedhai, but [Phaya Lithai] emphasized that his officials should

collect nothing from those people whose harvest had failed; a king could

only exact moderate corvee from his subjects, and should not demand

more than they were able to give, while old people should be completely

exempt; the king should make available loans from the royal treasury, but

could not, like private citizens, charge either tax or interest. 19

Besides being a righteous ruler, Phaya Lithai is very famous for his devout

support of Buddhism. Although some historians view Phaya Lithai as being less

interested in the affairs of state than in religion, his ardent patronage of Buddhism was

indeed a major factor that helped sustain his monarchy. For instance, by distributing

sacred relics like Buddha images and footprints to the nearby cities, Phaya Lithai not only

received high regard for his piety but also gained administrative benefits in binding the

people to him because "the monks who accompanied a sacred relic on its passage through

18 See more details on the history of Phaya Lithai's reign in Barbara Watson Andaya, "Statecraft in the Reign of Lu Tai of Sukhodaya (ca. 1347-1374)," Religion and Legitimation of Power in Thailand, Laos, and Burma, ed. Bardwell L. Smith (Pennsylvania: Anima, 1978) 2-19.

19 Quoted in Andaya, 11. The original citation is from George Coedes, "L'art Siamois de l'epoque de Sukhodaya," Arts Asiantiques 1.4 (1954): 295. Besides being recorded in the stone inscriptions, similar statements could be found in the section on the roles of a good ruler in the Traiphum. See Traiphum, 57-60/148-54.


the country helped strengthen the nexus between outlying centres and the capital.,,20 In addition, by sending his royal envoys to Sri Lanka, which atthat time was the center of Theravada Buddhism, for the Buddha's relics, and by inviting the renowned monks of Sri Lanka to preach in Sukhothai, Phaya Lithai restored the orthodoxy of Sukhothai Buddhism while asserted the kingdom's status of being a leading Buddhist state in this region. In this respect, whether it was due to his devotion to religion or a design to promote his administration, the reign of Phaya Lithai was mainly characterized by his piety.

Although virtue was a concern of Thai kings from the start, what makes Phaya Lithai different from his predecessors lies in the way he presented himself not simply as a Buddhist ruler who adopted Dhamma in his administration, but rather as a ruler who himself can preach Dhamma to his subjects, helping them to be on the right path toward the final release of nibbana. As indicated in the Prologue and the Epilogue of the Traiphum, Phaya Lithai composed this sermon on the Three Worlds in order to "enhance the usefulness of the Abhidhamma." to fulfill his desire to preach, especially to his mother, to help beings to gain release, and to advance the cause of Dhamma."(156/349) This announcement is followed by two pieces of information. One is a list of over thirty

20 Andaya, 9.

21 Abhidhamma is a grand Buddhist doctrine in the Pali canon.


Buddhist scriptures and commentaries from which Phaya Lithai derived his text22 The

other is a list of his teachers, who were distinguished monks of his time. In a way, these

two pieces of information serve both to support the credibility of his sermon and to

present Phaya Lithai as a scholar who had an extensive knowledge on Buddhist teachings.

Thus, from the information provided in the Prologue and the Epilogue of the Traiphum,

Phaya Lithai appeared as if he were a learned monk who preached Dhamma in order to

"help beings to gain release." His wish to follow the Buddha's steps is also reflected in

his statement expressing a desire to preach his mother. According to the stories of the

Buddha's life, the Buddha temporarily ascended to heaven after his Enlightenment in

order to preach Dhamma to his mother, who had died and was reborn in heaven. In

addition, since the Theravada tradition believes that only the monks who reach the state

of sainthood (arahanta) can have the vision and the knowledge of aU the realms within

the Three Worlds, by choosing, among many topics on Buddhism, to write a sermon on

the Three Words, Phaya Lithai might intend to imply this symbolic significance of his

subject matter. Thus, when taking all of these aspects into account, one can say that by

composing the Traiphum or a sermon on the Three Worlds, Phaya Lithai practically

transformed his position from that of a mere virtuous ruler, who simply complied with the

22Por the list of these scriptures and commentaries, see Appendix below. Also, for further details on the sources of the Traiphurn, see Niyada Laosunthom, Traiphurn phra ruang:

Karn suksa thi rna [Traiphurn Phra Ruang: A Study of Its Origin) (Bangkok: Mae Kampang, 1995).


Buddhist teachings, into a true Buddhist king, who not only knew Dhamma very well but

also possessed a significant potential to be a spiritual leader for his people.f

This new image of kingship, a king who is an embodiment of both worldly and

spiritual leader, is also exemplified by the role of the "Cakkavatti king," the Theravada

ideal ruler, which Phaya Lithai mentioned in his text. As illustrated in the Traiphum, the

Cakkavatti king, or the Universal Monarch, is the position for any king who accumulates

such a high degree of merit that he becomes the ruler of the entire universe.i" The power

of the Cakkavatti king over other kings therefore is the power that he obtains not by force

but by his own merit. Because of his merit, an other kings simply come to pay their

respects and to offer their loyalty to the Cakkavatti king, and the Cakkavatti king will

preach Dhamma to these rulers. (55-60/146-54) Although the Cakkavatti king "cannot at

all be compared with the Lord Buddha" (60/154), he is still regarded as a substitute leader

for the Buddha. As it is stated in the Traiphum, "in any kappa25 in which there is neither

23 Perhaps this can reflect a difference between Phaya Lithai and King Ramkhamhaeng, his predecessor. Unlike King Ramkhamhaeng who still drew a division between a ruler and a preacher, as suggested by the alternative role of the king and the monks in taking the stone throne, Phaya Lithai appears to have united both roles into himself.

24 See more discussion of the Cakkavatti king in Chapter 3 below.

25 A kappa is a cosmic age. One kappa could not be counted in terms of years and months, but could be only suggested by a simile as followings: "There is a mountain that is one yojana high and has a circumference of three yojana, and once every hundred years the mountain is wiped with a celestial cloth as soft as smoke; when the mountain has become worn down so that it is level with the rest of the ground, then it can be said that one kappa is over" (Traiphum, 20/83). [Note: Ayojana is approximately 10 miles].


a Buddha [nor] a Pacceka Buddha,26 there is a great Cakkavatti king instead." (51/139)

For many scholars, the fact that Phaya Lithai discussed the role of the Cakkavatti king in

great detail in the Traiphum (49-72/135-72) evidences that the role of an ideal Buddhist

ruler, who is the great king and the spiritual leader for his people, is indeed the role which

Phaya Lithai himself intended to pursue. This new conception of Thai kingship, which is

later referred to as "dhammaraja" (the dhamma-king),27 a development from the Hindu

concept of "devaraja" (the god-king)," became a foundation of the Thai monarchy from

Phaya Lithai' s period until the present time.

1.4 The Transmission of the Text

26 The Theravada believes that there could be none or up to five Buddhas in a kappa. In the kappa in which we are now, there are five Buddhas; the current Buddha is the fourth one. That means before this kappa comes to an end, there will be another Buddha come to this world. The name of the present Buddha is Gotama, and the name of the next Buddha is Sri Ariya Metteyya. AU of these Buddhas could lead beings to the ultimate release of nibbana. But unlike a Buddha, a Pacceka Buddha is the being who only attains Buddhahood, but does not play any role in leading other beings to nibbana. See more details in Traiphum, 142-43/312-13, 155/346- 48.

27 The term "dhammaraja" here contains a double significance. First, as its literal meaning i.e. "dhamma-king," the term denotes the concept of the Buddhist ideal ruler, who knows Dhamma, preaches Dhamma, and practices it in his administration Secondly, this term can directly refer to Phaya Lithai himself for his ceremonious title is "Sri Suriya Phongsa Rama Maha Dhammaraja-thiraj," which is usually shorten as "Dhammaraja."

28 "Devaraja." a Brahmanic concept that emphasizes the absolute power of king, is the concept of kingship that previously prevailed in Thai region and its neighboring states. Unlike King Ramkhamhaeng, who replaced the lofty image of devaraja with the paternal benevolence toward his people, Phaya Lithai is the first Thai king, and probably the first king Southeast Asia, who adapted the concept of devaraja by combining it with the Buddhist concept of an ideal ruler. For more details on this subject, see Chondhira Kladyu, "Traiphum phra ruang: Rakthan khong udomkam karnmeung thai" [Traiphum Phra Ruang: The Foundation of Thai Political Ideology], Thammasat University Journal 4.1 (2517): 106-121.


It is likely that a number of the traiphum manuscripts were produced in the

Sukhothai period. Unfortunately, those Sukhothai manuscripts as well as almost an of

the copies from the Ayutthaya period were either destroyed or lost during the wars with

Myanmar. Only three traiphum manuscripts from the Ayutthaya period survived

Myanmar's attacks. Nonetheless, none of these manuscripts is complete; one manuscript

contains only one-tenth of the fun text and the other two are palm leaf booklets that

mostly contain illustrations and only small portions of prose. 29 In the Thonburi period, a

monk named Maha Chuay somehow had access to the allegedly lost scripts of the

Traiphum and made a copy of the whole text in 1778 .: As it is indicated in the colophon

of the Traiphum: "The monk [Maha Chuay] copied the Sermon on the Three Worlds at

the temple at Paknam called Temple Klang. He finished it in the fourth month of the year

of the dog on a Sunday afternoon after 3 o'clock. That is to say, it was finished in the

2321st year of the Buddhist era,30 in the ninth month, on the twenty-sixth day." (157/350-

51) This manuscript, which is later widely known as "the Maha Chuay version," became

accepted as the most authoritative and the oldest existing complete manuscript of the

Traiphum. But before being rediscovered in the twentieth century, this ten-volume palm

leaf manuscript of Maha Chuay also disappeared during the transition from Thonburi to

29 These two manuscripts were recently published as Samudphab traiphum chabab hung sri ayutthaya-chabab hung thonburi [The Collections of Traiphum Illustrations from the Ayutthaya to the Thonburi Period}, 2 vols. (Bangkok: The Department of Fine Arts, Ministry of Education, 1999).

30 To convert the Buddhist era into the Common Era, subtract 345 years.


the Ratanakosin period. In order to reconstitute the Traiphum, King Rama the First of

Ratanakosin commissioned a group of monks and royal sages to compile another "Three

Worlds" text in 1783. But since there was no solid reference to the Traiphum on which

the new compilation could rely, this new compilation, which was later entitled Traiphum

Lokavinicchayakatha after its revision in 1802, became another cosmological text that

preserves only the outline of the "Three Worlds" cosmography but does not represent the

Traiphum of the Sukhothai period."

In the early twentieth century, Prince Damrongrajanuphab directed a widespread

search for ancient manuscripts.Y The search was resulted in a major retrieval of a large

number of lost literary works, including Maha Chuay's manuscript of the Traiphum. In

order to preserve the text, Prince Damrong decided to publish the Traiphum for the first

time in 1912. This text was reprinted several times afterward. But since the first and the

subsequent editions of the Traiphum rendered the text in the authentic style of the Maha

Chuay version, its archaic language discouraged the public from accessing this text.

Thus, as an attempt to make this text more accessible to the public, the Department of

Fine Arts published a revised edition of the Traiphum in 1974. For this new edition,

Phitoon Maliwan, the editor, did not entirely base the text on Maha Chuay's manuscript

31 See details in Phraya Dhammapreecha, comp., Traiphum Lokavinicchayakatha, 3 vols. (Bangkok: The Department of Fine Arts, Ministry of Education, 1977).

32 Prince Damrongrajanuphab (1862-1943) is regarded as the founding father of Thai historiography. His pioneering efforts contributed considerably to the study of Thai history and literature. See more details in Chetana Nagavajara, "Literary Historiography and Social-Cultural Transformation: The Case of Thailand," Comparative Literature from a Thai Perspective:

Collected Articles 1978-1992 (Bangkok: Chulalongkom University Press, 1996) 41-60.


of 1778. Rather, he consulted with two additional sources discovered sometime after the

Maha Chuay version. The first source is another manuscript of the Traiphum inscribed

by a monk named Maha Chan in 1787. The second source is an incomplete manuscript

believed to date from the Ayutthaya period.33 Since these manuscripts are not the original

manuscripts from the Sukhothai period but the copies inscribed in different periods, the

problems of authenticity concerning these manuscripts inevitably occur. Nonetheless,

according to specialists on ancient Thai language, these manuscripts correspond

sufficiently to indicate that they are copies of a single text. The archaic vocabulary used

in these manuscripts as well as their styles of writing also clearly reflect the

characteristics of language during the Sukhothai period.i" With the explanatory footnotes

and the glossary added, this revised edition currently constitutes the most complete and

reliable version of the Traiphum.

In 1973, with a support from the UNESCO, L'ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient

published a French translation of the Traiphum by George Coedes and C. Archaimbault.

This is the first time that a translation of the Traiphum into a Western language was

33 See more details in Pithoon Maliwan, "Remarks on Revision of Traibhumikatha," Traibhumikatha: The Story of the Three Planes of Existence, trans. The Thai National Team. Anthology of ASEAN Literatures vol. 1a. (Bangkok: ASEAN, 1987) (16)-(19); and "Preliminary Remarks," Traibhumikatha or Traiphum Phra Ruang: Revised Edition, ed. Phitoon Maliwan (Bangkok: The Department of Fine Arts, Ministry of Education, 1983).

34 See Damrongrajanuphab, 0); Sthirakoses, Lao reuang nai traiphurn [Narrating the Traiphum] (Bangkok: Klangviddhaya, 1975); Pithoon Maliwan, "Remark on Revision of Traibhumikatha," Traibhumikatha (6)-(19).


published.f Nine years later, the University of California at Berkeley published the first

English translation of the text by Frank E. and Mani B. Reynolds. Unlike Coedes and

Achaimbault's translation, which relies exclusively on the Damrong edition of 1912, the

Reynolds' translation depends on both the Damrong Edition and Pithoon' s revised

edition. Nevertheless, both translations have distinctive value in their own styles. With

an attempt to make the Traiphum more accessible to the readers as wen as to render an

English version of the text from a Thai perspective, the Thai National Team, as a part of

the Committee on the Anthology of ASEAN Literatures, published two subsequent

editions of the text. The first publication in 1985 is a simplified version of the Traiphum

in Thai prose, and the second publication in 1987 is an English translation of the text.36

It should be pointed out here as well that when the Traiphum was first published

in 1912, Prince Damrongrajanuphab, the editor-in-chief, expressed his concern that

despite being a rare text which had never been published, the Traiphum might not attract

public attention and nobody would want to buy the book if it were to be sold." Thus,

35 See Phaya Lithai, Les Trois Mondes (Traibhumi Brah R'van), trans. G. Coedes and C.

Archaimbault (Paris: Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient, 1973).

36 See Traibhumikatha chabab thad kwam [Traibhumikatha: A Simplified Version], ed.

The Thai National Team for ASEAN Literatures (Bangkok: ASEAN, 1985); and Traibhumikatha: The Story of Three Planes of Existence. (See note 33 above)

37 Damrongrajanuphab, "Introduction," Traiphum Pilla Ruang, (6). Probably a major factor of Prince Damrong's concern came from witnessing cultural changes in Thai society at his time. As Craig J. Reynolds points out, the belief in the Buddhist cosmography had been on the decline since the nineteenth century as an effect of Thai cultural changes resulting from the advent of the western culture. See more details in Craig J. Reynolds, "Buddhist Cosmography in Thai History, with Special Reference to Nineteenth-Century Culture Change," Journal of Asian Studies 35.2 (1976): 203-20.


under Prince Damrong's authorization, the Traiphum was published to be gratuitously

distributed during the funeral of Phra-ongjao Prasarnsrisai and Phra-ongjao Prapaisrisa-

ard, two members of the royal family." But contrary to Prince Damrong's concern, the

Traiphum became a popular book and has been republished several times, both by

commercial publishers and by the Department of Fine Arts of the Ministry of Education.

In order to make this text more comprehensible for modem readers, Sthirakoses, a

prominent Thai scholar, composed the first commentary that explains the account of the

Traiphum and its relationship to Thai literature. It could be said that Sthirakoses' book,

Lao reung nai traiphum [Narrating the Traiphum], first published in 1954, was a very

influential study that not only inspired the reader to learn more about the Traiphum, but

also set a model for later writers to write a commentary of the text in their own versiona.'"

The public's growing interest in the Traiphum also inspired more publications of other

Buddhist cosmological texts, including.t"

Traiphum Lokavinicchayakatha (composed in 1802, published in 1977)

Cakkavalathipanee (composed in 1520, published in 1980)

Lokabanyat (no date of composition, published in 1985)

38 Damrongrajanuphab, "Introduction," Traiphum Pilla Ruang, (6).

39 See, for example, Traibhumikatha chabab thod kwam; and Sompong Chaolam, Traibhumikatha chabab khoy yang chua [Traibhumikatha: An Easier Version] (Bangkok: Rungreung Sam, n.d.).

40 These cosmological texts were composed in different regions of Thailand. Except for Traiphum Lokavinicchaya katha, Pathommul, and Pathomkap, which were written in Thai, the others were written in Pali.


Lokathipakasara (composed around the thirteenth century, published in 1986t1

Lokuppatti, Arunavatisutra, Pathommul, and Pathomkap (no date of composition,

published in 1990)

Although there are several Thai Buddhist cosmological texts and some of them were even

composed around the same period as the Traiphum, none of these texts has the same level

of complexity as the Traiphum. Hence, even in the present time, the Traiphum still

remains the most complex and the most influential cosmological text in Thai literature.

2. The Influences of Traiphum Phra Ruang on Thai Society

Traiphum Phra Ruang has a paramount importance on various aspects of Thai

society. Though the Traiphum is not the only source of ideas from which Thai society

develops, it can be perceived as a very significant source for understanding the Thai

organization of the state, social relations, culture and arts. As mentioned earlier, the

Traiphum played an important part in the development of the Thai monarchy. By

maintaining that kingship is a consequence of the superior level of merit accumulated by

kings during their previous lives, the Traiphum associates kingship with conception of

merit and thereby justifies the higher position of kings by referring to the Buddhist law of

kamma. But instead of simply rationalizing the higher position of king, the Traiphum

also aids the administration by promoting good relations between kings and their people.

41 If the estimated date of composition of this text is accurate, Lokathipakasara can evidence that the Traiphum is not the only Buddhist cosmological text from the Sukhothai period. But unlike the Traiphum, which was written in Thai, Lokathipakasara was written in PalL


As suggested through the image of the Cakkavatti king, the Traiphum sets the concept of

"dhammaraja" as a standard of conduct for kings ever since the Sukhothai period. Even

after the Brahmanic concept of "devaraja" (the god-king) regained its influence in the

Ayutthaya period, "dhammaraja" has still been a fundamental principle for Thai kings in

all periods. In fact, it could be said that the concept of "dhammaraja" is a major element

that sustains the Thai monarchy. With a support from this concept, Thai kings are able to

maintain their high position even in the present time, when the nation has undergone

major political changes that compromise the power of the monarch.

Besides reinforcing the rules of conduct for kings, the Traiphum promotes ethical

standards for all people. As illustrated in the various descriptions of sins and

punishments of the persons who would be born as hell-beings and suffering ghostsY

these sins mainly deal with social misconduct of people in all classes. An example could

be found in the description of Thusapalaca hell,43 a place of punishment for those "who

have mixed atrophied rice, chaff, and straw with good grain, and have sold the mixture to

others, passing it off as good rice." When these people die, they will be reborn in this hell

where they are in a river full of blazing atrophied rice and chaff that burns their bodies.

When these hell-beings are thirsty, they will scoop up some of this red-hot rice and chaff

42 Unlike the hen-beings, who are confined and tortured in the hells underneath the earth, the suffering ghosts could wander and stay in any place.

43 According to the Traiphum, the realmof hell-beings is divided into eight levels. Each level contains a major hell surrounded by sixteen auxiliary hells, which are in tum surrounded by a number of smaller hells. Thusapalaca hell is an auxiliary hell in the first level, which is the level that is closest to the surface of the earth. The Traiphum explains in detail only the sixteen auxiliary hells in the first level. See Traiphum, 9-18/66-80.


to eat. But as soon as it reaches their stomachs, it becomes fire shooting out from their anuses. (15175-76)

Another hen is called Lohabalisa hell,44 a place of punishment for those who "say that they will buy the goods of others and thereby deceive them into thinking that they will give payment, who trick others out of their goods with false weights and measures, and who trick others into making mistakes and losing their goods without giving them any payment." When these persons die, they will be reborn in this hell where the hell guardians grasp their tongues with tongs, pull them out, hook them with flaming red iron fish-hooks that are as large as the trunks of palm trees, and drag these hen beings over to lie down on fiery red iron plates that burn out their entire bodies. Then the hell guardians "skin them and put their skins on a stretcher just like cowhide." The hell-beings cry bitterly with great pain. "Their bodies shake and shudder like fish after someone has broken their necks and thrown them on the dry ground; they drop feces, and vomit blood over and over again." (16177-78) As for the governors who take bribes and perform their duty without justice, when they die, they will be reborn as suffering ghosts who are terribly destitute. Being unable to find anything to eat, these suffering ghosts eat their own flesh by using their fingernails, "which are as sharp as very sharp knives, to scrape and scratch their flesh and skin" and eat it instead of food. (311101)

44 Lohabalisa hell is another auxiliary hen in the first level of the realm of hen-beings.


It could be assumed that the vivid descriptions of sins and the terrifying

punishments in the Traiphum served as a substitute for law in the Sukhothai period.45 In

order to prevent people from wrongdoing, Phaya Lithai used these powerful descriptions

to intimidate them and set norms of conduct for all classes. Although several

punishments described in the Traiphum are derived from the Buddhist texts which Phaya

Lithai used as his sources, there is enough evidence to believe that some details were

added in order to make the sermon more relevant to the circumstances and more

convincing to people in the Sukhothai period. Even in modem times, when the belief in

the Three Worlds has already declined, the images of the pleasure of heaven and the

horrors of hen as described in the text still effectively remain in the Thai imagination.

Through graphic descriptions of various punishments in hells that await the evil-doers as

well as the vivid pictures of celestial rewards that await the righteous persons, the

Traiphum motivates the reader to practice Dhamma in everyday life by enhancing

goodness and abstaining from evil. No matter how much Thai society has changed, the

moral standards of the people can still be viewed from the Buddhist teachings in this text.

While the descriptions of the punishments in hells and the rewards in heavens of

the Traiphum explain the standard of conduct by the law of kamma." the whole concept

45 According to a stone inscription, the first law in Thailand was enacted in 1373, twentyeight years after the composition of the Traiphum. The Traiphum therefore is considered to be a rule of conduct that created social order during the time when the legal system had been yet established. See more details in Kladyu, 112-14.

46 See note 4 above. For further reading on the concept of kamma, see David J.

Kalupahana, Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1975).


of the "Three Worids,,47 aims to illustrate that suffering, impermanence, and non-

substantiality are indeed the true nature of things from the Buddhist perspective.i" Thus,

there are two levels of Buddhist teachings illustrated in the Traiphum: One is ethics and

the other is metaphysics. The law of kamma explains the logic of being born in the Three

Worlds whereas "Trilakana,,49 displays the fundamental nature of the whole concept of

the Three Worlds itself.sO With the logic of cause and effect, the law of kamma teaches

47 It might be appropriate to remind the reader that the concept of the "Three Worlds" does not refer to the three planes of Heaven, Earth, and Hell. Rather, it is the concept of the universe characterized by Trilakana (see note 48-49 below), the law of kamma, and the cycle of birth and rebirth. Nibbana, in the Theravada perspective, therefore, is the release from Trilakana, from the law of kamma, from the cycle of birth and rebirth, or in sum, nibbana is the release from the Three Worlds. (Kamma and the cycle of rebirth are related because kamma, or previous deeds, is the cause of rebirth in the subsequent lives. Kamma therefore is the logic that explains the existence of all beings. (See note 3-5 above.)

48 According to the Theravada perspective, the term "suffering" does not simply refer to physical and mental anguish. Rather, it signifies intrinsic nature of all existence. In Theravada conception, suffering could be viewed in three aspects: First, suffering pertaining to the process of life which involves birth, aging, sickness, and death; secondly, suffering due to the transitoriness of all phenomena; and thirdly, suffering relating to the conditionedness of things. Impermanence and non-substantiality. of the phenomenal world are also the causes of suffering. The Theravada views non-substantiality or non-self as the nature of all existence for, according to the Theravada perspective, everything, including our own existence, is a mere compounded thing constituted from diversity of factors. Since each factor exists dependently on other factors according to the law of causality, none of these factors stands as a core but exists only conditionally. For further details on suffering, impermanence, and non-substantiality, see Chinda Chandrkaew, Nibbana: The Ultimate Truth of Buddhism (Bangkok: Kurusapha, 1982); H. Wolfgang Schumann, Buddhism: An Outline of Its Teachings and Schools, trans. Georg Fene (London: Rider, 1973).

49 Trilakana, which literally means "three characteristics" (trai means three, lakana means characteristics), is the term used to refer to suffering, impermanence, and nonsubstantiality-the three fundamental characteristics of an beings and things within the Three Worlds. See more details in Chapter 4 below.

50 Although kamma is the logic that explains the existence of all beings in the Three Worlds, the law of causality, which is another logic underlying the concept of kamma, also relates to the concept of Trilakana, For if existence is a mere consequence of causes, all


laymen about moral conduct and the way to live their best in the Three Worlds. As for

Trilakana, by revealing the true nature of the Three Worlds, Trilakana teaches us to have

an accurate perception of these Worlds in order that we would not hold on to their

deceptive appearance.i" The knowledge of Trilakana therefore is the basis for

transcending the Three Worlds and for breaking off from the law of kammai" With all of

these philosophical implications, the Traiphum is not simply the text describing the

cosmology of the Three Worlds. Rather, the description of the Three Worlds is aimed to

illustrate two levels of Buddhist teachings: One is moral conduct that will enable us to

have good lives within the Three Worlds; and the other is the knowledge that will release

us from these Worlds.

These two levels of teachings seem to be well captured by many "traiphum"

mural paintings.r' which usually cover the walls behind the Buddha images in the

existence is only conditioned. Being conditioned thereby reconfirms that suffering, impermanence, and substancelessness are the intrinsic nature of all things.

51 Although various heavens could provide one with great happiness, the joy of heavens is stilllirnited and conditioned, and accordingly could not in any way compare to the ultimate felicity of nibbana.

52 For more details on the relation between kamma and Trilakana in the Traiphum, see Phra Rajavaramuni, Traiphum phra ruang itthiphon tau sangkom thai [The Influence of Traiphum Phra Ruang upon Thai Society] (Bangkok: Seng Rung, 1983); and Phra-maha Narongphaddayano, "Khunkha khong wannakhadi reung traiphum phra ruang [The Merit of Traiphum Phra Ruangl, Buddhachak 38.4 (1984): 20-28.

53 For an overview of Thai painting, see Elizabeth Lyons, "A Note on Thai Painting," The Arts of Thailand, ed. Theodore Bowie (Westport: Greenwood, 1975) 166-81; Santi Leksukhum, Temples of Gold: Seven Centuries of Thai Buddhist Paintings, trans. Kenneth D. Whitehead (New York: George Braziller, 2000).


Ubosot.54 In these colored paintings, hen is depicted in the lower part of the wall whereas

heaven is in the upper part. The image of hell is typically characterized by hen beings

tortured in various manners while the image of heaven is often displayed as an assembly

of divine beings adorned with many beautiful details. In the first level, these paintings

teach ethics to the beholders by inspiring them to be aware of the consequences of their

deeds or, in other words, to realize thelaw of kammai? But on a deeper level, these

paintings display the concept of Trilakana, Seeing the images of heaven and hell in a

single composition, the beholders realize that heaven and hen, which seem to be totally

different at first glance, turn out to share the same characteristics. For no matter how

much joy the divine beings have or how much suffering the hell beings are inflicted, both

groups share the same characteristics of suffering, impermanence, and non-

substantiality.i" In this way, a subtle meaning that the images of heaven and hell aim to

convey is for the beholders to realize the true characteristics of the phenomenal world in

order that they would not hold on to its deceptive appearance but focus instead on

practicing the ways to gain release. Since the Buddha images situated in front of these

paintings represent not only the Buddha himself but also his Enlightenment or the release

54 Ubosot is a consecrated building in a Thai temple. It serves as an assembly hall where monks gather to carry out religious ceremonies. Each ubosot has a principle Buddha image in the center and the wall behind the Buddha image is usually adorned with scenes from the life of the Buddha and images from the "Three Worlds" cosmology.

55 For Thai laity, the law of kamma could be summarized simply as "a good deed will bring a beneficial result, and an evil deed will bring a bad consequence in return."

56 See note 49.


from the Three Worlds, the focus that these background paintings aim is indeed

symbolized in the Buddha images in front of them. The position of these paintings

therefore could not be more proper. By placing these paintings behind the Buddha

images, Thai artists cleverly create an interaction between painting and sculpture, and

highlight the presence of the Buddha both in an artistic and a symbolic ways.

In some ubosot, instead of having the pictures of heaven and hell behind the

Buddha images, the entire walls are painted as Mt, Sumeru surrounded by seven

mountain ranges. According to the Traiphum, Mt. Sumeru is the great mountain at the

center of the universe of which the summit is the dwelling place of the divine beings.57

Nonetheless, when the time comes, this great mountain as well as the universe itself will

be destroyed according to the cycle of destruction and renewal, the natural process of all

things within the universe.i'' The paintings of Mt. Sumeru in these ubosot therefore not

only serve an aesthetic purpose, but also convey the truth of Trilakana that things, no

matter how great and significant they appear, do have suffering, impermanence, and non-

SUbstantiality as their intrinsic nature. Not a mountain with a magnificent presence or

57 For more discussion of Mt, Sumeru and the Traiphum's cosmography, see Chapter 2


58 As indicated in the Traiphum, the Theravada believes in the cycle of destruction and renewal of the universe (cf the cycle of birth and rebirth of all beings). Except for the highest seven realms in the World of Form and the four realms in the World of Formlessness, all realms that constitute the universe will be destroyed when the end of the kappa arrives. (See notes 3 and 25 above) After the process of destruction is complete, the universe will be reconstructed and a new kappa begins. This process of destruction and renewal of the universe continues like this until the end of time. For more details on the destruction and renewal of the universe, see Traiphum, 139-44/305-17.


even the universe itself could remain torever." In this sense, to paint the images ofMt.

Sumeru at the walls behind the Buddha images can be viewed as a design to highlight the

contrast between the ever changing phenomenon of the Three Worlds represented in the

images of Mt. Sumeru and the permanent felicity of nibbana symbolized by the Buddha

images. The focus that these paintings aim to convey is thus once again embodied by the

Buddha images in front of them. For the beholders to understand the symbolic

significance of these paintings and their rapport with the Buddha images, the knowledge

of Buddhist cosmology is required. Even when the paintings do not focus on the "Three

Worlds" but scenes from the life of the Buddha, they still contain cosmological elements

and mythical figures which the knowledge of the Traiphum plays an important part in

enhancing the beholders' appreciation. Though the Traiphum might not be the only

source from which Thai artists derived their inspiration concerning these cosmological

elements.t" it is the first text that organizes these ideas into the most colorful and the most

authoritative reference for Thai Buddhist cosmology.

59 Although it seems that the destruction of Mt. Sumeru and the universe denotes only the notion of impermanence, it indeed implies all three aspects of Trilakana, i.e. suffering, impermanence, and non-substantiality; As previously noted, these three aspects of Trilakana are all interrelated; they an signify the state of things that cannot sustain their existence. See note 48-49 above.

60 As mentioned earlier, there are several cosmological texts in Thailand and some were even composed around the same period as the Traiphum. Accordingly, it is believed that the concept of "traiphum" or the "Three Worlds" had widely dispersed in the Thai regions before the composition of the Traiphum. For further discussion on the dispersion of the concept of "traiphum" or the "Three Worlds," see Dhida Saraya, "Traiphum kab karnjad rabieb khwamkid nai prawattisat sangkhom thai [Traiphum and the Organization of Ideas in Thai Social History]," Sinlapa- Wathanatham 6.2 (1984): 94-102; and Niyada Laosunthom, "Traiphum phra ruang:

Mummong mai [Traiphum Phra Ruang: A New Perspective]," The Wilderness of the Past;


The influences of the Traiphum on Thai arts can also be viewed from many Thai

Buddhist architectural styles. Basing his study on the Traiphum, Chod Kalayanamit

maintains that the concept of the "Three Worlds" is a framework that shapes the

characteristics of Thai architecture.?' Although it has been widely accepted that the

profiles of many Thai Buddhist architectural structures are derived from the image of Mt.

Sumeru, what makes Kalayanamit's study distinct is his approach in investigating the

detailed embellishment displayed in these structures. In his discussion on the structure of

the prang62 at the Temple of the Dawn in Bangkok (see Figure 2), for example,

Kalayanamit does not simply say that the tower of the prang stands for Mt. Sumeru as

many critics claim, but he also applies the knowledge of the Traiphum to point out the

significance of the details of this prang. In Kalayanamit's view, since the tower of the

prang symbolizes Mt. Sumeru, the six tiers on the upper part of the tower can be

interpreted as the six levels of heaven in the World of Desire. This interpretation is

Essays in Honor ofM.R. Supawat Kasemsri, ed. Winai Pongsripian (Bangkok: n.p.,1994) 221- 36.

61 Chod Kalayanamit, "Traiphum nai phuthasasana kab sathapatayakam thai [The Concept of Traiphum in Buddhism and Thai Architecture]," Silpakorn University Journal 2.1 (1978): 53.

62 A prang is a tower sanctuary with a distinctive corncob profile on a square base. The style is originally derived from Khmer architecture but details were adapted according to Thai Buddhist architecture. For more details on Thai architecture, see Subhadradis Diskul, Art in Thailand: A Brief History (Bangkok: Krung Siam, 1970).


Figure 2

The Prang at The Temple of the Dawn, Thailand.

Source: Theodore Bowie, ed., The Arts of Thailand: A Handbook of the Architecture, Sculpture and Painting of Thailand (Siam), (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1960) 158.


Figure 3

Pra Path om Chedi, Thailand

Source: Theodore Bowie, ed., The Arts of Thailand: A Handbook of the Architecture,

Sculpture and Painting of Thailand (Siam), (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1960)



Figure 4

An example of a pyramidal roof from the Mondhop at the Shrine of

the Buddha's Footprint, Thailand

Source: Theodore Bowie.ied., The Arts of Thailand: A Handbook of the Architecture,

Sculpture and Painting of Thailand (Siam), (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1960)



substantiated by two groups of sculptures. One is the sculpture of Indra, serving as the

representative of gods (devata) in the World of Desire,63 in the upper part of the tower.

The other is the sculptures of asura (giants), serving as the guards of the tower in the

lower part of the prang, the position that conforms to the location of the realm of asura

which, according to the Traiphum, is situated beneath Mt, Sumeru."

In another example, Kalayanamit interprets the specific numbers used in the

configuration of Thai Buddhist architecture by relating them to the structure of the universe described in the Traiphum. In the configuration of a chedi (see Figure 3),65 for

instance, the number of tiers circling the tall spire on the top of the chedi could be

explained by the combination of realms in the traiphum cosmology. For example, six

tiers could signify the six levels of heaven in the World of Desire, eleven tiers are the

eleven realms that compose the World of Desire, sixteen tiers are the sixteen realms that

compose the World of Form, twenty tiers are the twenty realms that compose the World

of Form and the World of Formlessness, and thirty-two tiers are Nibbana and all thirty-

63 It is unlikely to mistake Indra for other gods because the sculptures of Indra are usually portrayed as he is riding his elephant, Eravana, who has a unique characteristic of having thirtythree heads (but is normally portrayed as having three heads in the sculptures).

64 For more details on the asura, see Chapter 2 below.

65 A chedi is a Buddhist monument in a shape of a dome symbolizing Mt. Sumeru. The top of a chedi is stylized as a tall spire ringed with several tiers. The number of tiers in each chedi is varied. Some chedi might have only six tiers whereas others may have as many as thirtytwo tiers.


one realms that compose the Three Worlds.66 A similar concept can be found in the roof

pattern of a palace. Since a palace is usually compared to the heaven of Indra on the

pinnacle of Mt. Sumeru/" the pyramidal roof of the palace is designed as seven

overlapping layers in order to imitate the seven mountain ranges that surround Mt,

Sumeru. (See Figure 4) Thus, as all of these examples show, it would not be an

exaggeration to maintain that without the knowledge of the Traiphum, one would hardly

have a true understanding in the subtlety of Thai Buddhist arts.

Besides its influences on Thai arts, the Traiphum plays a pivotal part in Thai

literary study. By being a comprehensive text describing the Theravada universe in great

detail, the Traiphum is considered a literary work itself as well as a source of reference

for Thai poets and writers of later periods. A large number of Thai literary texts refer to

the various cosmological elements, mythical figures, names, and stories described in the

Traiphum.68 Although it is difficult to determine whether these elements derive directly

from the Traiphum since there are a number of Thai cosmological texts, it is generally

accepted that the knowledge of the Traiphum is the basis for understanding Thai

literature. For instance, since Thai classical poets usually describe their love and their

66 Cf. note 3 above. According to the Traiphum, nibbana or the Release is represented as a perfect city caned the city of Nibbana, For further discussion on the city of Nibbana, see Chapter 4 of this study.

67 Although the heaven of Indra is not the highest level of heaven in the Three Worlds, this heaven is usually regarded, due to its joyous and magnificent images, as the representation of heaven in Thai conception.

68 For an overview of various cosmological elements in Thai literature, see Sthirakoses, note 34 above.


sorrow at being separated from their beloved by referring to cosmological elements and

mythical figures; the background of the "Three Worlds" cosmology is required to

understand their lamentation. A good example can be found in a four-lined poem by Sri

Prat, a famous poet of the A yutthaya peri od. 69 In this poem, the poet laments that he cries

until his tears become a deluge that floods the world up to the heaven of brahma.70 All

beings are .drowned and even Mt. Sumeru is dissolved by his deluge of tears. If it were

not because of a brahma from the highest realm of heaven in the World of Form who

kindly helps him, he himself would also be drowned by his own tears. Without the

knowledge of the "Three Worlds" cosmology, the readers would not be able to

understand the intensity of his emotion and the vivid imagery that the poet tries to

convey. As depicted in the Traiphum, the process of the destruction of the universe is an

extending period of extreme turmoil. The universe will be destroyed by three factors:

First by fire, then by water, and finally by wind. After the destruction of fire, there will

be a deluge that floods the world up to the heavens of brahma. This deluge drowns all

beings, and destroys Mt. Sumeru, all heavens in the W orId of Desire, and even some

heavens in the World of Form. Only the highest seven realms of brahma in the World of

69 Sri Prat's birthdate is unknown but it is believed that he lived during the reign of King Narai (1656-1688). His father was a royal sage and Sri Prat first showed his poetic talents at the age of nine, when he completed an unfinished poem composed by King Narai. Therefore Sri Prat became one of King Narai's favorite sages. Unfortunately, his life was cut short by his sharp tongue and unreserved manners. For more details on Sri Prat, see P. Schweisguth, 114-18; and Manich Jumsai, History of Thai Literature (Bangkok: Chalermnit, 1992) 155-69.

70 Brahma are the divine beings in the World of Form and the World of Formlessness.

See note 3 above.


Form and the four realms of brahma in the W orld of Formlessness can survi ve this

destruction.I' In this regard, when the poet associates his tears to the deluge that destroys

the universe, he captures, within only four lines, the whole image of turmoil and

devastation of the universe, and artistically connotes the immense intensity of his sorrow.

Even for contemporary Thai literature, the knowledge of the Traiphum still helps

illuminate certain meanings that the modem poets and writers intend to convey. For

instance, in a poem called "A Poet's Pledge" by Angkam Kalayanaphong.f the

background of the Traiphum helps underline the distinction between the traditional

Theravada beliefs and the poet's unconventional world-view.f By pronouncing his

devotion to renounce nibbana in order to remain in samsara or "this cycle of birth and

rebirth," the poet reverses the Theravada values exemplified in the Traiphum. As

mentioned earlier, the Traiphum presents the image of the Three Worlds in order that the

readers would not hold on to their decepti ve appearances and aspire instead to nibbana.

The ultimate goal of the Traiphum therefore is to gain release from the Three Worlds or,

in other words, from samsara or the cycle of birth and rebirth. But as for the poet in "A

Poet's Pledge," he is not only willing to give up nibbana but also determines to remain in

the samsaric world as long as he can. As suggested by an image of "fossils," which

71 See note 58 above.

72 Angkarn Kalayanaphong (born 1926) is a leading contemporary Thai poet and artist.

He is famous for his bold imagery, his caustic social criticism, and his strong devotion to the supremacy of arts.

73 For an excerpt of this poem discussed here, see Appendix below.


implies a potential of crossing time, the poet expresses his strong desire to hold on to this

world in order to keep "eternal watch on [his] creation." For the poet, his poetry is not

simply a work of art. Rather, it is a work of art that "rid]s] mankind of sufferings"-the

role that the Traiphum reserves only for nibbana. The universe that the poet creates thus

appears as an act of renouncing the conventional Theravada values illustrated in the

Traiphum. While the Traiphum emphasizes the concept of non-self and maintains that

the universe exists by itself without any creator, the poet in "A Poet's Pledge" declares

.himself as a creator of "a new universe of the mind" where heaven is decorated, not with

gold and jewels as in the Traiphum, but with "the magic of poetry.,,74 In addition, while

the Traiphum emphasizes the merit in the sense of virtuous deeds outlined by moral and

religious principles, the poet defines his new version of merit by pronouncing that "merits

can thus be made through artistic creations." In this sense, although "A Poet's Pledge"

does not directly refer to the Traiphum, the Theravada belief manifested in the Traiphum

could be viewed as the foundation for the poet to build his own revolutionary universe.

74 The influence of Western ideas on Angkarn Kalayanaphong's poetry is also a subject of investigation for recent studies. See, for example, Chetana Nagavajara, "Art in Place of Nirvana: Western Aesthetics and the Poetry of Angkarn Kalayanaphong," Comparative Literature from a Thai Perspective: Collected Articles 1978-1992 (Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University Press, 1996) 213-28. Although I agree with Nagavajara that Kalayanaphong's poetry shows the influence of Western thought, his expression of renouncing nibbana in order to remain in this world to rid mankind of suffering seems to remind us of the role of a Bodhisattva in Mahayana tradition, who intentionally delays his or her attainment of nibbana in order to alleviate the suffering of other beings. Nonetheless, unlike the Bodhisattva who focuses on practicing Buddhist compassion, Kalayanaphongs "poet" expresses his compassion for mankind through his art.


Thus, as these examples reveal, the roles of the Traiphum in the development of

Thai literary and art history are evident. Whether directly or indirectly, the knowledge of

the Traiphum indisputably plays a significant part in the understanding of Thai literary

texts in

periods; even if those texts might represent the changing world-views that are

totally different from that of the Traiphum.

3. The State of Scholarship on TraiphumPhra Ruang

Although the Traiphum is the Thai classical literary text most known to the

Westerners, the study of the Traiphum by Western scholars is still limited both in the

number and in the scope of their studies. While some scholars treat the Traiphum as a

historical reference that helps reveal real conditions during the Sukhothai kingdom,"

several contest that notion by theirarguments concerning the authenticity of the text.

Michael Vickery is one of the leading scholars who argue that the version of the

Traiphum we have is probably not the writing of the Sukhothai period.i" According to

Vickery, the dates specified in the exordium and the colophon of the text could not be the

reliable sources for determining the date of the composition of the Traiphum. For, in

Vickery's view, both the exordium and the colophon of the Traiphum "were composed

considerably later than the Sukhothai period and by a scribe who had only a hazy

75 See George Coedes, "The Traibhumikatha: Buddhist Cosmology and Treaty on Ethics," East and West 7 (1957): 349'-52.

76 See Michael Vickery, "A Note on the Date of the Traibhumikatha," Journal of the Siam Society 62 (1974): 275-84; and "On Traibhumikatha," Journal of the Siam Society 79 (1991): 24-36.


conception of true Sukhothai history.,,77 Against the conventional belief of many Thai literary scholars, who hold that the archaic language in the Traiphum reflects the characteristics of language in the Sukhothai period," Vickery maintains that the Traiphum "exhibits language features which distinguish it from the 14th-century Sukhothai inscriptions, and which also distinguish some parts of [the Traiphum] itself from other parts, indicating that the entire text was not composed at the same time by a single person, or group of persons working together.,,79 Vickery therefore concludes that the current text we have is "probably" the writing during the reign of King Rama the First of the Ratanakosin period.t"

Although it is legitimate to maintain that the Traiphum contains some variations of vocabulary that can be attributed to the "generations of copyists" of the text as Vickery claims, to state that "the entire text was not composed at the same time by a single person, or group of persons working together" is certainly a proposition that needs further substantial investigation. In my view, despite having some variations in its vocabulary and linguistic style, the Traiphum, as this present study will explore in the following chapters, is still a very organized narrative in which details, including the minor ones, are orchestrated into a single unified. text. If we were to compare the narrative of the

77 Vickery, "A Note on the Date of the Traibhumikatha" 279. 78 Cf. note 34 above.

79 Vickery, "On Traibhumikatha;" 32. 80 Vickery, "On Traibhumikatha," 33.


Traiphum to that of Traiphum Lokavinicchayakatha, another "traiphum" text which is a

work of several compilers (see note 31 above), we would see the differences in the

narrative style between a unified "text" and a "book" compiled by several authors.

Vickery's proposition, however, is supported by Piriya Krairiksh, a Thai scholar,

who also believes that neither the Traiphum nor the Ramkhamhaeng inscription'" date

from the Sukhothai period.82 But unlike Vickery who suggests that the Traiphum was

composed during the reign of King Rama the First, Krairiksh ascribes the text to King

Rama the Fourth. Krairiksh begins his study by comparing the Traiphum to the

Ramkhamhaeng inscription and maintains that both texts contain sufficient similarity of

linguistic styles to assert that they are the writings of the same period. Then, by

comparing these two texts to Phaya Lithai' s inscriptions from the Sukhothai period,

Krairiksh uses the linguistic dissimilarity between these two groups to indicate that the

Traiphum and the Ramkharnhaeng inscription are not the writings of the Sukhothai period

as generally believed. After concluding that these two texts are not the products of the

Sukhothai period, Krairiksh then compares these two texts to certain passages from

81 The Rarnkharnhaeng inscription is a very significant piece of evidence for the study of the Sukhothai history. (See notes 13 and 14 above) Although it is stated to be inscribed in 1292 by King Ramkhamhaeng after he established the Thai script, the authenticity of the Rarnkhamhaeng inscription has been challenged by a number of modern Thai historians.

82 See Piriya Krairiksh, "Khau khid kiew kab traiphum phra ruang: Phrarajaniphon nai phramaha dhammaraja thi neung phraya lithai reu phrabatsomdej phrajomklao jaoyuhua (Some Considerations on Traiphum Phra Ruang: A Writing by King Dhammaraja the First or King Rama the Fourth"]," Thaikhadi suksa: Ruam botkwam thang wichakarn phua sadaeng muthitachit ajarn phan-ek ying khunNion Sanitwong na Ayudhaya (Thai Studies in Honor of Colonel Khun Nion Sanitwong na Ayudhaya], ed. Sunthari Asawai et al. (Bangkok: Amarin, 1990).


literary texts of the early Ratanakosin period, and uses the linguistic similarity among them to justify that they all are the writings of the same period. Since Krairiksh has already indicated, in his other studies, that King Rama the Fourth of Ratanakosin is the real author of the Ramkhamhaeng inscription, he thereby concludes that the linguistic similarity between the Traiphum and the Rarnkhamhaeng inscription attests that both texts share not only the same period but also the same author.

Although the way Krairiksh bases his investigation on the comparative studies of language makes his study appealing, his study is not substantial or conclusive enough to determine that King Rama the Fourth is the real author of the text. Instead of studying the entire text of the Traiphum, Krairiksh focuses only on certain phrases and passages of the text that support his argument. His strong belief in his presupposition tends to make him disregard other possibilities even when they are supported by his own findings. An example could be found when he compares the Traiphum and the Ramkhamhaeng inscription to Phaya Lithai' s inscriptions of the Sukhothai period. According to Krairiksh, the linguistic dissimilarity between the Traiphum and the Ramkhamhaeng inscription on the one hand and Phaya Lithai's inscriptions on the other hand asserts that the Traiphum and the Ramkhamhaeng inscription are not the writings of the Sukhothai period. But when the findings show that there are also some similarities among them, Krairiksh simply assumes that the author of the Traiphum and the Ramkhamhaeng inscription must have read Phaya Lithai's inscriptions and borrowed some passages from


these inscriptions to put into his texts.83 Krairiksh's standard therefore appears to be

inconsistent. While, in other instances, he uses linguistic similarity as an indication of

being in the same period, this time similarity simply suggests an act of imitating. Thus,

despite having an interesting approach, Krairiksh's study could not subvert the

conventional agreement regarding the author and the date of composition of the

Traiphum. Most scholars therefore are still convinced that the Traiphum was composed

by Phaya Lithai in 1345 C.E.

Despite being a very important text in Thai literary history, the critical study of the

literary aspects of the Traiphum is very rare. Instead, most of the studies concerning the

Traiphum exclusively explore the historical and political dimensions of this text. For

instance, in his article on the role of the Cakkavatti king, or the Universal Monarch, in the

Traiphum, Sombat Chandarawong limits his study only to the political implications of the

text. 84 In Chandarawong's view, the most significant part of the Traiphum is the realm of

human beings85 of which the account of the Cakkavatti king is presented as the center.i"

Although his discussion on the political significance of the Cakkavatti king is convincing,

Chandarawong, in my view, apparently misinterprets the focus of the text. By

83 Krairiksh, 225.

84 See Sombat Chandarawong, "Phraya jakraphadiraj nai traiphum phra ruang: Khau sangket bang prakarn kiew kab khwammai thang kammeung [The Universal Monarch in Traiphum Phra Ruang: Some Remarks on Its Political Implications]," Warasam prawattisat 4.1 (1979): 1-17.

85 See note 3 above.

86 Chandarawong, 9.


disregarding the chapter on Nibbana and considering the Traiphum as illustrating only an

account of the Three Worlds,87 Chandarawong leaves out the most important part of the

text.88 His conclusion that the Cakkavatti king is the focus of the Traiphum therefore is

based on an incomplete view of the text. It is true that the realm of human beings is the

longest section of the Traiphum. It is also true, as discussed earlier, that the role of the

Cakkavatti king has certain connections with the role PhayaLithai intended to assume.

Nevertheless, political significance is not the central meaning of the Traiphum nor is the

role of the Cakkavatti king the center of the text. If the Traiphum aims to promote the

highest position of kingship, the story of the Cakkavatti king would not be immediately

followed by the stories of Queen Asandhirnitta and Jotika.89 The fact that these three

stories are put in a series suggests that the point the author intended to underline is not the

highest position of king but the power of merit, which is the central theme shared by these

three stories. Phaya Lithai's main reasonof elaborating the realm of human beings

therefore is to remind the readers of their potential to control their kamma or, in other

words, to determine their "places" within the Three Worlds.

87 Chandarawong, 5.

88 The Traiphum is divided into eleven chapters of which Nibbana is the last chapter.

Although readers tend to see the Traiphum simply as an account of the Three W orlds and disregard the chapter on Nibbana, Nibbana is in fact the most important factor for a true understanding of the whole text. See more discussion of Nibbana in Chapter 4 below.

89 In my view, the stories of Queen Asandhimitta and Jotika are the stories that subvert the highest position of king. Both of them prove that ordinary people, like a woman or a merchant, can possess great merit as well. Still, like the section on Nibbana, these two stories are overshadowed by readers' focuses on the Cakkavatti king. See more discussion on this subject in Chapter 3 below.


But for the critics who see the Traiphum as a political discourse, kamma is viewed

as an instrument that the royal author employed to support his own status. Although it is

evident that the law of kamma helps justify kingship through the notion of merit, kingship

is not the center of the Traiphum but only an example that serves to illustrate the power

of merit. By focusing on kamma only in its relation to the royalty of the author, these

critics maintain that the author used kamma not only to promote his position but also to

convince people to accept their inferior status. According to Kanjana Kaewthep in her

analysis on fear in Thai society.f" the law of kamma benefits the ruling class in two

aspects. First, from the premise that a person's state of being is the result of his merit

performed in his previous lives, the law of kamma reduces the tension between classes by

providing an unarguable explanation for class distinction." Secondly, from the notion

that a person's deeds in this life can determine the rewards and the punishments he will

receive in his next life, the law of kammadirects people's behavior to conform to the

90 See Kanjana Kaewthep, "Botwikhraw 'kwam klua nai sangkhom Thai' duay thridsadee jitwithaya jitwikhraw lae sangkhom widthaya Marxism [An Analysis on "Fear in Thai society" Based on Psychological, Psychoanalytical, and Marxist Theories]," Sethasat karnmeung 2.2 (1982): 28-50.

91 Although Kaewthep as wen as several critics view kamma as the basis for class distinction, the Buddhist law of kamma was indeed developed to oppose the Brahmanic concept of social classes in India. Instead of confining men to a rigid class distinction, the Buddhist law of kamma emphasizes that a person possesses a power to control his own destiny. All men have equal opportunity to direct their places, whether to move upward or downward, within the Three Worlds. For more details on the differences between the Buddhist law of kamma and the Brahmanic tradition, see David J. Kalupahana, Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1975).


social disciplines designed by the ruling class.9:2 In Kaewthep's view, the purpose of

composing the Traiphum as well as the purpose of describing the images of heaven and

hell in the text are firmly based on political ground. While the image of heaven attracts

people with the prospect of rewards in exchange for their obedience, the image of hen

controls people by creating horrifying imagination, which, according to Kaewthep, is the

source of endless fear.93 With this premise, Kaewthep concludes that the Traiphum is the

foundation of the construction of fear in Thai society."

Thus, for a number of critics, the Traiphum represents a text that serves the ruling

class and promotes social inequality. Especially after Thailand's political upheaval in

1973, the leftists condemned the Traiphum as the text that represented a hindrance to the

development of the nation and demanded the text to be burned due to its "deluded

nature.,,95 Many interpretations of the Traiphum during this period therefore appear to

92 Kaewthep, 36-40.

93 Kaewthep, 41. Like other forms of ethics, the images of heaven and hen unquestionably relate to the concepts of control and discipline. But in contrast to Kaewthep's perspective, the horrors of hell in the Traiphum do not aim to control only the lower class but the ruling class alike. In addition, the Traiphmn is not the only text that portrays the image of hell. The similar horrific descriptions of hell could also be found in a number of Buddhist texts as parts of their ethical teachings. For more details on the Theravada and Mahayana descriptions of hell, see Akira Sadakata, Buddhist Cosmology: Philosophy and Origins, trans. Gaynor Sekimori (Tokyo: Kosei, 1997); and Daigan and Alicia Matsunaga, The Buddhist Concept of Hell (New York: Philosophical Library, 1972).

94 Kaewthep, 35.

95 Soren Ivarsson, "The Study of Traiphum Phra Ruang: Some Considerations," Thai Literary Traditions, ed. Manas Chitakasem (Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University Press, 1995) 67. For more details on the effects of the contemporary Thai social and political movements on the Traiphum, see Peter A. Jackson, "Re-Interpreting the Traiphum Phra Ruang: Political Functions of Buddhist Symbolism in Contemporary Thailand," Buddhist Trends in Southeast Asia, ed.


have been directed by the country's political and social movements. But even before

these contemporary movements, the Traiphum had been involved in a political discourse

since its first publication in 1912, when King Rama VI wrote an English article entitled

"Uttarakura: An Asiatic Wonderland" to ridicule the Thai "social reformers" in his

time.96 According to the Traiphum, Uttarakuru is an ideal land where people are all

beautiful.Iiappy, and equal. The wealth of this land is communally owned, and there is

no need to work nor to accumulate private property since the land yields everything that

one might need." By referring to Uttarakuru, the idealistic state in the Traiphum, King

Rama VI mocked the socialists that their desire for a perfect society was not an

innovative idea. Rather, the idea that they claimed to be "new" was in fact "as old as the

hills" for it had been mentioned since ancient times. Even an old text like the Traiphum

already contained an account of the idealistic state. Furthermore, since the Traiphum

specifies that Uttarakuru is a land situated apart from the land where human beings like

Trevor Ling, Social Issues in Southeast Asia (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1993) 64-100.

96 This article was first published in 1912 in a journal called Siam Observers and reprinted as a book in 1965. See Vajiravudh (King Rama VI of Thailand), "Uttarakuru: An Asiatic Wonderland," Uttarakuru (Bangkok: Maha Mongkut Rajavidhayalai, 1965).

97 See more details in Traiphum, 44-48/126-35, and Chapter 3 below. Since the image of Uttarakuru is similar to Thomas More's Utopia, there are also some comparative studies on this subject. See, for example, Chuan Petchkaew, "Lok haeng udomkhati nai traiphum phra ruang lae Utopia khong Thomas More [The Ideal Worlds in Traiphum Phra Ruang and Thomas More's Utopia]," Wicha 1.3 (1976): 81-87; and Sithdha Phinijphuwadol, "Naew khid ruam kiew kab sangkhom udomkhati nai traiphum phra ruang, Utopia, lae Tao tek keng [Common Themes of the Ideal Society in Traiphum Phra Ruang, Utopia, and Tao-Te-Ching]," Ramkhamhaeng University Journal 9.1 (n.d.): 12-47.


us live, Uttarakuru can be viewed as a kind of an imaginary land and its perfection simply

as an idealistic vision that does not really exist in the real world. King Rama VI therefore

contended that the socialists' attempt to create a perfect society was not only outdated but

also "arrant nonsense.,,98

Nonetheless, for some contemporary scholars, Uttarakuru becomes a topic that is

neither outdated nor nonsense. Rather, the notion of equality described in the account of

this land confirms that an ideal society in Buddhist perspective is in effect the society that

is fundamentally equal. As suggested by Chai-anan Samuthavanij in his study on the

concept of utopia in a Buddhist scripture called Agganna Sutta," the idealistic

description of Uttarakuru in the Traiphum corresponds to the original state of Buddhist

society described in this scripture. According to the Agganna Sutta, the original state of

society was equality and happiness. People did not need to accumulate private property

for everything was communally owned. There was no need for law nor government

because people lived in harmony. But when society evolved, discord among people

occurred and society needed to be administered by a ruler, a step that led not only to the

formation of State but also to the emergence of class distinction within society. In

98 Vajiravudh, 20.

99 See Chai-anan Samuthavanij, "Utopia nai phra sutra [The Concept of utopia in a Buddhist Scripture]," Aksornsart Pijam 2.8 (1975): 55-60. Agganna Sutta is a Buddhist scripture containing a discussion on the origin of society. For an English translation of this scripture, see Steven Collins, "The Discourse on What is Primary (Agganna Sutta)," Nirvana and Other Buddhist Felicities: Utopias of the Pali Imaginaire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 627-34. A similar account on the origin of society can also be found in the Traiphum. See Traiphum, 145-49/317-27. For further discussion on this subject, see Chapter 3 below.


Samuthavanij's view, the natural and ideal form of society therefore is the communal

state before the origin of government. 100 By being featured as a land of harmony and

equality, similar to the communal state described in the Agganna Sutta, Uttarakuru, in

this way, becomes a perfect model for Thai socialists' ideal society-a society which not

only corresponds to their socialist concepts but is also justified by Buddhism.

The socialist interpretation of Uttarakuru as an evidence supporting the notion that

Buddhism promotes the concept of communal society is contested by another group of

scholars who focus their attention instead on the formation of social administration.

Basing their discussion on the same scripture (i.e. Agganna Sutta) and the section on the

origin of the State in the Traiphum,lOl these critics maintain that democracy is indeed the

fundamental form of government that is truly justified by Buddhism. Since the first ruler,

as illustrated in these two texts, was elected by people in order to mediate their discord,

people were the group who had most power in society, and the ruler was merely a

position given by the popular consent. As suggested by the appellations of the king

described in the Traiphum, "the reason that he is called Great Elect is because it is the

people who appoint him to be their superior. The reason that he is called Khattiya is

because the people agree to have him divide the highland fields, the lowland fields, the

100 Samuthavanij, 56-58.

101 See more details in Chapter 3 below. For a comparative study on the origin of the State in the Traiphum and in other Buddhist texts, see Somkiat Wanthana, "Thrisdi kamnerd 10k, kamnerd sangkom lae kamnerd rath jak agganyasutra, traiphum phra ruang, traiphum lokavinicchayakatha [Theories of the Origin of the World, the Society, and the State from Agganna Sutta, Traiphum Phra Ruang, Traiphum Lokavinijchayakathai;" Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities 11.1 (1981): 99-115.


rice, and the water among them. The reason that he is caned [Raja] is because he pleases

the senses and the minds of the people." (148/324-25) Thus, for the critics who advocate

democracy, this section on the origin of the State supports their notion that a liberal and

democratic administration is in fact the form of government justified by Buddhism.

The studies of the Traiphum in the social and political arena therefore are very

diverse for the text has been interpreted to render justifications for conflicting social and

political ideologies, starting from being viewed as promoting absolute monarchy, class

distinction, acommunal idealistic society, to a democratic form of administration.

Although there have been attempts to shift the focus of studying the Traiphum to other

areas,102 social and political interpretations are still the dominant trends in studying this

text, and a critical study on the structure of the text as a whole have been practically

disregarded. The following discussion accordingly is an attempt, not to subvert the

validity of the previous studies of the Traiphum, but to offer a new way of interpreting

this text. By concentrating on the structure of the Traiphum as well as its textual strategy,

this present study will show that it would cause endless arguments to put the Traiphum in

any particular ideological framework. For, as the design of the whole text reveals, the

102 See, for example, Prungsri Valliphodom et al., eds., Saroob phon kam sammana reung traiphum phra ruang [Proceedings of the Symposium on Traiphum Phra Ruang J (Bangkok: The Department of Fine Arts, Ministry of Education, 1983). This symposium provided a discussion on various aspects of the Traiphum, including politics, ethics, religion, philosophy, and arts, but the primary emphasis was placed on the role of the Traiphum as a significant part of the Thai cultural heritage. As for a discussion of Buddhist teachings in the Traiphum and their influences on contemporary Thai society, see Phra Rajavaramuni, Traiphum phra ruang itthiphon tau sangkom thai [The Influence of Traiphum Phra Ruang upon Thai Society] (Bangkok: Seng Rung, 1983).


Traiphum is the text that is intrinsically self-subversive and defies any notion of framing and certitude.





As suggested by its title which literally means "Three Worlds," the Traiphum primarily concerns the structure of the universe from the Theravada perspective. Like many cosmographies, the image of the Buddhist universe as illustrated in the Traiphum is constructed by the notions of center and frame. Generally, these two notions are basically interconnected for a frame functions not only to mark the boundary of the inside but also to highlight the center. In the case of the Traiphum's cosmography, it is widely accepted that the universe is depicted as a clearly defined unit of which Mt. Sumeru is perceived as the center. But in this chapter, by shifting the focus to the Jambu continent and the Lokanta hell, two elements that constitute radical displacements in the Traiphum's cosmographical structure, I will subvert the traditional views of the traiphum universe and present instead a deconstructive interpretation. I With this interpretation, Mt, Sumeru will no longer be the center of the universe and the universe itself could no longer be perceived as a dearly defined unit or even a complete world system. Rather, as the effects of those displacements, the image of the traiphum universe becomes an

I When used in italic form.rhe word "traiphum" is intended as an adjective.


illustration of "the play of the structure'f in which the notions of center and frame as well

as the totality of the universe are all put in question.

1. The Image of the Traiphum Universe3

Cosmographically speaking, the Theravada universe or "cakkavala" is composed

of three.worlds situated one world above the other, starting from the World of Desire,

which is the lowest World, upward to the World of Form, and finally to the World of

Formlessness.4 Since the World of Form and the World of Formlessness are the aerial

planes located above the heavens in the World of Desire, the only part of the universe that

can be visualized is the World of Desire depicted in the form of the earth. Like many

ancient cosmologies, this earth is conceived not as a sphere but rather as a disk.5

2 This term is borrowed from Derrida. See more in the discussion below and Derrida's essay, "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," Writing and Difference, 278-93.

3 Most of the details on the image of the traiphum universe discussed here are derived from Chapter Nine of the text. See Traiphum, 124-139/271-304. It is necessary to keep in mind the discrepancy between word and concept that occurs in translation. Although the term "universe" is the closest translation of the Pali term "cakkavala," which is the term signifying the Buddhist cosmological system, both terms do not connote the same concept. Thus, whenever the word "universe" is used in referring to Buddhist cosmology in this study, it designates "cakkavala" and therefore is not equivalent to the concept of universe in the general sense of the term.

4 Perhaps it would be appropriate to remind the reader that the word "World" here is not meant to be visualized as a sphere but rather as a plane of existence. For the definition of each World including their subdivisions into various realms, see Figure 1 and Chapter 3.

5 The term "cakkavala" signifies a circle ("cakka" means a wheel or a circle). The circular shape of the universe also corresponds to the notion of samsara (the round of rebirth) which is the major characteristic of all the three Worlds within the traiphum universe.


Although the Traiphum does not provide any explanation regarding the elements that

support the earth, it is said in Pali scriptures that the earth is supported by an immensely

thick layer of water which is resting on a circle of wind that is floating in space." Thus, if

we do not consider the wind factor that supports the layer of water," the universe in the

Theravada view could be visualized as a cylinder filled with water and topped with a

thick disk. 8 (See Figure 5-6) With this image, the surface of the disk therefore represents

the lands of human beings whereas the space above it stands for Heaven and the thickness

of the disk suggests the subterranean space of Hell. (See Figure 7)

It should be noted here that although the Theravada believes in the existence of

multiple universes, these universes are an in exactly the same pattern. That is, from the

top view, each universe (cakkavala) is in the shape of a circle and has a great mountain

called Sumeru at its center. At the summit of this mountain is the city of Indra,

6 See Akira Sadakata, Buddhist Cosmology: Philosophy and Origins, trans. Gaynor Sekimori (Tokyo: Kosei, 1997) 25. Regarding the circle of wind that supports the water, some accounts mention that this wind is "solid and immovable to such an extent that it cannot be penetrated by diamonds." See more details in William Montgomery McGovern, A Manual of Buddhist Philosophy: Cosmology (1923; rpt. Lucknow, India: Oriental Reprinters, 1976) 50.

7 Although the Buddhist texts do not give any explanation regarding the presence of water in space, water is commonly considered in various cultures as a primal factor of life and the world. As one scholar puts it, water is "the primitive medium in the womb of which is fashioned everything that exists." Quoted in R. N. Dandekar, Universe in Hindu Thought (Bangalore: Bangalore University, 1972) 9-10.

8 According to Sadakata, the earth has the same diameter as the layer of water that supports it whereas the diameter of the circle of wind is much larger than both. See Sadakata, 25-27.


Mt. Sumeru (1)

Water (3)

Earth (2)

Wind (4)

Figure 5

A diagonal view of the universe (cakkavala) and the elements that sustain it. [Adapted from Akira Sadakata, Buddhist Cosmology: Philosophy and Origins, (Tokyo:

Kosei, 1997) 27.]


Mt. Sumeru (1)

Water (3)

Earth (2)

Wind (4)

Figure 6

A horizontal view of the universe (cakkavala) and the elements that sustain it 89

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