Somdet Toh

Somdet Toh (1788-1872; B.E. 2331-2415), known formally as 1 arahant 1Somdet Budhacariya (Toh Brahmaransi) was one of the most famous Buddhist monks during Thailand's Rattanakosin Period and a widely loved monk in nineteenth century Thailand.

He was, by some accounts, the son of King Rama I. He studied the Pāli Buddhist Canon with several Buddhist masters. After becoming a well-known monk, he became the preceptor for Prince Mongkut, later King Rama IV, when Prince Mongkut became a monk. It was during Rama IV's reign that Somdet Toh was given the ceremonial name Phra Budhacariya (Toh Brahmaransi). During this time, Somdet Toh was living in Wat Rakang Kositaram. He was noted for the skill of his preaching and his use of Thai poetry to reflect the beauty of Buddhism. After few years Phra Budhacariya Toh moved to Wat Bangkonporn.

A skilled meditator closely associated with the royal family, he was famous for many reasons, but his wide popularity rests on two things: Despite his rank, he was easily approachable to people on all levels of society; and he made amulets that — because of his meditative prowess — were reputed to be very powerful. He was also famous for his wisdom and wit. Since his death, in 1872, a cult has grown up around his memory, with many mediums throughout Thailand claiming to channel his spirit.

There are many stories concerning Somdet Toh. Below is a story on how Somdet Toh dealt with high-ranking lay people who would visit monasteries and waste the monks' time in idle conversation.

Somdet Toh ate his meals in a small open pavilion in front of his dwelling. If a stray dog wandered past, he would toss a little food to the dog — which meant that, over time, a whole pack of dogs would regularly come to sit around him at his meal time, waiting for food. This meant that if any high-ranking lay people wanted to come pay their respects and chat with him while he was eating, they'd have to bow down to the dogs as well. As a result, only the people who weren't too proud to bow down to the dogs got to talk to him duringsomdejtoh picture his mealtime.

Another story concerns a wealthy layman who wanted to invite Somdet Toh to his house for a meal and a Dhamma talk. Events like this would often be fairly public, with the donor inviting many friends and relatives to participate in the meal offering and to hear the talk. So the layman sent his servant to convey the invitation to Somdet Toh, saying that he wanted Somdet Toh to give a talk on a lofty topic, the four noble truths. Now, it so happened that the servant wasn't familiar with the term, "four noble truths" — which in Thai is ariyasat. To him, it sounded like naksat, or zodiac. So he told Somdet Toh that his master wanted to hear a Dhamma talk on the zodiac. The Somdet knew that this couldn't possibly be right, but the servant's mistake amused him, and he decided to use it as an opportunity to make a Dhamma point — and have a little fun at the same time.

When the day for the talk arrived, he went to the layman's house and, after the meal, got up on the sermon seat and began the talk by saying, "Today our esteemed host has invited me to deliver a Dhamma talk on the zodiac." He then proceeded to describe the twelve houses of the zodiac in a fair amount of detail. Meanwhile, the master was staring daggers at the servant. After finishing his description of the zodiac, the Somdet then added, "But, regardless of what house of the zodiac people are born into, they are all subject to suffering." With that, he switched to the four noble truths — and probably saved the servant's job. 

Please click here to access a reading on the Legends of Somdet Toh by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.