THE KING NEVER SMILES: A BIOGRAPHY OF THAILAND’S BHUMIBOL ADULYADEJ PAUL M. HANDLEY New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006 512 pp.; $38.00 (cloth)
KING BHUMIBOL ADULYADEJ of Thailand is the only king of any nation ever to be born in the continental United States. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1927 while his father attended Harvard Medical School, he ascended the throne unexpectedly in 1946, following the mysterious death of his older brother, King Ananda Mahidol, found shot dead one morning in Bangkok’s Grand Palace. King Bhumibol is the grandson of the great Chulalongkorn, the much beloved Thai ruler best known in the West as the Crown Prince in the musical The King and I. Currently the world’s longest-ruling monarch, Bhumibol’s unsmiling photograph is framed in millions of homes and businesses throughout his kingdom and proudly displayed in Thai restaurants across the globe.
Paul Handley’s detailed account of Bhumibol’s early life and sixty-year reign, serves as a valuable modern history of Thailand, and as such it fills a persistent gap. The old standard, David K. Wyatt’s Thailand: A Short History (also published by Yale), covers at least a thousand years more ground, but is much weaker on the turbulent twentieth century. Handley, a journalist who lived in Thailand for many years, is both blessed and cursed to publish his work when the country is in the world news, and his biography takes us all the way through Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s resignation a few months ago.
Many Western Buddhists know Thailand either from visiting as students or as tourists, or through celebrated American dharma teachers like Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, who trained in Thai temples. But the political history of the Buddhist kingdom has often gotten lost, rarely commanding our attention as much as that of nearby Vietnam, Cambodia, or Burma. Having avoided colonization by the European powers and at most a bit player in the Cold War, Thailand has been largely neglected in the West by both academics and reporters. Handley’s book depicts the tumultuous political drama behind Thailand’s tranquil surface of meditating monks and smiling hostesses, showing us the many military coups and abandoned constitutions, the social struggles and foreign entanglements, the financial corruption and environmental degradation, and throughout it all, the central role of the king in shaping the country’s past and future.
Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932, with the king having only limited formal power. Handley acknowledges what every visitor to Thailand knows, that “Bhumibol is deeply adored, often to the point of worship, by the Thai people.” But although the king has made many lasting contributions to his country, Handley also shows how at times Bhumibol has seemed to acquiesce to authoritarian rule in Thailand, discarding elected government as if “civil law and the secular authority behind it are temporary, unprincipled, and indiscriminate.” Many in the West will remember the years that the “iconoclastic intellectual” and Buddhist social activist Sulak Sivaraksa spent in exile here, accused of lese-majeste for insulting the monarchy (among other things, he referred to the yacht-loving king as “the skipper”). Although the king has at least twice pushed military dictators to resign, both times it was after seemingly avoidable bloodshed.
The vast majority of Thais are Buddhist, and the king himself is a former monk who by all accounts remains a devout practitioner. Theistic religions like Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Shinto have served to justify monarchy in the past, but Buddhism, with its agnostic creed and anti-caste origin, seems an unlikely candidate to defend divine rule. There is some scriptural support for the concept of dhammaraja, what Handley describes as “the selfless king who rules by the Buddhist code,” but it is thin. The core Buddhist doctrine of no-self is difficult to square with hereditary sovereigns, requiring the convenient explanation that “high birth in royal circumstances is proof of great karma and merit accumulated in earlier lives.” If we instead believe that we are all incipient buddhas, each inherently capable of finding enlightenment in this life, then none of us has a natural right to rule.
Handley’s book explores these contradictions inherent in the quest for a “modern Buddhist theocratic state.” He is particularly strong in describing the major political crises in Thailand, and his detailed description of the massacre of protesting students on October 6, 1976, and the “horrifying carnage” that ensued is the best available in English. Probably in part for this reason, The King Never Smiles has been banned in Thailand. There is, of course, a certain irony in using government censorship against an author who accuses the king of being undemocratic, and press reports in February that the Thai government had blocked access to the Yale University Press website will likely win further support for Handley’s central thesis. There are a few places where Handley seems gratuitously critical—was it necessary to call the Crown Prince’s first wife “plain, dull, timid, and not well-educated or hugely intelligent”?—but while such insolence may be un-Buddhist, it is not a crime in most democracies.
To be fair, it should not be surprising that King Bhumibol Adulyadej may not be a deep believer in democracy and constitutionalism; America’s current head of state doesn’t seem to be one either. Both philosophies are much more radical and much less self-evident than we sometimes pretend. The idea that we should—or even can—be governed by mere popular vote is profoundly counterintuitive, and flies in the face of the everyday experience of anybody who has tried to choose a movie with a group of friends. In our heart of hearts, most of us probably believe we could do better ourselves.
And yet, as Handley helps us to see in his carefully researched account of Bhumibol’s eventful life and reign, we are almost certainly wrong. This fascinating history of a land that has given so much to Buddhism shows the now semiretired king to be “earnest, hardworking, [and] gentle, with an impeccably simple lifestyle,” but also human. Perhaps a lesson the American sangha can offer to our dharma ancestors of Thailand is that even our most enlightened teachers are imperfect.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.