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Project Thailand

Honorary Degree for the King

The Degree of Doctor of Civil Law, Honoris Causa, was confered upon His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej on 21st February 2007.

The gracious acceptance by His Majesty of this Honour from the University of Durham took place in a special international Congregation held in the Chitlada Palace in Bangkok.

The Degree was confered by the former Vice-Chancellor, Sir Kenneth Calman. Other Durham staff present were Professor Joy Palmer-Cooper, serving as Public Orator, Professor David Cooper, Dr Douglas Halliday and our Academic Registrar, Ms Carolyn Fowler.

Honorary Graduand

Among many Westerners, the image persists of Buddhism as an other-worldly dispensation, focused not on the improvement of the human condition, but solely on the individual's escape from it. Many of the Buddha's discourses, however, contradict this perception, not least those on the 'Chakkavatti' monarch - the ruler who 'turns the wheel' of dhamma, of righteousness.

In such discourses, a king's duty to alleviate poverty, for example, and to protect, not only his people, but 'the beasts and birds', are articulated. History records many Buddhist monarchs who have 'turned the wheel' - most famously, perhaps, the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, whose rock and pillar edicts enjoin civil peace, kindness to both human beings and animals, and other beneficial practices. Striking examples, in more recent times, of allegiance to Buddhist ideals of kingship are provided by the Chakri dynasty which has reigned in Siam, later Thailand, since 1782. These ideals of a dhammaraja were attested to by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej - Rama IX of the Chakri dynasty - when, in his Coronation speech, he pledged to 'reign with righteousness for the benefit and happiness' of his people.

More than half a century has passed since those words were spoken, making His Majesty the longest reigning monarch in the world. This half century has been, both nationally and internationally, a turbulent one during which, as a constitutional monarch, His Majesty has been intimately engaged with affairs of state. Time magazine refers to his 'masterful stewardship' in the sphere of governance. Yet it is not only for this that he is, among all monarchs, the one most respected by his subjects, who describe him as 'the Light of Thailand'. He is also the most internationally honoured - by, for example, the first United Nations Human Development Lifetime Achievement Award. His Majesty has contributed in an extraordinarily extensive range of ways, outside of the sphere of his constitutional duties, to 'the benefit and happiness' of his people, and indeed of a wider world community.

It is perhaps invidious to select for special attention some - to the exclusion of others - of the myriad beneficial activities initiated and engaged in by His Majesty. There are, it is estimated, some 3,000 such 'Royal Projects'. Arguably, however, it is in the three broad areas of agriculture and environmental sustainability, healthcare, and education that the most influential of His Majesty's tireless contributions may be grouped. In the first of these areas, one thinks, for example, of the concept and practice of the 'Sufficiency Economy', of a key ingredient in that economy, the 'New Theory' of small-scale, sustainable crop management, and of reforestation programmes. In the second area, one thinks of His Majesty's campaigns to eradicate polio, tuberculosis and opium use, the marshalling of Royal Medical Teams to work in remote areas, and a programme for training village doctors and nurses. In the area of education, one might point to the establishment of new schools in hill-tribe regions and initiatives to promote distance learning.

In each of these and other areas, His Majesty's catalystic contribution has been marked by a combination of prescience, direct 'hands-on' involvement, and an astonishing attention to detail. His Majesty devised and championed projects for rain-making at a time when, for most people, that word still conjured up an image of a medieval superstition. Those 'living natural museums' - the Royal Development Study Centres - incorporated from their inception mechanisms for consultation, inter-disciplinary research, and the dissemination of knowledge that have since been copied across the world. Having set up such projects, His Majesty's policy has never been to simply wish them well. As footage of His Majesty, with backpack and a camera round his neck, and his insistence on scrutinizing the progress of the projects, indicate, his involvement has always been direct and personal. Nor has this involvement been confined to the wider dimensions of a project, for it has reached down to the level of fine detail. For example, the schemes he initiated for relieving traffic congestion in Bangkok and for distance learning saw him, respectively, designing overpasses and crossroads and working out the optimal, user-friendly positioning of computer screens on desks.

Like earlier members of the Chakri dynasty - who included a poet, a historian, and an astronomer - His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej is a man of great personal accomplishment and talent. Among much else, he is a gifted jazz musician and composer, a yachtsman, a photographer, a horticulturalist, and an author of two widely-read books, The Story of Tongdaeng and The Story of Mahajanaka. One might imagine that such activities are 'hobbies', engaged in by way of private relaxation from the calls of public duty. But in His Majesty's case, the personal and the public spheres are closely integrated. The two books just mentioned were intended to convey moral lessons - on the virtues of perseverance and gratitude to one's mother, for example - in a publicly accessible form, and they have eminently succeeded in doing so. His garden at the Chitralada Palace is not only a place of relaxation, but another 'living natural museum' in which scientific research is conducted. His Majesty's photographs have served to inform an urban audience of conditions of life in remote rural regions, and he has even managed to combine his musical composition with the development of computer programmes available for general use.

It is appropriate, indeed inevitable, to emphasise the range and diversity of His Majesty's initiatives, projects and activities: but it would be wrong to overlook the conviction that inspires and unites them all. His Majesty has often articulated his faith in the Buddhist dhamma, in whose principles and ideals he was first taught by Her Royal Highness The Princess Mother. This is faith, above all else, in a wisdom that inseparably combines knowledge or understanding and morally aware practice - 'knowledge with morality', as His Majesty calls it.

Throughout his activities, His Majesty has stressed this fusion: knowledge without appropriate moral practice is, as he put it, 'irrelevant, unproductive, and unwanted'. Thus the concept of the 'Sufficiency Economy' is more than that, merely, of certain economic arrangements: for it is the concept, too, of a community of human beings whose work brings with it both self-respect and regard for others, care for both animals and nature, and a sense of independence and integrity. You don't give fish to people, His Majesty remarked, you give them the tools with which to fish.

In the area of healthcare, his concern has been as much with the mental, moral and spiritual well-being of human beings as with the physical health that is a precondition of this. In the area of education, this 'Teacher of the Land', as he has been called, has consistently emphasised the importance of moral training. Those - to cite from a speech of his - who employ only their 'academic knowledge, without moral knowledge, cannot be considered persons of wisdom', cannot be considered 'educated'.

So it is indeed faith in dhamma - in the wisdom which fuses knowledge and practice - that unites, informs and grounds His Majesty's achievements - from his economic policies to his authorship of stories, from his educational reforms to his innovations in agriculture.

In one of the Buddha's best known discourses, which His Majesty must have learnt of as a boy, he tells Sigalaka that a layman should be 'wise and disciplined, kindly and intelligent, humble and free from pride ... scorning sloth, unshaken by adversity ... a guide, philosopher and friend ... Such a one may honour gain. Giving gifts and kindly speech, a life well-spent for others' good, even-handed ... impartial ... These things make the world go around'.

These injunctions were addressed to a householder, an ordinary citizen, but they could just as well have been addressed to a king. They are most certainly injunctions that, to the 'benefit and happiness' of his people, and to the inspiration of people everywhere, have been fully heeded and acted upon by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

His Majesty has, throughout his gloriously long and successful reign, during which so very much has been achieved, acted with wisdom and tireless effort in his devotion to his duty, his people and his country.