Thai Bodhisattva-King Bhumibol Dead at 88

October 14, 2016
King Bhumibol of Thailand

Yesterday, after years of battling health problems, king of Thailand Bhumibol Adulyadej passed away.

The king, 88, was the world’s longest-reigning monarch, having been crowned 70 years ago at the age of 18.

Throngs of Thai citizens held vigil outside the Bangkok hospital where the monarch had been receiving care. Clad in pink for good health and yellow—the royal color—in honor of the king, mourners wept, sang, and “shouted with an almost visceral desperation,” BBC News reported.

For most Thais, King Bhumibol is the only monarch they have ever known. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1927, Bhumibol was a deeply beloved figure in Thailand. A jazz enthusiast and saxophonist, the king used to broadcast foreign records from a radio studio in his palace. When Bhumibol wrote a book about his adopted dog Tongdaeng in 2002 urging his citizens to adopt local pets instead of purchasing foreign breeds, Tongdaeng became an instant Thai celebrity.

More than simply being adored for his quirks, however, Bhumibol was regarded by many Thais as a bodhisattva, or a fully enlightened Buddha who delays his ascent to nirvana for the good of the people he teaches. He is thus seen as partially divine, and his long reign as a unifying figure in the nation contributed to many citizens’ devotion to him as a Buddhist leader.

Bhumibol entered Buddhist monkhood for a two-week period in 1956 following the death of his grandmother. For many Southeast Asians, monkhood is not seen as a lifelong calling, but rather as a step toward maturity and adulthood. After Bhumibol’s brief stretch of monkhood, he stressed the Buddhist principles of moderation and simplicity to his subjects.

While many Thais seemed to venerate the king of their own volition, reverence for the monarchy is written into the Thai constitution in the form of lèse-majesté laws, which threaten citizens with up to 15 years in prison for speaking ill of the nation’s rulers.

Following the king’s death, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has asked citizens to forego any entertainment functions or revelry for one month. Many bars have also closed down for a period of mourning. Bhumibol’s body will be draped in finery and prayed over with incense by Brahmin priests and Buddhist monks in Bangkok’s Grand Palace, Time reported.

Bhumibol’s 64-year-old son Crown Prince Maja Vajiralongkorn is slated to take the throne. Many Thais fear that the crown prince, who is a lesser-known figure in Thailand due to his extended time spent abroad, will not be capable of smoothing over conflict in the way that his father—who witnessed 12 coups during the course of his reign—was able to do.

“How will Thailand live without you, father?” one mourner cried outside the hospital Thursday.

“The king is in the heart of the Thai people,” said 62-year-old Thai citizen Akarawat Teera-areeyawikul. “I’ve lived long enough. I’ve lost before. But I’ve never lost my king.”

--by Caroline Matas

Image Source: King Bhumibol. Photo by Soham Banerjee, Flickr Creative Commons.