KING NARAI HOLDS COURT
Outpoints the Ambassador
Outside the Palace Audience Hall, General Phetracha and several of his officers waited nervously to see King Narai. They had urgent matters to discuss with His Majesty. Also waiting to see the king were Phaulkon, the French Ambassador Chaumont and Bishop Laneau. The general was not pleased when Phaulkon and the two foreigners were ushered into the Audience Hall before him.
That morning Phaulkon had been taken by surprise when King Narai announced that he agreed to enter into religious discussions with the French ambassador. It was completely unexpected. Before they had entered the hall, Chaumont made it known to Bishop Laneau that he was there to translate into French and nothing more. He was not to enter into religious discussions with the king, and that he, the ambassador, would be the one to conduct the discussions, and he alone. When they entered the hall, jubilant Chaumont bowed deeper than usual and Phaulkon and Bishop Laneau prostrated themselves before His Majesty.
Chaumont thanked the king for the privilege granted him. The king asked that he not be too quick with his thanks as he had granted the ambassador an audience not in the interest of their religion-he emphasized “their religion”-but he granted the audience simply because he needed questions answered.
“I will be most honored to answer any questions you may have,” Chaumont replied wholeheartedly. But at this time he had no idea what the king had in mind.
The king opened the talk-we have to call it a talk and not a discussion-by instructing Chaumont on the teachings of Buddha-do not kill, do not steal, do not take advantage of the poor, how to be a good person, and so on. He asked the ambassador if this was any different than the teachings of the Catholic faith. The king continued, saying he believed in a god of heaven and earth, and asked Chaumont if he believed the same. Chaumont had to acknowledge that he too believed in a god of heaven and earth.
“Thus agreed,” King Narai said, “there is but one God who created heaven and earth. My people and I make offerings to Buddha and other divine humans like Buddha. Similarly the Catholics believe in one true God but they also make offerings to the Virgin Mary and other Saints. Is this not true?” Again Chaumont had to agree. “You go to your church to worship and I go to my temple,” he continued. “You have priests who give you divine guidance and I have monks who do the same for me. Am I right?” Chaumont nodded. “Your priests wear vestments and my monks wear robes.”
Chaumont and Laneau were uncomfortable but they could not interrupt.
“In your Church,” the king said, “you use candles and incense and rosary beads in your rituals, and so does my temple use candles and incense and beads. In your Church, I was told, priests speak in Latin, a language that is no longer understood by the common people, and in my temple monks chant in Pali, a language even a king does not understand. In your Church you are required to give money for alms to the poor and for the upkeep of the Church, and so do my temples require the same.
“I do not see any difference between the two religions except that the people who go to your Church have white skin and the people who go to my temples are of different skin. Am I speaking the truth?” He didn’t wait for Chaumont to reply. “Ah, I do see one difference.” Chaumont’s face lit up but not for long. “My monks shave their whole head, while your priests only shave a part of their heads.” Chaumont did not find his comment as humorous as did Phaulkon.
The king now directed his question to Phaulkon and Laneau, both of whom he had known for a number of years. “Have I been lacking in anything that would hinder my reputation as a fair and just king?” They replied that they knew of nothing that would. “Have I not been a kind and generous man, independent from my crown.” They answered yes. ”According to the Christian standard of what is good and bad, have I not proven to be a good king?” They could not object, for King Narai was loved by his people.
A servant on hands and knees appeared at the door to the chambers, interrupting the talk. King Narai motioned for him to come forth. He whispered something to the King and quietly vanished.
“I regret,” King Narai said to the three visitors, “but my general, being an impatient man, is waiting, so let me conclude and ask why is there a need to convert me? If the religion of my ancestors has taught me in all wisdom right from wrong, and even you yourselves approve and confirm that I have done well and am as good a king as I am a man, why then do you ask me to change when both religions, yours and mine, are so much alike?”
There followed silence. This was not what Chaumont had expected, a lecture on the similarities of Buddhism and Christianity. No, Chaumont was obviously upset and began to speak, but the king raised his hand. “You need not answer now.” Again Chaumont attempted to speak, but in a firm voice the king said, “We will continue this discussion another time.” He instructed them to leave and called for General Phetracha and his men to enter. The king saw anger in Phetracha’s eyes as the foreigners passed by him. If looks could ignite fire, his would certainly have created a conflagration. Even Phaulkon who was generally courteous avoided eye contact with the general.
The Xenophobic General
Phetracha lost no time expressing his complaint against Phaulkon. He had a new complaint hoping this would help fortify his case. He told the king that Phaulkon had disrespected the holy temple and the monks. Phaulkon had ordered the monks to do manual labor like common people. Phetracha reminded the king that this is reprehensible and Phaulkon should be punished.
The king gave his word he would look into the situation with utmost urgency. When Phetracha asked what the meeting with the French ambassador was about, the king told him they were simply discussing matters of the soul and that it had nothing to do with Siam. “I am merely entertaining these foreigners, giving them a sense of importance for the sake of the royal friendship between the two kingdoms,” he said, attempting to explain but without success.
The king sensed he had not appeased the general and this annoyed him very much. He told Phetracha, blatantly, not to take him to be a fool. “Let me ask you, have we not been friends since we were boys?” He did not want an answer and continued before Phetracha could respond. “Have we not fought battles side by side, and drank and sung together? Then why suddenly after all these years do you not have confidence in me, your king? Why do you harbor such vicious anger and dire hatred against foreigners? Can you not see the good they are doing? Can you not see that we have to accept and apply Western knowledge or lose ourselves in this changing world? Tell me how, any of you, my general, my court ministers are aware but my friendship with France is preventing Siam from being annexed as a colony at a time when the Western powers are establishing themselves in Asia.”
In kinder words he explained to Phetracha that he, as a king of an eastern kingdom, was highly honored by a Western embassy paying him respect, and that Siam was the first kingdom in the East to which such an honor had been accorded. “Other countries are being forced to yield territory and grant privileges to Western conquerors while I am treated as an equal by one of the greatest kings in Europe, and he has also invited us to send our own ambassador to France. So is not a little cajoling well worth the effort?”
Phetracha and his men departed, but Phetracha was still not satisfied with the king’s explanation. He instructed his men to keep watch on Phaulkon and to check every move that the French embassy made.
Phaulkon invited Bishop Laneau, the ambassador and his envoy to his home in Louvo for dinner and further discussions. A heated debate erupted between Phaulkon and the French. Chaumont complained vehemently that the king did not give him a chance to speak. “What could you have said?” Laneau asked. “He knows what he is talking about. We all agreed to what he said. Even if we review all his questions now, I can’t seem to find any reason to change him. I would have to agree. I know it is wrong to think so but the king spoke the truth.”
“Have you all gone insane?” Chaumont shouted, clutching a brandy glass in his hand and waving about, spilling most of it. “This whole kingdom is under the influence of the devil and I can see the devil is getting hold of you too!” He ordered Abbe de Choisy to pour him another drink, which Abbe did willingly. Chaumont continued. “What I heard from the king gives me more reason to believe that this kingdom must be converted to Christianity down to the last man, woman and child. In the meantime I propose all Christians leave this kingdom immediately before they all turn into pagans. How dare he compare the Catholic Church to their pagan ways!”
Phaulkon could feel that all his efforts were sliding down deep into a chasm from which they might never recover. The fact was that he was pleased with the king’s intellectual victory over Chaumont, but he realized now he must placate Chaumont with more promises for the sake of Siam. He could not afford to lose Chaumont’s trust in him. He needed Chaumont to report only good news from Siam to the King of France. He was aware that the security of Siam rested in his hands, and he knew only France could help keep Siam free by keeping the Dutch and the British at bay. Indeed, he had to appease Chaumont. He had to convince the ambassador that the mission of converting King Narai would be carried out.
With all his whim and wit, Phaulkon succeeded in cajoling Chaumont into believing that by King Narai gathering information and attempting to compare his faith and the Catholic faith was a good sign. He emphasized that the king must have been studying both religions, a sure indication that he was interested. This was a step forward. Phaulkon encouragingly suggested, “Now we just have to bait him with something deeper than the similarities of both religions. We must come up with something the Catholic faith has that the Buddhists do not have.” “And what could that be?” asked the ambassador. Bishop Laneau was as perplexed as the ambassador. What did Phaulkon have up his sleeve? But before Phaulkon could answer, Diego came to the dinner table and whispered that an emergency had arisen. A visitor was waiting outside to see him. Phaulkon excused himself, asked Marie to entertain his guests and left the dining hall.