Thai Literary Trends: From Seni Saowaphong to Chart Kobjitti

Hiramatsu Hideki

This essay is a study of two novels, Seni Saowaphong’s Pheesart (Ghosts) and Chart Korbjitti’s Khamphiphaksa (The Judgement). Both masterpieces represent the pinnacle of what is valued as belles lettres in Thai literature. But because they also straddle the so-called “student revolution of 1973” an important turning point in modern Thai history (Seni’s work appeared before 1973, and Chart’s after 1973 1), these two writings become all the more significant. Ghosts’ theme of “freedom from Karma” signifies the confrontation and separation from a popularized Buddhist outlook of being content with one’s destiny and being resigned to karma. Instead, Seni’s novel wants readers to actively try to understand the fundamental meaning of karma as a way of seizing the opportunity to alter their destinies. The Judgement, on the other hand, is a Sartrean inquiry into the nature of self-deceit and human existence, and a critique of Thai people’s tendency to view suffering as the outcome of karma or as karma itself. The novel also expresses skepticism towards other Buddhist practices, beginning with the practice of giving contributions to temples (tambun).The most important highlight of this novel, however, is its seeking of “exit” from a secular world (Lokiya) to the world of Buddhist Dharma (Lokuttara), and here Chart examines the Thai value system between Buddhist priesthood and layman.

In this essay, I attempt to determine the process by which some writers of modern Thai literature become aware of their society. Their writings may reflect different ideological and cultural backgrounds but what is notable about them is the keen attentiveness they devote towards the problems of society. Their constant dismay over political and social instability has made their social imageries more vivid than many of us from the outside could ever imagine. Modern Thai literature shares this characteristic with literary works in the region of Southeast Asia, which one author describes as essentially “littérature engagée.” 2 The roots of this kind of literature lie in these writers’ view of the past, beginning with the problems brought about by colonialism. And while Thailand was able to avoid colonization, it shares many of the social problems the former colonies face. This explains why Thai literature, according to Nitaya Misavisut, chairman of the Thai Pen Club, remains committed to issues like social justice and why Thai writers regard their literary duty as delivering a consistent social message that does not retreat even in times of political turmoil. 3 Although Thailand has yet to produce a Tolstoy, Turgenev, Ba Jin, or Balzac, a Gorky or Lu Xun, its writers cannot be ignored in the political arena. 4

If this is how modern Thai literature may be understood, the next question to ask is how did this unfold? To answer this question, I turn to Seni Saowaphong and his novel Ghosts.

Seni Saowaphong’s Ghosts and the Emancipation from Karma

Literary Historical Background

Seni Saowaphong (เสนีย์ เสาวพงษ, 1918-), who at one time served as the ambassador to Burma, attained the status of foremost belletrist in modern Thai literary history after writing his masterpiece Pheesart (ปีศาจ). 5 To commemorate Seni’s 84th birthday, a symposium was organized by the newspaper Matichon, where Dr. Treeshin Bunkachorn of Chulalongkon University discussed how the author influenced Thailand through his literature and how his works have changed the way Thai novels are written. Participants in that forum also pointed out that Seni’s writings do not simply address issues specific to Thailand but to the broader humanity as well; it is as if he could foresee the future through his literary works. 6

To better understand the significance of Seni’s writings here, we must first look back to the rise of the “art for life” movement (วรรณกรรมเพื่อชีวิต) in modern Thai literature. This movement addressed issues like oppression, popular history, and politics, and one of its stalwarts was Seni whose lectures at Thammasat University in 1952 expressed his support for the movement. His essay “Writings and Society” (การประพันธ์กัปสังคม) 7 underscored the obligation of writers towards society, while in another essay, “Romanticism and Realism” (อัตถนิยมแลจินตนิยม) 8, he openly pointed out the value of literary realism. These views were summed up by Banchon Banchurtoshin, a prominent literary critic of the same period:

For what purpose can the beauty of the moon serve us when people are dying from starvation? The obligation of an artist lies in looking straight at distressing spectacles. 9

The movement became an immense influence on literary developments before and after the student revolution of 1973. Many of the so-called new generation (Lun Mai) writers and critics who emerged before and after the student revolution devotedly followed the advice of writers like Seni. When critic Wittayarcorn Chernkurn, a representative of Run Mai at that time, described “writers who do not have any sense of responsibility towards the society” as “poisoning their readers” and who could be “compared to merchants who live only for profit and do not take responsibility of their own commodity,” he clearly echoed the social criticisms of Seni. 10 For Surak Shiwarak, although not a scholar of literature but famous in other kinds of cultural activities, the responsibility of writers towards society could be compared to a father’s responsibility towards his family. 11 Chitto Pumisakk’s famous legacy “art for life, art for the people” also carries imprints of Seni’s works. 12

Satien Chantimartorn summarizes Seni’s literary historical role as:

…pioneer of the art for life of the society’s weakest who fought against unjust, undemocratic and unscientific thinking of the old society. 13

… vanguard who led the way to laying the foundation of the placing in history the perspective of the ordinary people and having a profoundly great influence on the thought and society before and after the 1973 Student Revolution. 14

Literary Characteristics of Ghosts

Ghosts first appeared in the magazine Sayarmsamai สยามสมัย (1953-4) and was later published by Kubienton publications เกวียนทอง (1957). The story begins with the encounter of Sai Seema, a young lawyer from a farming village, and Ratchanee, the daughter of an aristocratic family, and it soon evolves into a conflict of values between the new generation and the old society as represented by the parents of Ratchanee. The story ends with a scene whereupon entering the farming village under the dawning sky, Sai and Rachenee show their determination to serve the downtrodden people as part of their future.

Ghosts did not have much impact initially, but its republication by Mittnarar Publications in 1971 coincided with the apex of the democratic movement. From that time on its reputation as the greatest literary work in the history of Thai modern literature became established. To critic Wittayacorn Churnkurn:

[quote]This novel is indeed a great leap for a small country like Thailand that only creates tales of romance between princesses and princes, melodramatic stories and the like. 15 [/quote]

Satien Chantimartorn, another radical literary critic, commented that “it has become like a bible for the new generation writers (Run Mai) who are seriously delivering work,” 16 while Treeshin Bunkachorn underlined the revolutionary nature of the concept “Literature for Life” and pointed out how in terms of content and technique, it nearly attained perfection. 17 Never before had a novel about the socially weak elicited this high level of sympathy. Not everyone favorably evaluated Ghosts, of course: it was also described as “a leftist literature wanting of artistic creativity” and attacked as “more than a literary composition [and] more of a propaganda of a socialist ideology.” 18 But these criticisms were not strong enough to offset Ghosts’ positive reception in the 1970s.

“Ghost” as Symbol

The hero is a young and very idealistic lawyer from a farming village. While he was blessed with a chance of becoming a lawyer in the big city, his spiritual home remained anchored in the farming village. This feeling comes from taking the side of the socially oppressed at all times, especially the farmers who suffered from dire poverty. The hero is thus not interested in becoming another lawyer in the big city; he aims for an ideal with social meaning.

The story is sustained by the hero’s beautiful oratorical style that is spiced up with occasional anecdotes. The beauty of the narrative passages indicates that Seni was strongly influenced by the Indian classic Hitopadeśa. 19 While earlier works like Wanlayas Love (ความรักของวัลยา) showed a conversational storyline, in Ghosts he skillfully blended the hero’s beautiful oratory with the language of advocacy, thus highlighting in the reader’s mind the image of a youth burning with ideals for the future and breaking away from the old society.

The heroine Ratchanee, on the other hand, was raised in a family environment representing the values of the old society. Her wealth endows her with the opportunity to be educated and to “fence oneself off strongly” (p. 11). 20 Nevertheless, she keeps advancing towards emotional independence and breaking free from her chains, and the encounter with Sai testifies to her character’s transformational growth. We can see a fabric being woven between this relationship (the warp) and the idealism of Ratchanee’s best friend Kingthian and their young “new generation” friends (the weft).

Despite the shift to a democratic form of government after the constitutional revolution of 1932, the social reality informing this story is that of a privileged social class that still wields control over the rest of the people. The most affected are the nameless farmers who comprise the majority of the society. Seni’s heroes, starting with Sai, confront this enormous burden and fare exceptionally well at preserving their commitment without ever despairing at the situation or simply dreaming about an “appropriate” alternative. These heroes bore the ideals of Seinee on their shoulders, and took the first step towards creating a future that would be the opposite of the  seemingly stagnant present.

Sai and Ratchanee agree that “human poverty is the foremost problem that is really worth solving;” however, Ratchanee goes further, saying it is “a problem that cannot be solved with sympathy and good intent alone” (p.183). For her, it is important not just to talk about this problem but to act towards realizing “an appropriate, beautiful world that we can live in” (p. 184). Her views are shared by Kingthian’s friend Nikhom, who likens the need to act as that of “the rough wilderness [which] requires the cultivator more than the soil” before the beauty of the land is achieved (p. 63).

Society therefore has to change – an idea that resonates through the novel like a basso continuo. Or viewed from another perspective, society is always changing and no one can stop the tide. Human beings have to yield to the changing times and recognize that old things will rot while new things sprout. This principle holds true for the constitution of the society as well. Outdated social characteristics will disappear, and new values will replace them. Sani inserts the song Ramtat (The Negotiation Song) into the text (p. 107) to serve as a symbol of his advocacy for “the changes of time,” and as admonition for the “people who are living in this changing world as we know it today” (p. 52) that “this era is passing by like lightning bolt” (p. 162). At that time, those who adhere to the old values become a threat to the values of the new era. It is as if like a “ghost,” the changes that accompany the values of the new era serve to drive away the old era. Constant social change is at the center of Seni’s ideas.

Schart Sawasshi, who has edited several prominent literary magazines, points out that “Sai Seema is the representation of the new generation who challenges the old society.” He is a person who stands “at the side of justice for the people who are exploited and rejects personal favors.” For Schart, “the conflict between Sai and Ratchanee’s father represents the changes in emotional and social aspects brought about by the Constitutional Revolution of 1932.” 21

Ratchanee’s father and the secularized former monk Juan represent the citizens of the old world who refuse to open their eyes to the new society and who stick obstinately to the values of the old world until the very end. They are confused and frightened by the “ghosts” whom they fear as representing a system that “has given too much right to freedom to women” (p. 9), thus threatening the traditional gender relations that have been a hallmark of the old society. “This goddamn ghost does not allow me to sleep,” Ratchanee’s father complains, adding that “Because of this terrible ghost, every night I get perplexed ” (pp. 220-21).

Juan, who was a venerable monk in a position to protect Sai when he was a boy, now lives with a rich widow who asked him to return to secular life. When Juan requests Sai to take care of a lawsuit he filed against a group of protesting farmers, Sai must decide whether to accept the request (based on his personal obligations to Juan) or to decline it (in the name of universal justice). Although social conventions at the time assumed it natural to favor personal obligation over principles, Sai chooses the latter. In an age when profits are amassed through suppression and power, Sai shows his determination to side with justice (p. 242). For Juan, Sai becomes another “ghost” to be detested: “This spiteful spirit is an ingrate (agatanyuu). He has received my protection but it seems I have warmed a snake in my bosom” (p. 136). Juan continues: “Sai is a person with idealist ambitions, not unlike the Royal Prince Weetsandon (Vessantara) who spends his time compiling his virtuous conducts.” For a former priest like Juan who has turned into a snobbish bourgeois, this comparison is very vivid. If the father of Ratchanee is an advocate of the old society, Juan can be considered a parasite of the old society.

But is it also possible that Sai, through his self-sacrifice, can be considered a modern Weetsandon? By sticking to his idealist principles, Sai blends with the ghosts of farmers who fought Japanese troops during the war. This is a point that the author appears to highlight. By linking the struggle of the farmers in the past with his own struggle in support of the farmers Juan tries to sue, Sai has become a modern ghost who fights against present-day internal enemies. This “overlapping” of ghosts is an important literary strength of the novel.

As Trishin pointed out, the significance of Ghosts in the history of modern Thai literature is that as a novel that depicts agrarian problems, it has been called a novel of the common people, one that aims to deepen responsibility for and awareness of social issues. The comprehensive and symbolic manner in which Seni approached the issue was also a first in terms of technique. 22

Confrontation with Sakdhina Society

Ghosts highlights two issues from whence conflict has emerged. First there is the opposition between the advocate (or parasite) of Sakdhina society – i.e, the remnant of the feudalistic social system – and the “ghost” as typified by Sai and Ratchanee. The father of Ratchanee, a Sakdhina aristocrat, is accustomed to uttering elitist remarks like, “Whose child are you?” (p. 198). Ratchanee’s mother also asks questions like, “How can a person become an aristocrat if he is not born of noble ancestry? Aristocracy should run in someone’s blood. A person with a commoner’s blood will remain a commoner” (p. 205).

Although it was abolished as a system when Thailand decided to modernize, Sakdhina continued to cast its dark shadow on society well into the middle of the twentieth century. 23 This is vividly illustrated in the novel not only by the comments of Ratchanee’s parents, but also by Nikhom’s observations to Ratchanee’s friend Kingthian about the commitment of the new generation to the ideals of social revolution: “It has already been 20 years since we made the transition to democratic government but in practice, our thinking still falls short as the old way of thinking remains strongly embedded in our minds, [and] there are still some people who think of themselves more as masters of the people than as common citizens” (p. 140). The position of the new generation is, to borrow the phrases used by the late Scharto, to “negate the sense of value of the old society” by always siding with “justice for the people.” In the finale of the story, this happens when Sai confronts Ratchenee’s father and other members of the old generation during a banquet the latter organized for the purpose of scorning the former.

You cannot stop the change of time. As time flows, the day will come when old things have to be packed away in a museum… I am the ghost that time has produced so as to befuddle people who still dwell in the thinking of the old society… Our worlds are different. Mine is the world of the common people, the ordinary people [tamadar, sarmanchon] (pp. 264-265).

I would suggest that to this fundamental dichotomy can be added another “layer” – the presence of those who are at the mercy of fate, as typified by Ratchanee’s older sister who remains chained by Sakdhina society.

Being born female is such a calamity [appap], Darunee said in a sad voice. When we are still with our parents we have to obey their every word and those of the older relatives; and when we get married our husbands gain authority over us… as if we are like children who need to be constantly admonished. [It] is like freeing myself from one chain only to get caught in a new, much heavier one (pp. 44-45).

What the older sister tells her younger sibling is exactly the “Code of Manu on women’s three subordinations,” 24 wherein a woman’s presence is crushed to death, as if she never existed. 25 The only thing a woman can do is to accept that “[this] is our kam (karma)” and to endure everything. “Her day of freedom will not come” (p. 206); Ratchanee calls this kind of existence “that of a flower in a flower pot and a beautiful painting inside a picture frame decorating a wall” (p. 206).

Here is another source of tension and conflict that has been neglected by many readers because it is buried in the main story. Although they are sisters, the contrast between the older one, controlled by her fate, and the younger one, acting against her fate, is quite stark. Explaining this contrast and connecting it to Seni’s literary position is another main purpose of this essay.

From a “Fated” to a “Self-Determined” Existence

For Herbert Phillips, the essence of Thai literature is based ultimately in Buddhist teachings as found in Thai culture. Thus cultural change in Thai society cannot be distilled using the categories of Western-style analysis. 26 With Phillip’s general observation in mind, I would also suggest that Seni’s works reflect the confrontation and separation of popular Buddhist ideas in Thai society. By “popular” I mean the acceptance of one’s fate and the resignation of one’s self to Buddhist karma (kam), which is separate from essential Buddhist ideas. Thai literature, in general, has not gone beyond this “popular” understanding of karma, and one can see this in the way Ratchanee’s sister is resigned to her fate. The manner in which this aspect of Buddhism has been popularized is explained by Suzuki Satoru:

Even though it has been rejected by the Theravada Buddhism school of orthodox Buddhism, whose doctrines are valued in Thailand, the influence of popular Buddhist karma and the theory of the cycle of rebirth as advocated by Traibhumi Katha remained strong, coming chiefly from the understanding of the layman Karawat. Needless to say, for someone who is entering the Buddhist priesthood, the aim is to overcome the cycle of rebirth, that is, to achieve Nirvana. 27

The Traibhumi Katha has been translated from the “Three Worlds Sutra,” said to have been written by King Ritai of the Sukothai era. It advocated the popular idea of Buddhist karma and the dictum: “Good actions lead to good reward. Bad actions bear bitter fruits.” 28 Citing this fatalist belief in Buddhist karma as evidence, Tanaka Chuji severely criticizes the ideological foundation of the Sakdhina system. 29 The merits and demerits of the Traibhumi Katha also sparked big debates in Thailand from around the time of the student revolution, and even among the literati, different kinds of criticisms have emerged on the merits and demerits of this kind of literature. 30

The secularization of Buddhist ideas, which is hard to say “essential”can be approximated by the term “popular.” 31And it is perhaps worthwhile to be reminded of what Richard Gombrich said: “it has nothing to do with Religion (Buddhism).” 32 In Thai, prom likit means “the destiny provided by Brahma;” in the popular imagination, this means acceptance of Buddhist karma. In contrast to  prom likit, Ishii points out that kam likit (destiny based on one’s actions), which is  everything being dependent on one’s deeds, is the very core teaching of the Theravada Buddhist school. 33

In the structure of his multi-layered work, Seni contrasts the “fated” older sister, a person who yields her fate to karma (prom likit), with the “self-determined existence” of the younger sister (kam likit). This comparison goes beyond the sisters. In the novel, one farmer expresses to the protagonist the popular notion that a person who has lived a pious previous existence is blessed with virtue, so there is no need for hard labor in one’s present life. But Sai states the opposite to another farmer : that life, and thus fate, is not predestined. The difference between these two viewpoints is expressed by Sai to Ratchanee on Wanna (one of the 4 names of Varuna in Sanskrit):

For one, it is prom likit (destiny given by Brahma), bum (virtue) and kam (Buddhist karma). Before we are born, our fates have already been decided and it cannot be changed. For another, however, with today’s new thinking change can be done with what man decides (pp. 77-78).

Is Seni suggesting that one can pick any attitude when it comes to understanding the popular worldliness of prom likit? For some, karma is seen to be changeable – that is Ishii’s kanma likit, to “understand the essence of Buddhist karma.” In the final part of Seni’s story, the young male and female protagonists are made to determine their own fates; it becomes their own responsibility. When Sai says to Ratchanee: “It is not wrong to severe ties from one’s old environment to start a valuable or beneficial life,” Ratchanee answers back, “Even I wish that it is that way too; that life’s fate is obtained through one’s hands” (p. 268).

Seni explains this dynamic and the contradictions of the popular understanding of Buddhism with the keenness of the social consciousness of contemporary Thai writers. He shows how the will towards social reform is strong and is connected to the negation of consciousness in the reception of popular Buddhism. Furthermore, Seni cites the Dhammapada, “Only the self is the master of the self.” 34 While this idea has been expressed by other writers as well, there is some originality in how it is expressed by Sai in Seni’s story:

Even if one’s parents or God [Teewadar] were present, nothing can be saved. That is why if we make mistakes in our decisions, and consequently must accept our fate, the act should be due to one’s self and not determined by other people’s actions”  (pp. 206-207). 35


In The Literature of Commitment, Charles Glicksberg writes: “the call for commitment in the domain of art is the problem of the twentieth century phenomenon.” In a comment drawn from the dialogue of Sartre, he adds, “The writer’s obligation is leaning towards the position of standing up against all injustice.” 36 In modern Thailand this spirit is reflected in the art for life movement as pursued by literary writers, and Seni Saowaphong played a major role in promoting that movement through such masterpieces as Ghosts. Although it is renowned for being the most accomplished of the literary works that adhere to the “art for life” faction, the spirit of Ghosts has been simply represented as adhering to the Western concept of “obligation towards society.” This paper has presented a possible alternative interpretation of the issues raised by Ghosts, bringing to the fore the revolutionary meanings concealed in the novel, like self-responsibility, the awakening to the idea of “holding in one’s hand one’s own destiny” and “assuming complete responsibility.” In Thai society, social awakening from the chains of the popularized karma-bounded Sakdhina society cannot be fulfilled without independent and spiritual awakening.

Chart Korbjitti’s The Judgement: The Relationship between Priesthood and Existence

Chart Korbjitti’s Kham Phi Phaksa (The Judgement)  37 is a literary piece which unexpectedly grabbed the attention of the people, winning the Thai Literature Council’s 1981 Book of the Year and the 1982 Southeast Asian Writers Award. 38 The status of The Judgement was immediately recognized, even by people outside the field of literature; it was turned into a television drama and, in April 2006, into a film (which, however, differed much from the literary work). As of March 2007, The Judgement had been printed 39 times, which is exceptional in Thailand.

Oddly, despite this kind of publicity, there have been few commentaries or academic research papers about The Judgement. Some critiques – such as those pointing out that the dialog “l’enfer, c’est les Autres”(Hell is other people) comes from Sartre’s Huis Clos (No Exit) 39– were only representations and did not substantially analyze the novel’s themes. 40

This essay examines Chart Korbjitti’s The Judgement to search for similarities and relationships with Sartre’s work, such as LEtre et le neant (Existence and Nothingness) and La Nausee (Nausea), and considers Sartre’s reception in Thai literature. My objective here is to specify the peculiarly Buddhist sense of values and mentality of novels in Thailand.

Literary Historical Background

Chart was born in 1954 in Samut Sakhon in central Thailand and, while a temple dekwat (sexton), graduated from an art polytechnic school. Afteward, while working toward a diploma in composition, he was employed by a manufacturer of women’s leather bags.

Among the writers who were influenced by the social ideals of the 1973 student revolution, Chart received particular attention. When he made his debut, Seni, his senior, already recognized in him the makings of a literary genius. He described Chart as “a writer of the new generation who bravely faces the challenges of Literature. He will develop further as he continues his journey. And that road is not a lonely desolate one.” 41

Chart shares views of “pure literature” with Seni, who declared his awakening to ideas about social revolution and who saw the “outside” consciousness of the older generation steadily replaced by an “inside” literary consciousness. The introduction of the concept of “flow of consciousness” and the appearance of translations of existentialist literature sped up this process, and it is in this context that The Judgment appeared.

When the student revolution of October, 1973 – Thailand’s only “people’s revolution” – occurred, Chart was only 19 years old. The “nationalism boom” that followed the revolution continued for three years until the bloody counter-revolution of October 1976 ended the idealist and utopian dreams of the young people. The period 1973 to 1976 was said to be the most democratic time in Thailand, introducing profound changes to society. However, the 1976 coup d’etat seemed to reverse everything in one blow (by then Chart was 22 years old). Five years later, in 1981, The Judgement was published and became a symbol of democracy for those who thought that all possibility of hope had been lost. 42 In the remainder of this section, I will discuss how these historical changes were reflected in the novel. First I will document the introduction of Jean-Paul Sartre’s writings in translation and through commentary from 1973 to 1976 as an indication of the acceptance of existentialist ideas into Thai literature.


At a glance, we see Schart Sawasshi  playing  central role in introducing and translating Sartre’s  work. Schart was a literary reviewer, writer, and editor-in-chief of many erudite magazines in Thailand. Schart facilitated Chart’s literary debut in 1979 as a writer in a special edition of his leading work – Loknangsu (World of Book) – andaded the board of judges that awarded Chart the Cho Karakeet Award, which kicked off his literary career.

Among the “existentialist works” by Thais, another two stand out. One is Wittakyakan Chenkun’s “This Road Won’t Lead to Death” (first published in 1968 and included in the 1971 compilation Thats Why I Ask the Meaning). This and his “Flow of Consciousness” are said by some critics  to be among the first serious literary works in Thailand (although the author denies it). The second is Schart Sawasshi’s “Wall,” first published in 1969 and included in the 1972 compilation Tranquility. This is a work which was supposedly influenced strongly by Sartre’s “Nausea.” Marinee Keometto discusses the appearance of “existentialist work” in Thailand:

In the period from 1963 to 1973, Thai intellectuals referred to the atmosphere of the world of literature and politics as the “Period of Seeking” (or Tranquility Period or Exist Period). Sarit’s Tyranny (1958-63) and the monstrosity of the Vietnam War partly became the breeding ground which accepted this kind of philosophy. 43

The term “Tranquility Period” was taken from Schart Sawasshi’s work “Tranquility,” and it is against this literary background that Chart developed as a writer. 44

Features of the literary work

The Judgement is structured into two parts: “Inside a Trap” and “To Freedom.” The main character is Fak, the son of the village temple’s dekwat (sexton). Fak is a Samanen, a novice Buddhist priest who was respected by the villagers as a model for the younger generation. However, to care for his ailing father, he cannot avoid a secular path and postpones going into the monkhod. Then, when his father dies, he must care for his father’s young widow Somsong, who is mentally abnormal. His “sacrifice” becomes the subject of a groundless rumor that he is sleeping with his stepmother. As this gossip spreads, he sinks deeper into an existential “trap.” A once despised cremator becomes his only friend, and alcohol his escape route. When he is deceived and robbed by the owner of the school where he works as a janitor, no one believes him; he is the one arrested and he dies in prison coughing up blood.

From Priesthood to the Secular World

The world of priesthood is quiet and peaceful. Becoming a priest in Thailand has more spiritual value than many in Japan could imagine. Living as a priest, one gathers respect from the world and in the process maintains peace in one’s heart. But Fak’s gratitude to his father surpasses the attraction of living alone in the idle world of priesthood:

Even if he still wants be under the security of priesthood, even if he thinks he wants to stay as a disciple of Buddha, every time his gaze wanders to his layman father, he cannot shake his uneasiness. He wished he could discard the feeling of secret relief from abandoning his father (pp. 15-16). 45

Unlike in other Theravada Buddhist societies, in Thailand returning to secular life is not seen as something negative. Rather, those who have been priests are warmly welcomed back to the secular world. 46 Thus Fak continues to be considered a model for youth in his village for a time (p. 17). But once the rumors begin, his stature rapids declines until he is considered a wicked person (p. 200) who lives a fraudulent life (p. 234). Yet Fak cannot desert his father’s widow, the insane Somusun, though she is the root of every bad thing that has happened to him. He cries out:

She is a human being, not an animal… Do you want to drive her out? Would you like me to neglect a person who is having difficulties just so you can stay innocent, just so you can be a good person? I cannot do that (pp. 46-47).

We can see Fak, who has a heart of compassionate (mettar calnar) and a heart of shame (hiri otapa), as the epitome of a person who fulfills Buddhist virtue. In his case, it is neither superficial deceit nor hypocrisy, but conforms to the essential meaning of Buddhism. Unfortunately, Fak’s re-entry into the secular world leads to his “degeneration” and he is forced to face the unpleasantness of confronting existence.

Confrontation with Existence

The analysis of Fak’s confrontation with his own existence can be divided into three parts: the suffering of existence, shame in other people’s eyes, and living a life of self-deception in society.

The Suffering of ExistenceWe can say that Fak is a person who accepts hardships without complain; this is what it means to be a good Buddhist person. According to the existentialist point of view, this meaning can be traced to the Old Testament’s Hardships of Job. 47 Like Job, Fak laments his hardships:

This is karma. When did I accumulate karma ? I have never even killed one fish in my life. I have never even stolen a cent… I have behaved following the Five Fold Path and yet why do I receive punishment of karma? Or is it from my past life? (p.57)

In addition, after a deplorable sigh of misfortune, Fak also come to  speculates.

I did not believe it. I believe only in one thing, and that is all the bad karma I am facing now comes from other person (p.57).

In (Theravada) Buddhism, karma does not come from other people. Here Fak does not anticipate “Buddhist karma,” but the sufferings of existence. This is clearly expressed in his recollection:

Man possesses both coldness and warmth. It might be this coldness and warmth that makes man continue to receive suffering. Whoever did I do wrong to receive bad karma?… Instead of blaming one’s self, he thinks of blaming others. It was because of other people that he suffered. His course of life was changed. He fully realized how lonely and sad being alone is. He desired to have an exchange with other people. But, why is it that people do not try to understand him even a little but pushed him into being solitary? Why is it that everything he does results in something bad? And why is it that a bad person like the school principal is not seen as an evil person?  (p. 265).

Fak feels humiliated, he seems not to exist in the eyes of many, and he is unable to attain mutual understanding with others. In this he is like the protagonist of Sartre’s “La Nausée, ” who acts like society’s ”fifth wheel” (de trop) 48 and becomes a sacrificial lamb on account of a baseless rumor. In The Judgement, rumor alienates Fal, making him eventually fall into a situation “without exit.” The one who started the rumor, a villager who lives in self-deceit (a criticism of Sarte) only lives to put Fak and others through Hell. Fak becomes haunted by his existence and refuses to give up alcohol to confront it directly. In the end, he dies like a dog on the roadside.

This is the message the author intends to convey with the scene of the ruthless dog-killing, i.e., the guiltless killing of the dog foreshadows Fak’s own fate. Fak kills the dog and sighs:

For the first time I must lay my hands on another in violence – this living thing that did not do anything to me or cause me any harm  (p. 83).
That is only a dog but it is a living thing like me and it just wants to live like me (p. 85).

Fak has been compelled to kill the dog, which, according to the school principal, may or may not be mad, and “from the standpoint of someone who was forced to do something, he was surely depressed” (p. 84). He adds:

Why did I think of that and the mad dog? It is because the principal said so. How did the principal know whether the dog was indeed mad or not? Suppose that dog was human, then what was done would be the same as capital punishment (p. 87).

Here we find echoes of Sartre’s lament, although stated in somewhat abstract terms:

Tout existant naît sans raison, se prolonge par faiblesse et meurt par rencontre. 49 (All exist without reason, continuing with weakness, and meet death.)

Shame in other peoples eyes. Next, I would like to call attention to the change in existence in which one cannot help but feel shame towards others – that is, abasement of the self – and the conflict (conflit) 50 that ensues.

However, the moment I starting thinking of meeting someone, shame and fear suddenly took over. It invaded my body and I was not able to move. My thoughts were surprised and shaking. All energy drained from my feet when I started moving forward, my hands felt like trees and my hair stood on end… Should I meet them? Or is it the fear of having to meet them that shakes me? (p.182)

The glances that the people at the bus stop sent me made me scared. This must be the way the victor ridicules a loser. Why does he have to fight alone? And why is it that the other side is superior in numbers? (p.289)

Again, we see echoes of Sarte’s words here: “La honte est sentiment de chute originelle” (Shame is originally fear of losing). 51 In short, Fak’s existence is lost. Yet Buddhist shame (Hiri Otaba) and existentialist shame are also harmoniously mixed and cannot be separated.

Society as self-deceptive existence. Third, I would like to call attention to two works of Sarte, Les Salauds (Nebbish) 52 and L’esprit de Sérieux  (the mind of serious man) 53 which signal the idea of existence described in Chart’s work. “Nebbish” means “a good-for-nothing person.” In The Judgement, the principal is portrayed as the archetype of hypocrisy, and the section where the principal is described is one of the coldest parts of the work, and uses much sarcasm. Let us examine the part where the principal makes his first appearance.

The principal first makes his appearance pardoning Fak. He is looking at a Buddhist information chart hanging in the temple while villagers look on. This scene is reminiscent of Buddha admonishing Angrimarrar. Fak, benevolent like a Buddhist monk, remains cool despite the slander in order not to dishonor himself. The principal is praised for his virtue of not getting angry at Fak (p. 276). He is further revealed:

A smile appeared on the principal’s round face. It was an extremely beautiful smile (p. 309).

Moreover, the village chief laments that “recently, the number of good people like the principal  has been decreasing” (p. 281). But the principal and the village chief both fit Sarte’s definition of les Salauds, simpletons – the l’esprit de sérieux living an existence of self-deceit. In The Judgment, L’esprit de Sérieux coinsides with the village people, that is,  Buddhist virtuous persons only in outlook.

The villagers, filled with various virtues, with faces filled with good deed, gradually gathered and greeted each other with smiles. They were dressed in bright new clothes. (p.61)

Of tambun (alms-giving or charity), which is a routine even today in Thailand, Chart gives this description:

The Buddhist priest stood when they were chanting the sutras… The villagers, divided into smaller numbers, returned to the roads from which they came from… Hearts were satisfied, the glory of sheer bliss showed through their faces. It is because they have received an assurance that the next world will happy and peaceful. Look well at the happiness and hope in the faces of the people who have just come back from Tanbun (p. 65).

Tambun is a marked virtue in Thai society and donating money to a favorite temple for peace of mind is a regular practice among Thais. It is also used to change the existence of those who cannot communicate with others any longer. That is, it is an attempt to overcome Sartre’s notion of an existence based on self-deceit. But from a different point of view, Chart, the author of popular Buddhist values, can be seen to repudiate the Buddhism the villagers believe in, which is invested heavily in the idea that “value is in the priest.”

Between Priesthood and Existence

With Fak’s return to secular life and the degeneration of his existence, he could only lament that “even if I repeat all the sutras I remembered when I was a priest, it doesn’t help me find peace” (p. 57) and “why is it that even if I have followed the Five Fold Path, I still receive karma?” (p. 57). Furthermore, The chief priest will say to him “That is karma. This is what I’ve told you before”; therefore, “even if I seek help from a monk, the flame of suffering will not disappear” (p. 57). For Fak, the chief priest, who  collects respect and belief of all villagers  (p. 177) is no longer a place to seek salvation. Additionally, Fak comes to “ be stupefied even by the sound of the bell of a temple”,which is the symbol of a belief  (p.186). He laments:

Father, help me!… And in his heart, he called the  name of Buddha up in the heaven, so that Buddha come to help him to be pulled up from the net of hell . But he thought that his yearning did not even reach the top cover of the mosquito net (p. 188).

He can no longer find hope even in Buddhist general principles. Moreover, we must note that the layman’s five commandments in the text may be the symbol of faith to the monk  and devotion to Buddhism, and also the epitome of Buddhism as popularized by the townsfolk. But for Fak, already forced to a place where he has no choice but to confront his existence, there is an unbridgeable gap to reach its faith. His grief reminds us of a passage from Sartre:

Aucune morale générale ne peut vous indiquer ce qu’il y a à faire ;il n’y a pas de signe dans le monde. 54 (For an existentialist, the world can no longer show any general morality. This world has no marker.)

The rumors also suggest that one cannot seek help even from God or Buddha. However, there is an argument here that we should not overlook: that one still finds merit in priesthood and in a Buddhist sense of values, and that the desire for priesthood is still deeply rooted in the story’s main character. Phrases like “I want to become a priest,”  and “I want to become a priest and to live in the world of the teachings of Buddhism” are frequently repeated. The site of two monks wearing brilliant and sparkling yellow clothes, walking at a smart pace towards the temple also appear to show that priesthood remains important (p. 264). The imagery lights up Fak’s mind, briefly penetrating the fog of alcohol.

In another scene, while vomiting blood, Fak remembers.

The figure of the reading place of sutras during the Nan Period has come out of the pool of memories. An image of a big Buddha with a serene side… There are times when while reading the sutras and secretly glancing upon his form, it seemed like Buddha was smiling at him (p. 288).

Until the end, when he loses his consciousness for the last time, Fak is unable to get over his yearning for priesthood. This is the the consistent theme running through The Judgement. It is a new point of view that says the yearning for priesthood persists up to death.


The Judgement’s important themes are as follows. First, the novel describes the situation  that there is no place to seek salvation  in the world, where we are forced to face our own existence, as well as depicts shame and abasement in the eyes of others. Second, the novel criticizes the concept that suffering is a result of karma and criticizes those people who believe so (Thai self-deception). This is not the case, the novel argues, for suffering is the result of a person’s existence. And it also negates a man of self-deceit. Third, the novel details popular Buddhism faith (Thai self-deception) beginning with practices like the tambun. Yet, the work also points to the importance of the Buddhist sense of values of a priest who voluntarily undergoes training.

The work is engaged in a lively complementary and contradictory relationship with Sartre’s ideas, including a critique of Buddhist popular religion but also recognizing “the wisdom of our elders.”

A human who has warmth and coldness only has endless distress, and just like in the Buddhist world, if there is no serene silence, there is also no peace (p. 15).

Needless to say,  the world of Buddhist Dharma referred to here (that is, Lokuttara)   is the world of Buddhism for a priest who voluntarily undergoes training, distinguished from secular and material world (Lokiya), which does not face up to existence but invites self-defeat from encountering with other people.


Both these literary works are concerned with “karma,” but Seni and Chart differ tremendously in the way they deal with it. Seni’s work shows that consciousness should be turned outward to society, its expression an outgrowth of the Enlightenment and idealism. In Chart’s work, consciousness is not turned outward, but settles deeply within. That is, from a description that urges social revolution, Thai literature shifts to an inside description that reveals that which exists in the mind.

The shift from social consciousness to internal consciousness coincides with society’s experiences before 1973 and after 1976, and also with the adoption of trends in foreign literature of the same period that encouraged a move away from what is considered ‘simple’ Thai literature. This is illustrated in the two novels discussed here, as well as other literary works, but in the future, it will be necessary to research the diversity of Thai modern literature.

 Hiramatsu Hideki
Osaka University of Foreign Studies 

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 8-9 (March 2007). Culture and Literature                                                               


  1. When addressing a person in Thailand, the first name is used. This custom is also followed in academic papers and shall be followed in this text.
  2. Tham Seong Chee, ed. “Introduction,” Essays on Literature and Society in Southeast Asia (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1981). Niels Mulder, however, notes certain distinctions between Thai and Javanese writers. He states: “For Thai writers, the social stage is the core that forms that distinctive characteristic, and, as contrasted with the ‘self-centered’ individual in Javanese literature, the individual in Thai Literature has been distinctly defined within the social setting. ” Niels Mulder, “Individual and Society in Modern Thai and Javanese Indonesian Literature,” in Inside Southeast Asia (Bangkok: Duang Kamol, 1992), 62.
  3. Nitaya Masavisut, “Introduction,” Thai P.E.N. Anthology: Short Stories and Poems of Social Consciousness (Bangkok: P.E.N.International Thailand Center, 1984), 11-12.
  4. เสถียร จันทิมาธร. See Banchon Banchootosin through the February 1980 Letter to the Youth, “Literary Criticism”วรรณวิจารณ์, Matichon, 1995, 11.
  5. The opposite of “belle lettres” is the deeply rooted trend of the “love story,” and it is powerful. This is also a trend that cannot be overlooked when systematically understanding modern Thai literature; however, an altogether different paper has to be written on it.
  6. “Sixty-one Years of Seni Sawaphong, 84 years of Sakuchai Banrunpon,” Matichon (มติชนรายวัน), July 27, 2002: 18.
  7. March 31, 1952 at Thammasat University. Subsequently, “มหาชนทรรศนะ,” Academic Group for the Common People, published 1974.
  8. Subsequently, “ทีทรรศน์ทีน่าศึกษาของนักประพันธ์่,” Chiang Mai University Student Atheneum, 1975.
  9. บรรจง บรรเจิดศิลป์.  “ศิลปะวรรณคดีกัปชีวิต,” Kurumu Puhin Thammasat, 1976,p.65. He also said, “Art will only have worth if that art can exist as a part of human life… If it is worthless for human life, it would also have completely no worth for art” (p.63).
  10. วิทยากร เชียงกูล. “ร่มจันทน์”, Issue 4 (1971): 76.
  11. ส. ศิวรักษ์,“The writer’s responsibility”,เสถียร จันทิมาธร ed., คนเขียนหนังสือ (Mittnarar Publications, 1970), 144.
  12. For example, he said, “Art makes life as its foundation, and prescribes the model for the society’s trend of thought.” Quoted from ทีปกร. (จิตร ภูมิศักดิ์), “ศิลปะเพื่อชีวิต ศิลปะเพื่อปรชาชน” (Sheepanyar, 1998), 163-164.
  13. เสถียร จันทิมาธร, “โลกหนังสืืือ” (August, 1978): 60.
  14. เสถียร จันทิมาธร, “ศิลปวัฒนธรรม” (July, 2001): 12.
  15. วิทยากร เชียงกูล, “No letters from Seni,”  foreword to the 1971มิตรนรา version, cited from the อ่านไทย version (2000), 198.
  16. เสถียร จันทิมาธร, “หนอนหนังสือ” (1976), 100.
  17. ตรีศิลป์ บุญขจร, “ศิลปวัฒนธรรม” (July, 2000): 83.
  18. Mattani Mojdara Runtin, Modern Thai Literature (Bangkok: Thammasat University Press, 1988), 42-43.
  19. Interview with the author, September 16, 2002 at Seni’s house in Bangkok.
  20. The quotation  from “Ghost” is and  from the มติชน (2002) version. Emphasis is mine.
  21. สุชาติ สวัสดี์ศรี, “วรรณกรรมเพื่อชีวิต”” (June, 1973): 29.
  22. Treeshin Bunkachorn, Thai Novel and Society 1932-1957, 2nd ed. (Chulalongkorn University Faculty of Literature Text Project, 1999), 188-194.
  23. For example, in Intararyut (Naii Phii) อินทรายุธ(นายผี) (ลิลิตพระลอ…วรรนคดีศักดินา) (1949), the Sakdhina constitution was comprehensively criticized.
  24. For more reading on the “Sanjuu no Oshie” refer to “Code of Manu” (manusmRti 5・148)
  25. “Wanlaya’s Love,” an earlier Seni masterpiece, has been described as the first in Thai literature to have ascribed independent value to the character of a woman.
  26. Herbert P. Phillips, Modern Thai Literature (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987), 11.
  27. Sasaki Kyougo, India and South-east Asia Buddhism Studies II: Theravada Buddhism (Hirarakuji Shoten, 1986), 166.
  28. It is usually written as “Good actions lead to good reward. Sow evil, reap evil.” But here I follow Sakurabe’s interpretation. Sakurabe Ken, “Abidhrama Buddhism’s Doctrine of Cause and Effect,” in “A Compilation of Studies on Buddhist Ideologies,” in Buddhist Ideologies 3: Cause and Effect (Hirarakuji Shoten, 1978), 138. This is also as it is taught by Osaka University’s  Prof. Fumio Enomoto .
  29.  Tanaka Chuji, Thai History and Culture: Preservation, Insurance and Ethics (Nicchu Publishing, 1989), especially chapters 3 and 6.
  30. Soren Ivarsson, “The Study of Traiphum Phra Ruang:SomeConsiderations,” in Thai Literary Traditions, ed. Manas Chitakasem, 56-86 (Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University Press, 1995).
  31. Essential Buddhism does not take the same standpoint as fatalistic Buddhism. Fujita Hiroshi, “The Origin of the Ideology of Cause and Effect in Buddhism,” in “A Compilation of Studies on Buddhist Ideology,” in Buddhist Ideology 3: Cause and Effect (Hirarakuji Shoten, 1978), 83-124. This is also discussed in Suzuki Satoru, The Ideology of Buddhist Karma (Dai-san Bunmeisha, 1980).
  32. Richard Gombrich, Theravāda Buddhism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1988), 29.
  33.  Ishii Yoneo, The Political Sociology of Theravada Buddhism: Structure of the State Religion (Sobunsha, 1975), 11-12.
  34. attā hi attano nātto (Dhammapada 380) This “ge” (gaathaa in sanskrit) is also widely known all around Thailand.
  35. However, as a point of criticism, a concrete example of this is not shown at all in the text. It has been pointed out that only a first step, an expression of determination, was shown, while the next, concrete step or life course is completely lacking. See also Wittayarcorn “No letters from Seni,” cited above.
  36. Charles I. Glicksberg, The Literature of Commitment (Princeton, NJ:Associated University Presses, 1976), 50-51.
  37. Kham phi phaksa means “decision in a trial,”  Three English versions of translation  have also been published as The Judgment.
  38. Chart was awarded the SEA Write Award again in 1994 for Wela (Time), making him the first of only two people to receive this distinction twice. The other person is Win Lyovarin. His award-winning works are “Democracy, Shaken and Stirred” (1997) and “The Creatures Called Humans” (1999).
  39. J.P. Sartre, Huis clos (Gallimard coll. folio,1972), 92.
  40. For example, Chootanah Nahkawatchara, เจตนา นาควัชระ (A Criticique of Chart Korbjitti’s “Judgement”), Loknangsu (September 1982): 22-27; or กอบกุล อิงคุทานนท์ (Appreciating Chart Korbjitti’s “Judgement” Once More), Loknangsu (December 1982): 72-75.
  41. Foreword by Seni Sawaphong to first publication of Chon Trok (1980),cited from Chart Kobjitti, “จนตรอก”, คนวรรณกรรม (1985).10.
  42.  Chetana Nagavajara, “Spatial Concentration and Emotional Intensity: Inspirations from Sartre and Camus in the Works of a Contemporary Thai Novelist,” in Comparative Literature from a Thai Perspective: Collected Articles, 1978-1992 (Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University Press, 1996).130
  43. มาลินี แก้วเมตร (Between Schart Sawasshi’s “Wall” and Sartre’s “Nausea”), Loknangsu (September 1981).72.79.
  44. These translation  were supposed to have been read by Chart during his younger literary days. However, in an interview with this writer, he avoided declaring clearly whether he had read it or not.
  45. This and following quotations are taken from the  Hon (1996) version.  Emphasis is mine.
  46. In Thailand, entering the priesthood temporarily before marriage is a tradition for young adult men. It is considered a period in which they learn to be independent for the first time and it continues to be a qualification for marriage.
  47. See also, John Macquarrie, Existentialism (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1980), p. 38.
  48.  J. P. Sartre, La Nausée (Gallimard, Livre de poche, 1970), passim.
  49.  La Nausée, 188-189.
  50. See J. P. Sartre, L’Être et le néant (Gallimard, tel, 1999),  292 ff.  “Le regard”.
  51. L’Être et le néant. p.328.
  52. See La Nausée, 136, .145, 185.
  53. L’Être et le néant, 74.
  54.  J. P. Sartre, L’existentialisme est un humanisme (Nagel, 1970), 47.

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