The Biography of Somdej Toh (Toh Phromarangsi)
Somdej Toh or Archan Toh was born on 17th April in 1788 (B.E.2331) in a small village of Kamphaeng Phet Province of the Chakri Dynasty, known formally as Phra Buddhachan Toh Phromarangsi; he was born before his father became the King. Somdej Toh is a venerable person in Buddhism. Among devotees, he is addressed as Somdej Toh or Archan Toh, one of the most beloved and famous Buddhist monks during Thailand's Rattanakosin period; Thailand ruled under King Rama. Somdej Toh was named "Toh" before his monkhood and then "Phromarangsi" as his ordination name.
When Somdej Toh was ordained as a novice at 12, his family took him to Wat Nibbanaram. This temple is currently known as Wat Mahathad and is located in Bangkok, Thailand, across the road from the Grand Palace. At 20, he was ordained as a monk under the Royal Patronage at Wat Praseeratanasa..... (Wat Prakeo) in Bangkok. Later he refuged in Wat Rakang's ability to further his knowledge; he studied hard at the temple on philosophy in Buddhism and various Buddhist scriptures. Well-versed in Buddhist teachings, he was named Maha Toh, the King monk.
A shilled meditator with a secure connection with the royal family, Somdej Toh was famous for the wide popularity of his humility; despite his ranking and consideration, he was easily approached for communicating with devices and offered blessings to people at all levels of life. He was noted for the skill of his preaching and Thai poetry to reflect the beauty of Buddhism. He studied the Buddhist scriptures of Pali scriptures with several Buddhist masters. After becoming a well-known monk, he became the preceptor for Prince Mongkut; Prince Mongkut later became King Rama IV of Thailand.
Somdej Toh, in the course of his studies in Buddhist practice. When Prince Mongkut was ordained as a monk, Somdej Toh was his senior monk who initially taught him in Dharma and Vinaya. Soon after Prince Mongkut was appointed to a clerical post, his father, the present King, passed away. The Privy Council appointed one of his brothers as King Rama III in place of his father. He decided to leave Bangkok and went for “Thudong” alone, deep into the jungle on the border of Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia for more than two decades. Thudong is a monk’s journey to gain knowledge, build good karma, and know the teaching of Buddha. Prince Mongkut remained in the temple as a monk for 20 years. When King Rama III (his brother) passed away, Prince Mongkut was offered the throne. So Prince Mongkut disrobed and was reigned as King Rama IV.
In 1860 (B.E.2403), King Rama IV built the Holy City Hill named “Phra Nakhon Khiri Royal Palace,” locally known as Khao Wong, or Palace Hill in Phetchaburi province. King Rama IV invited the country monks for the opening ceremony and celebration in a grand manner. Among the monks, the King gave the order decree to fetch Somdej Toh back to Bangkok from Thudong. Royal Officer was sent out into the forest to look for him or bring back any monk they could find. Finally, the topic was brought to his attention; Somdej Toh voluntarily intended to return to Bangkok after 20 years of Thudong. He was invited to the ceremony; Somdej Toh set off on his journey with a boat to Bangkok for the celebration, while on his way there was a sea storm occurred. Somdej Toh stepped out in front of the ship and waved his hand toward the sea with his virtue of prayer. The wind died down, and the sea storm was utterly calm. It can be said that with his devotion, even the wind and the waves obey him. Somdej Toh had long been the favorite of the King. After that occasion, King Rama IV appointed him to be in charge of Wat Rakang and provided him with the title of “Somdej,” a high-rank title a monk hold. After receiving the title, his name was revealed as Somdej Toh until today.
During King Rama IV's reign in 1864, Somdej Toh was given the proper name Phra Buddhacharn Toh Phromarangsi. Another contribution of Somdej Toh is the Chinabanchorn (Jinnabanchorn) Katha. This Katha was an ancient Buddhist Katha, which Somdej Toh received from an old scroll from Sri Lanka. After having the Katha, on some occasions, Somdej Toh edited and rewrote it to improve the Katha scriptures from the original one making it easier to pray. The Katha is named “Chinabanchorn,” the same as Tao Maha Phrom Chinabanchorn. Somdej Toh used this Katha for ceremony chanting, blessing, and meditation, whatever he did. Chinabanchorn Katha is known as the most powerful Katha of all and believed to be the supreme Buddhist spell because the words of this Katha invited the magic power of Lord Buddha, Somdej Phra Sammasam Buddhachao, other Deities, and Phra Arahants. Phra Somdej amulets generally are good for protecting the worshipper from avoidance of misfortune, accident, and disaster and dispelling black magic, evil spirits, and ghosts.
There is one story tells early in his reign. There was a time before Somdej Toh went to Thudong; he went to reside at Wat Rakang to further his studies. The night before, the temple's abbot dreamed a white elephant was moving toward the direction of the temple and devoured all the scriptures in a box; the abbot was terrified and awakened by the dream. The next morning he felt that a conclusion must be that some unusual visitor would come to the temple to take refuge that day. As it happened as he thought about on the same day, a devotee came to the temple of Wat Rakang to invite the abbot to perform a religious ceremony out of the temple. Before the abbot left, he instructed a novice monk in the temple that if a visitor visited the temple that day, they must use all effort to retain him at the temple until he returned. On that day, when Somdej Toh arrived at the temple of Wat Rakang, the novice monk told him about the incident, requested him to wait, and stayed for his abbot to return.
Somdej Toh was amazed by the incident, but he stayed on and waited for the abbot to return. After a moment, the abbot returned in a hurry and asked the novice monk if any visitors had come to the temple. Somdej Toh was even more surprised and asked the abbot how come he knew he would visit the temple that day. The abbot told him of his dream, and Somdej Toh immediately greeted and paid respects to the abbot. When the abbot saw Somdej Toh, he knew that Somdej Toh was an unusual person with his appearance from his looks, loving-kindness, and wisdom than the rest of the other monks. He became a very outstanding monk and accepted him as his disciple. Somdej Toh was famous for his knowledge of the holy Dhamma and Visha (magic). The abbot taught Somdej Toh everything he knew until the last day of his life.
In Thailand, monks who attend a prayer chanting ceremony will carry a holy fan; these fans describe their ranking statue. Before any ceremony start, the sacred fan will be raised in front of the monks before chanting the verses. One day the King of Thailand invited Somdej Toh to conduct a bliss-seeking prayer ceremony at a temple. Somdej Toh was holding his holy fan standing at the river bank when he intended to get a boat across the river. The area boatman around there would usually provide Somdej Toh with a free trip without charge because they know him well. On a particular day, a boatman who came from somewhere else that did not knows Somdej Toh provided him with a ride across the river and asked Somdej Toh for the boat fare. As he knows that the boat-man is just making a living, he offers his royal sealed holy fan to the boat-man as the fare. When Somdej Toh arrives at the temple, the royal guards get confused as to why Somdej Toh did not carry the holy fan with him and think he might have forgotten to bring it along.
When the royal guards learned about the incident, they were in fear as the holy fan was granted to Somdej Toh by the King with the royal seal on it, the sacred fan was decorated with precious gemstones, and the handle of the divine fan was made of ivory. When this matter was referred to the King, the King immediately ordered his royal guards to get back the sacred fan from the boat man. When the royal guards found the boat-man, he was still shivering and mentioned that Somdej Toh insisted he takes the holy fan as the boat fare. The royal guard paid the boat fare, got back the divine fan from the boat man, and returned it to Somdej Toh. From this story, we can see the generosity of Somdej Toh. After this incident, the King decided a new law that no boat ride charges should be imposed on any monk taking a boat ride across the Chao Phraya River, which is still enforced to the present day.
There was a day when Somdej Toh was taking a short afternoon nap, and he noticed that somebody had entered his room by the corner of his eye; he realized it was a thief. He keeps the unknown and pretends to be asleep, and does not bother with the thief. When the thief is about to leave, he sees a small gift box on the wall shelf near where Somdej Toh is sleeping. He intended to get the small box from the frame but scare it may wake up Somdej Toh. The thief tries hard to achieve the small box but fails to get it. Somdej Toh suddenly woke up to get the package and hand it to him. The thief was confused when he saw Somdej Toh give him the box without anger. He bravely asked Somdej Toh why he gave the small box to him; Somdej Toh told him, you are here for your neediness, that's why you came here; this little box belongs to me, and I have to take care and look after it every day. Now that you want it, I shall let you have it, and I will be free from taking care of it. We came to this world without bringing anything with us, and we will not be taking anything with us when we leave. So why should we have to tie ourselves so much in this human world?
Somdej Toh, who originated the idea and unfortunately he, is unable to see its completion. Somdej Toh remained dedicated to his life as a monk and brought many inspirations and implications to the people. He devoted many funds he had to build several giant Buddha statues on government property. In 1867, Somdej Toh intended to create a tall standing Buddha statue holding an alms bowl at Wat Inn (known as Wat Intharawihan). When the Buddha statue was in process, Somdej Toh, who was personally inspecting the construction of the Buddha statue when the Buddha statue was under construction, used to sleep at the site tent under the foot of the Buddha statue. On the night of June 1871, when the figure was incomplete, Somdej Toh passed away at the foot of the Buddha statue. Somdej Toh left many precious things, such as the Buddha statues, temples, and 84,000 thousand Phra Somdej amulets. He also left behind the scripture text of Chinabanchorn Katha, which is beneficial to all (also known as The Grand Sutra Text). At present, more than 50 percent of devotees can chant this Katha.
He became renowned for his wisdom, a venerable monk who gave Dharma talk to the royal palace and the public throughout the country. He became famous for his knowledge, and because of his power of meditation and prayer, he created the amulet of Phra Somdej, the most popular charm among Buddhist collectors. The amulets were blessed and chanted by him and other respected famous monks in Thailand.