I had the great fortune to see the Broadway revival of Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. The show I saw featured incredible performances by Marin Mazzie as Anna Leonowens, the English missionary and royal tutor and Daniel Dae Kim as the King of Siam (now Thailand). It tells the story of a Buddhist monarch and Christian scholar in the 1860’s facing issues of western imperialism, slavery, and women’s liberation. In the play, Anna represents scientific and social enlightenment and the King represents the struggle to overcome ego and pride in order to be the best person he can be. The story is a musical based on a book, based on the memoirs of a missionary and so the historical accuracy is many degrees removed. Buddhism in 1950 when the play was written did not have the prominence in the West that it has today and it was depicted in the play more as a monotheistic religion with Buddha sitting as a Lord in Heaven to whom people prayed, who favored the good and punished the wicked, rather than an Awakened Nature to be sought and realized to ease the suffering of the world.
I was impressed with what elements of Buddhism survived the interpretation, but curious about how a devout, Buddhist king could struggle so greatly with his ego. I found that the fictional king, portrayed (with great comic effect in this production) as a polygamous womanizer, full of pride in his station was based on King Mongkut, who was a celibate monk for 27 years before assuming the throne and taking 32 wives, fathering 82 children. As a monk, Mongkut crossed social barriers of class to create a form of practice and lineage (Thammayut sect) that followed Buddha’s teaching more strictly than was widely practiced in monasteries of the time. The play tells the story of the king saving his country from British imperialism by working his way around his pride to take advice from a woman and hosting an English style dinner and ball to demonstrate that his country is not barbaric. The historical King Mongkut saved his county from British domination by demonstrating his country’s civility through his mastery of science and astronomy and with skilled diplomacy, which opened his country to free trade.
A great element of Buddhism and King Mongkut’s outlook that survived the fictional interpretation can be found in the song, A Puzzlement, where the king sings about his great uncertainty on many matters. From a Zen perspective the song beautifully represents “Don’t Know Mind” the understanding that knowledge is subjective and relative, which helps ease attachment to ideas that may interfere with seeing things as they are. He sings:
There are times I almost think
Nobody sure of what he absolutely know
Everybody find confusion
In conclusion, he concluded long ago
And it puzzle me to learn
That tho’ a man may be in doubt of what he know
Very quickly he will fight
He’ll fight to prove that what he does not know is so
This song shows the king grappling with the necessity to act in the face of great confusion while recognizing the violence and suffering that comes from those who defend wrong beliefs rather than recognize their own confusion. This knowing about not knowing is fundamental to Buddhism and acknowledging it represents the open mindedness and potential for growth of the fictional king. The historical king and former monk, was probably quite comfortable knowing how he didn’t know and that knowledge allowed him to drop ancient beliefs and recognize observable facts such as the world being round. The not knowing contained in this song represents the historical King Mongkut’s enlightenment. It is a central element of Buddhism that Rogers and Hammerstein captured despite generally overlooking the Dharma in the drama.
A cultural practice of Buddhism that was unfortunately misinterpreted at the conclusion of the play is the practice of bowing. In the play’s climactic final scene, as his father, the king, reclines on his deathbed, the Crown Prince decrees an end to the practice of bowing to the king. Although it was meant to depict cultural progress, recognizing the equality of men and women, kings and commoners, it represents bowing as a shameful act of subjugation. In Buddhism, the practice of bowing is a practice of shared humility. Bowing is an act of lowering your ego and becoming Buddha. Bowing to another person is a sign of deep respect and a recognition of their Buddha Nature. Bowing to a statue of the Buddha or to another person is a practice of Buddha bowing to Buddha. It was comforting in the production I saw that within minutes of that decree banning bowing being issued on the stage, the cast came out for their curtain calls and humbly bowed in gratitude to all the Buddhas in the audience standing and applauding a magnificent theatrical performance.
Despite the fiction inspired by his life, the historical King Mongkut likely died with great awareness and little fear, not distracting himself by whistling a happy tune. His life bears comparison to the Dalai Lama who compassionately practices both Buddhism and scientific inquiry, not to know, but to help ease the suffering of humanity and all beings. The theatrical story has also eased the suffering of many through the years with its delightful rendering of the values of love, learning, freedom and equality with beautiful music throughout.