Tuesday, May 20, 2014


Sukhothai and Wat Si Chum revisiting the Past Lives of the Buddha, alias the Jatakas


We can consider this book from many different points and under many different lights.

First it is the presentation of an extremely important archaeological site, stamped as essential human heritage by UNESCO. The book gives all the possible archaeological details that can be known on how it was discovered and how it was saved and then valorized. It is difficult because many people set foot and entered in that temple of Wat Si Chum and apparently some things may have been displaced and quite a few were misinterpreted. The immense treasure of this site is a passage and staircase within the wall itself that goes from the entrance to the top of the present building (we will regret the second passage on the other side of the main door was walled in because of its poor state of repair). The ceiling of this passage and staircase is decorated with plaques that are engraved with the famous jatakas, one inscription identifying the jataka and an illustration of the jataka itself.

Up to very recently it was believed by archaeologists that these engraved plaques had been moved there from another temple where they were on display and visible, whereas in this corridor they are invisible since the corridor has no light. This volume rejects this idea for two reasons. First of all the plaques are included in the masonry so that it was impossible for them to be added afterwards. They are sealed in by the masonry itself. The second reason is a misunderstanding of these jatakas and their illustrations. To illustrate them like that, or in any other way, is in itself an act of piety, fervor and merit. Such an act does not require public recognition but is in itself valid for the author of the act, of the illustration, in his/her own mind. Since there is no reason to believe all the slabs and their illustrations were produced by one person, we obviously have then a collective project of a community that is performing an act of respect that requires a lot of mental concentration and meditation, hence that brings a lot of merit.

In fact we could even consider that setting them up for the public might be a negative vanity: to show one’s merit building and in a way to boast about it. Of course such illustrations can be produced to be set up in a temple for the illumination and inspiration of the community in full light. But such a public exhibition requires a totally personal reception of them: each monk in the temple receives the messages from these jatakas personally, in his own mind. Even a collective reception with a mantra or the recitation of the verse or verses attached to a particular jataka is not building a collective awareness but a collection of personal and individual awareness in each member of the assembly. There is no communion in other words but a samsara is built by the bringing together of individual finite mental acts.

The corridor and staircase then becomes some kind of path that you have to climb to go to the top. Each one who is going up the passage to the top can stop at each slab and, knowing what is on it, evoke in his mind’s eyes that only needs mental light to see the jataka itself represented there and even retell it in his mind, either the verse or verses attached to it or the whole jataka or a shorter version as is done in the Dhammapada. These jatakas are a canonical book of Theravada Buddhism and knowing the five hundred odd stories is just a must for any Buddhist and that knowledge added to the going through the whole passage is like performing in oneself the very many lives of the Buddha that led him to becoming the Buddha. Going up the corridor and passage is thus a mental trip to purification and meditation. I am afraid the desire for some archaeologists to consider nothing exists if it is not exhibited in public is a misunderstanding of Buddhism itself which is an inner voyage and not a public one. What we see is hardly what counts in Buddhism, or we are speaking of what we see in our own minds.

The second interest of the book is the historical exploration of the context that made this temple be constructed. So we find out a lot about the historical importance of the city of Sukhothai, the old capital of Thailand. This temple then becomes a monument to Thai history. It reveals the fact that in these centuries (thirteenth and/or fourteenth centuries). At that time the Thai kingdom was central in South East Asia but also in the Indian Ocean, central because of the commerce it enabled and controlled in all directions and with all neighboring countries particularly Myanmar, Cambodia and China, but also and essentially with Sri Lanka and Theravada Buddhism that spread in South East Asia thanks to the Mon people today situated on both sides of the border between Myanmar and Thailand. It is also in this period and area that a new writing system was introduced for Thai replacing the Khmer system used up to then. There is a lot of discussion about this capital turning point in the cultural identity of the country invented and introduced by Ram Khamhaeng at the end of the 13th century.

Actually it is surprising that in this book no allusion is done to that debate about the Ram Khamhaeng Inscription and this first entirely Thai writing system is only alluded to as “old Thai script.” We have to keep in mind that in those centuries the connection with Sri Lanka was constant and direct. It is no surprise then that many temples were built and that in this particular temple the jatakas were illustrated in a very special way. This temple is a Mondop that had a Wihan in front of it, the Mondop being an enclosed place with the statue of a sitting Buddha, partly visible from the Wihan due to the vast vertical opening in the front side of the Mondop. The Mondop was for small numbers of monks coming to meditate and eventually evoke the teachings of the Buddha, whereas the Wihan was more for a vaster congregation assembled for some ritualistic activities. On this point too the book seems to be slightly deficient. What kind of rites and rituals were performed and set up in these two structures? There is no really detailed answer.

I will of course note here the touristic value of the book and the monument, but this touristic dimension is absolutely secondary in what can interest us in this site.

The last and probably most important side of the book is the listing of all the stones, properly numbered and identified with a full description of what is still visible on the stones and what we can deduct was on the stones, both illustrations and inscriptions. The second half of the book gives such listings and descriptions and it also provides the various jatakas as they come on the stones, I mean the stories themselves in full version.

These stories have been compared to La Fontaine’s Fables, hence indirectly to Aesop’s fables. This was coming from a French man who had a rather limited cultural scope. Never mind who. The stories are always telling particular events in a particular situation in which the Bhodisatta (Buddha in becoming) is confronted to events and people who require his knowledge and wisdom to find a solution. These stories are not written for children but for an adult and normal Buddhist audience. Their main dimension is that they are moral lessons given to their audience who is supposed to follow the example of this Bhodisatta.

This very fact gives to these stories a dimension that has been neglected. It is in no way a defense and illustration of the reincarnation so firmly established in Brahmanism or Hinduism. Buddhism rejects this idea in itself. If a person does not have a self (anatta) because that person is constantly changing (anicca) which is the basis of the constant cyclical birth-life-death-rebirth (dukkha), that person cannot in anyway be reincarnated. How could this person be reincarnated into another body if he/she is no soul, no self, no permanent and essential component that could transmigrate from one dead body to a live one?

But these stories reveal how improving your life, getting onto the “octuple” way, the eightfold way to enlightenment and nibbana, is possible by reflecting on and getting inspired by what the Buddha himself would have done in such situations, would have done to become the Buddha. One is not born Buddha, one becomes Buddha. One does not receive in any way Buddha-ism from come superior being or authority, but one conquers Buddha-ism with one’s own work and effort, meditation and mental cultivation of control over the mind and the body by the mind itself.

Now when we read these stories that become parables we can try to imagine what they meant to people in the 13th or 14th centuries, when there were no cars, no TVs, no telephones, smart or otherwise, no computers, etc. We can then try to imagine what these stories invented most of them by Buddha and his followers before the Christian Era can mean to us, can bring us. What kind of enlightenment, what kind of metta and upekkha can we get out of them? Because that is the essential element in life: we have to love everyone and everything around us because everyone and everything is alive and we have to love life. There are many ways of loving but without love nothing can happen that has any value. Metta I said. But Upekkha is just as important because we have to build some kind of serenity in our own minds and with the people around us and their minds. Without that serenity we cannot love the world and we cannot love people and we cannot improve ourselves and liberate ourselves from the enslaving impulses, passions, feelings and even emotions that pervade our existence.

That does not mean impulses have to be negated, passions have to be rejected, feelings have to be destroyed and emotions have to be diabolized. Without impulses, particularly the sexual impulse, there would be no descent to our species. Without passions, particularly love, there would be no metta and no humane communion with the world. Without feelings there would be no possible real communication and understanding: one does not understand with rational arguments but with the inspiration that comes from feelings and intuition. Without emotions the world would be dry as a rock and indigestible: we have to be constantly impressed by the world into emotional states that have to be valorized and controlled. There is no shame in being moved by what we see and in crying or laughing at what we try to do and witness.

The last point to be mentioned here is quite obvious. The illustrations and images of the book are in themselves a tremendous voyage into time and space. We can learn how to dream with them and that dream will lead you thousands of miles away and centuries back into the past, which will enable us then to travel centuries into the future and dream this time a world that could be so much better if only half of this Buddhist wisdom were to come true.

Maybe the book, by wanting to be objective misses that last point and treats Buddhism as if it were an animal that has to be dissected, hence killed first. Buddhism can only be understood when we feel the emotions metta and upekkha bring into our minds.


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