ELIZABETH WRAY – CLARE ROSENFELD – DOROTHY BAILEY – JOE D.
WRAY – TEN LIVES OF THE BUDDHA – SIAMESE TEMPLE PAINTING AND JATAKA TALES –
WEATHERHILL Inc. NEW YORK TOKYO – (1972) 1996
The book can be seen at multiple
levels, and as such it is essential. Let’s look at a few of them.
1- It presents a vast though
loose history of Buddhism in India
and South East Asia
. The main dates are given though the
whole thing is shown as some natural growth and decline. What is surprising is
the movement to the North through Tibet and from there to China and the rest of
Asia as Mahayana Buddhism, the Great Vehicle, that named the other older
canonical tradition Hanayana, the Lesser Vehicle. This is attributed to a split
between strict Buddhism, the Doctrine of the Elders or Theravada Buddhism, and some
looser Buddhism that moved North into Continental China. It even reduces this
difference to the ruling of the Buddhist monastic order, the Sangha.
That does not explain the
particular brand of Tibetan Buddhism and other differences, including the
belief in transmigration or reincarnation so dear to the Tibetans.
The split is a lot more
complicated because Theravada Buddhism is based on some central concepts like
anicca-dukkha-anatta – and this here book only quotes two, dukkha seen as
dissatisfaction and anicca seen as the transitory nature of things. We
understand that the third one, anatta or non-self for anything and/or non-soul
for human beings, is not mentioned because it is both the negation of any
permanent or stable self for man and the negation of the existence of any
divine part in man. An individual is non-permanent, in constant change, hence
in constant chase after satisfaction (sukha) that turns into dissatisfaction
(dukkha) as soon as satisfaction is reached, and then the chase for
satisfaction starts all over again. An individual cannot have a “self” in such
conditions, what’s more any divine part in him/her, a soul in other terms,
something that can transmigrate from one person to another via death and
rebirth. If this concept were kept here, obviously transmigration or
reincarnation would be impossible. What’s more God does not exist in Theravada
Buddhism, and Mahayana Buddhism needs that concept of God, if not gods, the
multiple gods of an older form of Brahmanism.
But that does not explain the
extreme form of Tibetan Buddhism with the reincarnation of the original Buddha
in the Dalai Lama, knowing that the Buddha himself is asserted as the
reincarnation of older Buddhas. Tibetan Buddhism states a beginning that
Theravada Buddhism does not state. And what’s more with the Tibetan Book of the
Dead, it goes a lot farther in that divine line of a vision of the world that
is in deep contradiction with canonical Buddhism.
2- The book also states, on the
basis of similarities between these tales and tales in the Old Testament and
Aesop’s fables that they all had a common Indo-European source. All that is
fairly mixed up since the Old Testament is in Hebrew from the Israeli Semite
culture. Aesop is Indo-European for one but the extension the book does to
Chaucer, La Fontaine and other western Indo-European writers is totally
In fact we have to go deeper and
see that Indo-European languages (and cultures) are only a cousin branch to
Indo-Aryan languages (and cultures), and that the common ancestor, and there is
one, is in fact in the tradition that established itself on the Iranian plateau
after the last migration out of Africa somewhere around 35,000 years ago, maybe
a little bit before, and whose surviving dead language of the period of the two
migrations, one to the west and one to the east, is Sumerian in Mesopotamia.
The direct descendant of this common source is probably Farsi. The
Indo-European migration only came down west around 10,000 years BCE, maybe
slightly later, after the Ice Age, when water is starting to rise. The
Indo-Aryan migration came down east at the same time or maybe slightly earlier.
The Indo-European tradition meets
with two other traditions in Mesopotamia
beyond. The Turkic tradition they will push aside to go through both Anatolia
and the Caucasus to go farther into Europe
where they will never represent more than 20-25% of the European population at
the time and till today in European DNA. The remaining 75-80% were and thus
still are of Turkic origin and tradition.
This Indo-European descending
migration mixes in Mesopotamia and the Levant
with various Semitic traditions, both Jewish or Arabic. The best example is the
Sumerian writing system invented by the Sumerians for the Sumerian language and
merchants and yet often called Akkadian because in Mesopotamia
most of the scribes were Akkadians and the Akkadians adopted that writing
system of a synthetic-analytic language for the Semitic Akkadian.
If there is a connection between
these Jakata tales and the Old Testament or old Greek literature it has to be
found either in an older and common form of that Iranian Plateau tradition,
though that would not be a genetic source for Semitic culture that is older and
then it could only be some borrowing, or in the transmission or recuperation or
heritage of older cultural traditions from pagan societies that developed
before Indo-European or Indo-Aryan cultures, and eventually back to Africa from
where everything has had to come.
3- This book is an art book and
as such a beautiful one in the pictures of the numerous paintings given as
illustrations of the ten last Jakata tales.
We have to note the order of
these ten Jakata tales is the order in the bot of Wat Suwannaram, Thonburi in Thailand. It is
not the canonical order of the Pali Text Society’s full translation.
We have to note too that the book
only contains the “stories” of these Jakata tales, but none of the commentaries
or conclusions going along with all the tales in the canonical version.
The paintings are representing or
retelling the tales but not necessarily scene by scene in the telling
chronology. I would even say all the episodes of a Jakata are in one painting,
or set of paintings but in an order that has little to do with linear right to
left or left to right horizontal or linear top to bottom or bottom to top
vertical orders. It is a lot more complicated and contains circular patterns
and hierarchical organizations both for hierarchically superior people or
chronologically later elements, the end dominating the tale itself.
This is typical of samsara or
samsaric thinking. The value, the story, the moral, or any other word you may
want, emerges from a complete capture of the multiple representation that contains
no real organized cause and effect, now and then, here and there logic, though
the bodhisatta, the reborn being aspiring to become Buddha or enlightened is
often represented as such though in the tale he is unknown to be a bodhisatta
by the people around him. The point of view of the story-teller seems to take
over the paintings and to inject some knowledge that is anachronistic for the
people in the tale though totally ideologically oriented towards the people
beholding the paintings. These paintings are Buddhist in their lay out itself
though with an intentional orientation towards the audience.
4- It is difficult to follow the
stories and analyze them as a whole because they are translated and I am afraid
the Pali concepts or words for the Buddhist concepts are not properly rendered.
We have the story but told in a causal language as a causal chain of events
that should not even be a chain of events but the emergence of successive
events that are only emerging though they could have not emerged from a
development reached just before.
The last Jakata is typical.
Vessantara is born as a
bodhisatta endowed with the desire to give to other people, no matter what.
For a long time he will give alms
and money to those who need some, but he needs to always give more and he will
thus come to the point that he will give to please people, hence he will give
what people want because it pleases them. When he reached this point he will
necessarily accept to give the white elephant that brings wealth and prosperity
to his own people whose king or crown prince he is. And all these people will
sink into dukkha and dissatisfaction. A real accumulation of dukkha, thirst,
hunger, famine. There emerges anger and there emerges the false solution: to
exile the “generous giver,” his wife and his two children.
Then they emerge into a new
territory: exile. The proof that the story is not causal is in the fact that he
will go on giving. First the four horses of their chariot to four unknown
Brahmins. Then the chariot itself when a fifth Brahmin comes up and asks for
In this predicament he invents a
new way to justify his giving: he gives to liberate himself of his possessions
to enable himself to get on the road to nibbana – called here omniscience. It
is not causal. The accumulation of acts of giving sees the emergence of
deprivation and this deprivation when accumulating sees the emergence of a
totally fake new objective: to liberate oneself of one’s possessions no matter
whether it creates dissatisfaction or not around oneself, because the objective
is just plain giving. This is in fact nothing but “tanha” or excessive
attachment. The Buddha condemned that type of excessive attachment to
supramundane entities, just as bad as excessive attachment to any other
positive or negative fact or behavior. As such this story shows in the extreme
advancement of that excessive attachment that we have to react against “tanha,”
the worst curse that can befall a man or a woman.
When we know that in Pali there
is no verb for “have” or “give” we understand that possessing anything is
unthinkable and any object is entrusted to our safe keeping in order for us to
entrust it to someone else. Transient attribution of any possession or good to
a transient possessor who must attribute it to any other transient possessor.
This curse leads out bodhisatta
to becoming an ascetic since he ends up possessing nothing, imposing this fate
onto his wife and his children. The wife agrees, but what about the children?
But then the tale becomes
vicious. He gives away what he has no right to give away because there is no
possession of this or these “objects.” He gives away his own children for them
to become slaves and his own wife for her to become the woman of an old Brahmin
in spite of and against her own vow to be absolutely sexlessly pure. In other
words she will become a concubine or a prostitute.
And it is only then that not
anything causal but a peripeteia emerges: The king of Sivi – their original
country – recognizes the children and liberates them, and the old Brahmin was
in fact a god under disguise and the submissive wife is saved from repetitive rape. The king of Sivi
then will look for Vessantara, find him and bring him back reinstating the four
into what the course of events that had let emerge wave after wave after wave
of surfing events, had taken them away from.
Life is an ocean of millions of
waves and each one precedes in its emergence the emergence of the next one
without causing it just as it had followed the previous one without being
caused in any way.
Samsara is this ocean of
paticcasamuppada, dependent origination.
A very fascinating book that
nevertheless misses the very point contained in its original language, Pali,
translated here into English. It never identifies that excessive attachment to
giving as what it is: “tanha,” meaning an absolute blocking element on the path
to enlightenment. Free yourself of this tanha to giving and you might get on
the eightfold path to nibbana. There is no other way.
What is more, the tales around or
behind the paintings, hence the stories, might have been in Thai or Mon and not
Pali, two languages from another family. Though Pali had no writing system and
could be written with the local writing system, for instance that of Ram Khamhaeng
found on the eponymous inscription in Sukhothai, capital of the Sukhothai
Empire. Pali is an Indo-Aryan language whereas Thai or Mon are not and are to
be linked to the vast Tibetan-Burmese or Khmer-Burmese families and beyond the
isolating languages of Asia
. That might have
had some impact on the reception of the stories and their illustrations. A
story is in the eyes of the beholder or the ears of the faithful.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU