LEZEDOM LEFFERTS & SANDRA CATE – BHUDDIST STORYTELLING
– THE VESSANTARA JATAKA SCROLL AT THE ASIAN CIVILISATIONS
– SINGAPORE 2012
This book gives a full
reproduction of the 31
meter long scroll painted by Sopha Pangchat to illustrate
the Vessantara Jataka, a scroll that was completed in 1960 (year 2503 of the
The first great quality is that
the pages overlap as for the reproduction of the scroll so that there is no gap
since it goes slightly further than the dividing line on the right and it
starts slightly before the same dividing line on the left on the next page.
Under this first reproduction the scroll in the book the authors give a summary
of the story. The story itself is extremely long.
In the last section of the book
each part of the scroll will be reproduced in a smaller size and every element
written on the scroll will be given in Thai Lao, in Thai and in English with
notes along the way. It sure is not the story itself but the information
enables the audience to follow the story which implies it is painted for an
educated audience which know the story enough to follow it with these short
indications on the scroll itself. It is the proof that this story is extremely
The main remark to be made on the
artistic side of the scroll is that the dominant color is saffron with a little
bit of green for various vegetal elements and some curtains or dressing
elements. Many scenes are divided in some type of temple or shelter images in
saffron color and between two of these a vision of the mountain, the forest
essentially depicted in green and some black or dark purple.
The last two sections that are
supposed to repair the damage done by Prince Vessantara when he gave his
children as slaves and his wife as concubine, and to bring him back to his country and his throne, are
progressively moving out of the mountain and some strange elements are
integrated. Let me give two of these. First the group of five dancers and
musicians near the end of section 11, Maharat. These dancers and musicians,
reduced to four will appear again in the next and last section 12, Chokasat.
They are here to evoke the joy of the people on the return of the Prince but
also some kind of joyful celebration for the end of this giving depravation,
because he who gives his children into slavery and his wife into adultery is
depraved. It has to be celebrated because it is brought to an end and repaired
because it was evil in a way since it was tanha, excessive attachment to
giving. Giving is good by principle, over-giving is tanha and is bad or even
dangerous for the giver maybe but especially for the people he decides to give away
as if he possessed them, though he is possessed by his tanha for giving.
This ambiguous dimension of the Jataka
is probably implied by the three sayings that are integrated in Maharat:
“To harm the elephant for its
ivory is acceptable.”
“To harm the dog for its fangs is
“To harm the tribe for his
headscarf is acceptable.”
The first case is practiced but
you kill an elephant for his tusks, something like 0.5% of the animal and the
rest is abandoned to rot. The second case is absurd since then the dog can no
longer go hunting or protect you. The last one is more than absurd since it
beheads the tribe that is then abandoned without any leadership or leader. The
note in the book suggests these may be some of the “ancient prescriptions for
battle” ordered by King Sonchai. They may well be but in the context it is
definitely negative because it shows how going too far in doing something good
can lead to the worst catastrophes, like the loss of an elephant, the loss of
your defenses or hunter power and the loss of your leader or leadership.
Between these two renderings of
the scroll several articles explain the value of scrolls in various festivals
or performances of popular celebration. It also gives some other illustrations
of the same story by other artists on other material media like for example
walls in temples but none of these have the color power of saffron and many
insist on showing Prince Vessantara as being the Buddha, which is wrong since
it is supposed to be the last life of the one who is going to be the Buddha in
his next life only. He is not the Buddha yet. The scroll under scrutiny here is
very careful to keep that distance. If Prince Vessantara were the Buddha he
would not have to die and be reborn one more time, but at the same time the
story would endorse over-giving as a good thing and then we would be brought
back to the ivory of the elephant, the fangs of the dog and the headscarf of
It is necessary though to reflect
a little bit on this Jataka on Obsessive Compulsive Giving which is a disorder
because of its obsessive compulsive (meaning Tanha) dimension.
Jataka 547, the very last of the
standard collection, the very last birth of Buddha before his final life to
enlightenment is deeply contradictory at several levels. Let me express these
contradictions in questions.
First is it acceptable to
compulsively and obsessively give away one’s possessions? If giving is the
basis of goodness how can those who have nothing give anything and hence be
good? Can only rich people be good?
Second is it acceptable to cause
the suffering of other people by giving things they consider as theirs and they
deem sacred, like the sacred elephant that supposedly brings wealth to the
nation and that Prince Vessantara gives away to another city?
Third is it acceptable for a
ruler to follow the will of the people and hurt someone who has officially done
nothing wrong, even if somewhat excessive? Is the vox populi respectable and
acceptable in the political management of the world’s affairs?
Fourth is it acceptable to give
away one’s children or one’s wife just as if they were belongings? Note the
case of giving away one’s husband is not even considered. Isn’t it sexist to
imagine a husband could give his wife away to a stranger and contemptible to
even imagine it could be a good thing to give one’s children into slavery?
Fifth isn’t it caste-critical to
imagine that the main beneficiaries of such gifts are Brahmins. Are Brahmins
all and always well inspired? Is it good to give to someone who obviously is
greedy? Is that a criticism of the caste system?
Sixth if tanha is something to
avoid absolutely, can we consider tanha may exist for a positive action or
thought. Can good doing be negative?
Seventh if dukkha has to be
avoided at all cost and can only be pushed aside by being detached from the
possession of anything – including mental positive orientations, even if then
it is the subject who is possessed by these mental positive orientations? – can
we be detached from other human beings to the point of causing their own
suffering, their own misery, their own dukkha?
The conclusion is quite clear
then, still in the form of a question. Is there a selfish practice of Buddhism,
a self-centered interest in abiding by the ethical rules of Buddhism? Why was
this birth not the last one? What was missing to reach enlightenment? Is
restraint essential even when doing something good is considered? Why couldn’t
Vessantara reach nibbana?
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU