Monday, July 27, 2015


A miracle of beauty and spirituality


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 Buddhist calendar).

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 popular.

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 acceptable.”
“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 the tribe.

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?


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