The ultimate sacrifice

Before and after the ultimate sacrifice ….

Prince Wetsandon’s children are hiding in the lotus pond
Text and pictures@SJON HAUSER
Figure 1: A mural in the wihan of the village temple of San Pa Tueng village, Mae Rim District, Chiang Mai.

In most of northern Thailand’s temples, paintings similar to the one above can be found among the murals that decorate the walls. They show a pond in a forested mountain setting, with one or two children hiding under the large leaves of the lotus plants that thrive there. Usually, a man is seen at the edge of the pond, caressing one of the children who has just left the water.
These murals depict a famous, dramatic scene of the Wetsandon Chadok (in Pali: Vessantara Jataka), one of the more than 550 ‘birth stories’ (jatakas) of the Buddha. For Thai Buddhists it is by far the most famous and popular of all the ‘legends’ about the previous existences of the Buddha before he was finally reborn as Prince Siddhartha and attained enlightenment to reach Nirwana—never to be reborn again.
The Vessantara Jataka is the story about Prince Wetsandon (in Pali: Vessantara) who perfected the practice of than (in Pali: dana), ‘giving away’, a highly appreciated virtue which expresses both compassion and non-attachment. Actually, no Buddhist text has been so influential and sacred in Thailand as the Vessantara Jatakata. From the early Ayutthaya period to far into the 19th century its popularity was paramount. But during the reign of King Mongkut (1851-1868) the court in Bangkok started to downgrade the text’s and importance (Jory, 2016). However, beyond the control of the Thai court, e.g. in the periphery of Siam (now Thailand), the popularity of the story has never diminished. Most temples are still decorated with murals and woodcarvings that show scenes from the story. And ‘unlike the majority of Buddhist scripture, which was accessible only to Buddhist monks and pious laity literate in Pali, the Vessantara Jataka was a performative text. The principal means by which [..it] became known to Theravada Buddhist communities throughout mainland Southeast Asia was the ceremonial recitation of the text in the vernacular—known in Thai as the Thet Maha Chat [“Recitation of the Great Incarnation”]. The ceremony, which in some Thai villages used to last up to seven days, has traditionally been held annually in every region of the country and among all of Thailand’s Buddhist ethnic minorities.’ (Jory, 2016: 10).
In much of the Thai countryside these recitations are still popular, often at the end of the Buddhist Lent. What’s more, during King Bhumibol’s long reign (1946-2016), the court’s policy of downgrading the importance the story, was revoked, and instead, the Thet Maha Chat was promoted to revive Thai cultural traditions and to boost the charisma of the Thai monarchy.

This post will focus on a number of crucial episodes of the story and how they are illustrated in Thai temple art.

The story of the Vessantara Jataka
During his life, Prince Wetsandon is leading a virtuous life, in particular by intensively practicing the virtue of dana. After ascending the throne of the Kingdom of Sivi, the young king is visited by a mission from a neighboring country where the people suffer starvation due to severe drought. The foreigners ask for the king’s white (albino) elephant, which is believed to be a living palladium that brings plentiful rain and fertility to the fields. Without hesitation the generous, open-handed king gives away his country’s much venerated elephant to be taken home by the visitors. This act of great unselfishness angers the king’s subordinates, who fear that the absence of the animal may cause suffering to the farmers. Therefore, they convince the former king, Sonchai, Wetsandon’s father, to resume control of the kingdom and to banish his son.
Before prince Wetsandon goes into exile, he gives away all his possessions (the “great gift of the seven hundreds”). His devote wife princess Matsi (in Pali: Maddi) and his two little children, Chali and Kanha, follow him in exile. During the long trip to a remote mountain forest, prince Wetsandon also practices dana by giving away his cart drawn by horses. They continue the journey on feet. Crossing the neighboring country of Ceti, its king (Matsi’s father) is greeting the prince and is touched by his story. When Wetsandon is offered the throne of Ceti, he declines. At last, the family reaches their destination, Mount Wongkot (in Pali: Vamka Mountain), far beyond the border of the kingdom from where they came. There, they live in a simple abode that was built for them by the gods and lead the sober life of hermits, living from the fruits and nuts they collect in the forest.

Figure 2&3. Fig. 2 (left): A mural in the wihan of Wat Phuket, Pua district, Nan, illustrating the Lotus Pond-scene. Fig. 3 (right): A mural in the old wihan of Wat Buppharam, Mueang district, Chiang Mai, showing Chu Chok sitting in front of Prince Wetsandon and asking him for his two children.

One day, an unexpected visitor arrives at their well-secluded abode in the forest. It is Chu Chok (in Pali: Jujaka), an old, and ugly looking Brahmin. Chu Chok is married to a young, beautiful woman, Amittada, who was a dedicated wife to him. When the other wives in the village began teasing her for her servitude to the old man, and are even beating Amittada up, she refuses to continue doing her household duties and demands that Chu Chok finds her two servants instead. Unfortunately, the old man is too poor to arrange for that. Desperately, he is then heading for the exiled prince “who gives away anything” in order to ask for his two children to become his wife’s servants. The prince’s abode is being guarded well against intruders, but with a number of tricks and lies Chu Chok succeeds in getting to his goal. (The scene of Chu Chok being attacked by the dogs of Chetubot, the guard of the forest through which Cho Chuk passes, is discussed at length and illustrated elaborately in another post: click here (in Dutch)
When Chu Chok arrives at Wetsandon’s abode, he waits until Wetsandon’s wife Matsi has left to collect fruits in the forest. Chu Chok then approaches the prince and asks for the gift of his two children. Wetsandon willingly grants this request. When the prince pours water over the elderly man’s hands as a token that Chu Chok’s request has been acknowledged, the earth trembles. Chu Chok leads the two children away, having bound their hands with ropes. Not yet far from the abode, Chu Chok stumbles and loses his grip on the ropes. The children escape and run back home where they hide in the lotus pond in front of the hermitage. Chu Chok accuses the prince of reneging on his gift. This accusation Wetsandon counters by calling his children out of the pond. The prince shows his great affection to them, but also begs them to follow the old man, so that he can fulfill the perfections of virtues, the ultimate act of dana and non-attachment—giving away his own children—an act that has to be accomplished to prepare the road for the final step to reach Nirvana, that is to be incarnated as the (historical) Buddha. This episode in which the prince actually “selfishly” sends their children into slavery is one of the most dramatic ones of the whole story.
This episode is always depicted in temple murals, as an illustration of the 8th kan of the story (the 8th “chapter” named kuman). Usually, one of the two children has just climbed out of the pond and is caressed in the arms or at the feet of the prince, while the other is still hiding under a large lotus leaf. In the background the prince’s abode (usually in the style of a small Thai temple building with multi-tiered, tiled roofs) can be seen, with the old man Chu Chok waiting there (as in Fig. 1, 4 and 6). Both father and children are clad in animal skins (with the stripes of a tiger’s skin or the dots of a leopard’s skin), as hermits used to do.

Figure 4 (left): The Lotus Pond-scene in a mural of Wat Mae Kampong, Mae On District, Chiang Mai.

Figure 2 shows the scene in the lovely, modern murals of Pua’s Wat Phuket. In this painting there are many interesting details. Chu Chok has apparently followed the prince to the lotus pond and is sitting on the bank, walking stick in one hand, and wiping his forehead as he is probably very tired. The old man looks rather ugly and his ugliness and poor body care are also expressed by the brown blotch on his groin cloth. (More about Chu Chok’s ugliness and the inauspicious characteristics of the body of ‘dirty old men’, presented in the story as a kind of geriatric treatise, can be found in the post click here [in Dutch] ). The vegetation is painted in great detail. One can see a round drop of water balancing on the hydrophobic skin of one of the lotus leaves, and tiny drops are rolling from a leaf in the center. One of the stalks of the lotus plant holds a fruit at the end (containing the tasty lotus seeds), whereas a snail is seen on another stalk above the pink eggs it has deposited there.

Figure 3 shows an old (probably early 20th century) painting in Chiang Mai’s Wat Buppharam. It is a compostion of the lotus pond scene (in the right corner) and the previous episode of the story in which Chu Chok sits in front of the prince and asks for the gift of the prince’s two children. The children are playing nearby. The lips of the old man are painted bright red, as he probably liked chewing the betel quid (see: click here). Beside the abode a choice of the children’s toys are stored, including a swing and a wooden elephant on wheels. At the top of that scene, a later episode of the story is depicted—on a mountain ridge Chu Chok is leading the prince’s two children away as his slaves.

Figure 4  shows the scene in a village temple in Chiang Mai’s Mae On District. A deer is watching from behind the pond, which emphasizes the forest setting of the scene. Prince Wetsandon is wearing a beard and is dressed in animal skins, which shows that he lives the life of a hermit. Also the children are dressed in animal skins.

Figure 5 (below) shows a mural on the inner wall of the gallery around the phra that of Wat Phra That Sunthon Chai Mongkhon in Phrae’s Den Chai District.

Figure 5: A mural from Wat Phra That Sunthon Mongkhon, Den Chai District, Phrae, showing various scenes from the Wetsandon Chadok.

In this painting various scenes from the story are grouped together. 1. Chu Chok is wandering through the forest. 2. Chu Chok has arrived at Wetsandon’s abode and makes his request to the prince. 3. Wetsandon is looking for his children, who (4) are hiding in the lotus pond. 5. Wetsandon blesses Chu Chok to whom he has given his two little children. 6. Chu Chok is carrying Wetsandon’s two children as slaves away in the forest. 7. Wetsandon’s wife Matsi is getting back home after gathering edibles in the forest—she is late because three big cats, a lion, a tiger and a leopard, had blocked the path (8). Note that also the presence of deer in this composition are a reminder that all is set in a dense forest.

Figure 6: 1. The lotus pond scene in a relatively recent mural of Wat Prang, in Nan’s Pua District. 2-3: details.

Figure 7: Faded paintings of the Lotus Pond-scene on wooden panels in an old wihan of Wat Phra That Luang Lampang in Lampang’s Kho Kha District. These paintings date maybe from the 16th century and are among the oldest remaining depictions of scenes from the Vessantara Jataka in Thailand.

Figure 8: Chuk Chok binds the children’s hand with a rope and leads them away. An illustration in an 12th century Indian palm leaf manuscript. From: Kim (n.d.), with thanks.

WHAT ABOUT WETSANDON’S WIFE PRINCESS MATSI?
The mother of Chali and Kanha, princess Matsi (Maddi), would probably never have allowed her husband to give their children away to the old Brahmin. Chu Chok is aware of this and therefore waits to approach prince Wetsandon until Matsi has left the abode in order to collect fruits in the forest. What’s more, the god Indra interferes to prevent Matsi returning home as long as Chu Chok and the two children have not left for hours. Three gods then take the shape of three ‘ferocious beasts’ (often depicted as tiger, a lion and a leopard) that block the forest trail, and the frightened Matsi has to wait until the three give away to her passage. This delay of the the princess on her way home is usually the scene painted on the temple walls, following the scene at the lotus pond, and it is illustrating the complete 9th kan ‘matsi’ (the 9th chapter named Matsi) of the Wetsandon Chadok.

Figure 9: Murals of the Lotus Pond-scene (left) and the ‘Delay of Matsi’ (right) in a temple in Nan’s Pua District.

It is dusk already, when Matsi finally arrives at the hermitage. She is embarrassed that her children are not there. When she asks her husband about them, Wetsandon remains silent.
Thereupon, Matsi frantically searches for her kids around the abode and in the surrounding forest. For hours she frenzies around in the night to find her children, all in vain. When she returns to the abode, she is exhausted and desperate, and faints.
During the recitations of the text of the Wetsandon Chadok, which are annual events at many temples in the country, the audiences are usually moved intensely when the episode of Matsi’s frenzy search for her children is recited. It is not uncommon to see women in the audience in tears.
Matsi awakes in the lap of her husband, and the latter then confesses that he has given their two children away to an old Brahmin to become his servants.

Figure 10: Details of a large, composite drawing that illustrates the story of the Wetsandon Chadok on a scroll from the Northeast of Thailand. This scroll, nr. 35, is now in the possession of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, United States, and drawings on it, together with those on a couple of other scrolls, are discussed in Lefferts (2006-2007) (The figure at left is a screen print from an illustration in that article, with thanks!). Left above: the scene of Matsi’s Delay in the forest. Right below: the Lotus Pond-scene.

Not much later, the god Indra appears, disguised as a Brahmin, and asks for the gift of Wetsandon’s wife. The prince is happy to give Matsi to the visitor, and Matsi herself consents. Again, the earth trembles. Yet, the gift of Matsi is a kind of anticlimax in the story that misses the drama and emotions that accompanied the gift of the prince’s two children to the old and ugly Chu Chok.
This is in the first place because Indra immediately returns the gift to the prince, as Wetsandon has completed the Perfection of Giving. More importantly, I believe, is that the prince’s attachment to his loving children is actually stronger than to his wife, so giving away his children is a greater ‘sacrifice’ on the road to Nirvana than ‘offering’ a wife. (This may in some way relate to sociobiology: of the sacrifices (giving away or DANA), the gift of  50% of his own DNA, will hurt a man most of all.)

The remaining part of the story leads to a happy end: the children are set free, Chu Chok dies, King Sonchai invites his son and daughter-in-law to return to their country, where Wetsandon will ascend the throne. When they arrive in Sivi, they are awaiting a grandiose welcome. Happy end!

Figure 11: The Lotus Pond-scene (left) and Matsi’s Delay in the Forest-scene (right) in murals of Wat Doi Mi, Amphoe Mueang, Lamphun.

The central theme of the story is than barami, the ‘Perfection of Giving’. By its great popularity over many centuries, the Vessantara Jataka has promoted dana (giving) as the most exalted virtue in Thai culture, the “mother of virtues”. Wetsandon’s generosity is in extremis. As soon as he is born, he utters the words: ‘All the wealth that I possess, I (..) will give as alms.’ In the narrative, he states several times that even if a beggar were to ask him for his flesh and blood, heart and eyes, he would not hesitate to give them.’ (Jory, 2016: 54) ‘When he realizes that the Brahmin-beggar Chuchok is coming to ask for his children, Vessantara is preoccupied with finding the beggar to receive royal alms, “as a drunkard is to find liquor to drink.” When Chuchok ask him for the gift of the children, Vessantara is as happy “as if a poor man were offered a great amount of money.” ‘ (Jory, 2016: 55). Wetsandon’s urge to give is as compulsive as a kleptomaniac’s urge to take.
A key reason, why the ethic of giving was raised above other kinds of moral conduct was that it had great prestige value. Unlike the other Perfections, such as, for example, moral conduct or wisdom, which were cultivated in isolation, the cultivation of than barami was only possible by entering into a relationship: the giver needed a receiver. (Jory, 2016: 57)
With the virtue of “giving” at the core of the story, The Vessantara Jataka has been of great influence throughout Thai history—it has shaped the ethics, moral beliefs and world view of the people. Jory (2016) has documented how the story was at the roots of the Thai traditional concept of the monarchy. In an earlier study (Jory, 1996), he sheds light upon Thailand’s “culture of corruption” by linking it with prince Wetsandon’s obsession with than barami in the birth story. Recently, episodes in the Vessantara Jataka were even compared to northeastern Red Shirts resistance to the ‘ammat’ in Bangkok: in the story the people succeeded in banishing the prince who was believed not to act for the benefit them by giving away the rain making palladium, the country’s white elephant (Lefferts and Cate, 2012).
The story is also a treatise on family relations. As it originated from patriarchal India, 2500 or more  years ago, it is understandable that some values in the story may be in conflict with the traditional ones in the more matriarchal and female-friendly Thai culture. Matsi’s submissiveness to her husband has received much attention and criticism in Thailand. Also ‘(..)the relationship between father and son is characterized by the absolute deference of the latter to the former. Vessantara must obey his father’s order to go into exile. Chali must obey Vessantara when he gives him and his sister Kanha to the Brahmin Chuchok as than. The children are Vessantara’s properety to give…’ (Jory, 2016: 61)

Figuur 12: 1. The painting of the 8th kan ‘kuman’ (the Lotus Pond-scene) of the Wetsandon Chadok in Wat Phu Phan Tham Phra, Na Kae District, Nakhon Phanom. 2. Detail of the former. 3. The painting of the Delay of Matsi in the forest-scene in the same temple.

Wetsandon’s relations with Matsi are ostensibly highly patriarchal. In no way the prince wishes to reckon with Matsi’s sentiments of intense love for her children. The Matsi kan clearly demonstrates of the subordination of conjugal love to the male spiritual endeavor. When Matsi is desperately searching for her children, Wetsandon does not speak. Interestingly, to “reduce Princess Matsi’s grief”, Wetsandon even pretended that she was jealous, that she was going to find pleasure with a lover in the middle of the forest, only to return at night. And following these outrageous accusations, Matsi repeatedly asked for forgiveness.
Matsi should also be understood as the property of Wetsandon. As Matsi herself says to the prince: ‘You are my owner, my master. You have absolute power over me.’
‘The relationship between Vessantara and Matsi is shown to rest upon a principle that power and ascetic pursuits are the preserve of the male/father, while activities in the domestic sphere, such as the the care of the children and providing for the livelihood of the family, are the domain of the female/mother. This gendered division between the spheres of power and spirituality (especially regarding the Buddhist monkhood) on the one hand, and domestic life on the other, which the Vessantara Jataka portrays so clearly, has persisted in Thai society into recent times, although Thailand’s economic development since the 1960s has done much to blur this division.’ (Jory, 2016: 65)
Condemnation of Wetsandon’s behavior toward his wife and children was not uncommon among ‘progressive Thais’ since the 1980s.
‘Madsi: A female bodhisattva?’ is the head line of an article in the Bangkok Post (Ekachai, 1996). If Thai women want liberation, it states, they must start with liberating Princess Matsi, the legendary ideal wife who never gets credit for her selflessness. This question was raised  by Dr Suwanna Satha-Anand, head of the Philosophy Department in the Faculty of Arts at Chulalongkorn University, in her paper ‘Madsi: A female Bodhisattva denied?”, the first feminist critique of the Vessantara Jataka tale in Thailand. ‘Madsi and Amittada [the young wife of Chu Chok] see themselves as female slaves in relation to their husbands and their parents respectively,’ explained the scholar. ‘For centuries, the Mahachat sermon has been telling Thai society how an ideal wife should behave. Madsi has set the standard for a totally accepting and supportive wife. The message is that Thai women should do likewise.’ (Ekachai, 1996: 1)

A LOTUS POND IN THE FOREST?

DANA or DNA?
(to be continued)

Sources/references:

Cone, M. and R. Gombrich, 1977. The Perfect Generosity of Prince Vessantara.

Ekachai, Sanitsuda, 1996. Madsi: A female bodhisattva? Bangkok Post (Outlook), 7 November 1996, p. 1+8.

Jory, Patrick, 2016. Thailand’s Theory of Monarchy. The Vessantara Jataka and the Idea of the Perfect Man. State University of New York Press, Albany.

Jory, Patrick, 1996. Corruption, the Virtue of Giving, and Thai Political Culture. Proceedings of the 6th International Conference of Thai Studies, Chiang Mai, 14-17 October 1996, Theme I: 111-126.

Lefferts, Leedom, 2006-2007. The Bun Phrawet Painted Scrolls of Northeastern Thailand in the Walters Art Museum. The Journal of the Walters Art Museum, 64/65: 149-170.

Lefferts, Leedom and Sandra Cate, 2012. Theravada Buddhism and political engagement among the Thai-Lao of North East Thailand: the Bun Phra Wet ceremony. South East Asia Research, 20: 329-341.

Kim, Jinah (n.d.). Illustrating the Perfection of Wisdom. The use of the Vessantara jataka in a manuscript of the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita sutra. In: Gerd J.R. Mevissen and Arundhati Banerj (eds.), Prajnadhara. Essays on Asian Art History, Epigraphy and Culture. In honour of Gouriswar Bhattacharya, p. 261-272. Kuveri Books.