The Ultimate Sacrifice II

Figure 1. Donation boxes dominate the interior of many Thai temples. Wat Chedi 700 Pi, Khon San District, Chaiyaphum.

The Ultimate Sacrifice (II)
text and pictures©SJON HAUSER — posted February 2018

Figure 2. A-B. Murals in Wat Pho(thi) Chai, Nong Khai City, Nong Khai. C-D. Reproductions of paintings in a temple on the bank of the Mekong River in Sang Khom District, Nong Khai.

The two pairs of paintings above, both from temples in Nong Khai Province, Northeast Thailand, illustrate two kan (chapters) of the Vessantara Jataka, the most famous of the Birth Stories of the Buddha. This story is about the importance of the virtue of dana (giving) which is exemplified by prince Wetsandon (Vessantara) performing the ultimate acts of dana. In the 8th chapter, Kan Kuman, the prince gives away his two children and in 9th chapter, Kan Matsi, he gives away his wife, princess Matsi. The first plate shows the prince caressing one of his children at the bank of a lotus pond, in the second plate Matsi is returning home from collecting fruits in the forest, but finds the forest path blocked by three big cats. These scenes appear to be rather peaceful, yet they are intended to illustrate the dramas that unfold in the part of the story that deals with the prince’s ultimate sacrifices (see also: click here). Thai visitors to the Buddhist temples in their country usually know the story well, and the two paintings easily evoke the dramatic chain of events related to the prince’s ‘unselfish’ acts. The sacrifices of his dearests are in fact the last virtuous deeds the prince needs to perform as the ultimate perfection of practicing the virtue of dara. This perfection is required to be reborn as the Buddha and subsequently to attain enlightenment, never to be reborn again.
In most of the Thai temples the two chapters dealing with these ultimate gifts are illustrated with only the two scenes of Figure 2 (above), the “Lotus Pond” scene from the Kan Kuman , and the scene “Matsi’s Delay” from the Kan Matsi.

Figure 3. Wooden panes decorating a balustrade of a wihan at Wat Phuttha Nimit (Phu Khao), Sahat Sakhan, Kalasin. A. The Lotus Pond-scene. B-C. Details of A. D. Matsi’s Delay.

In a minority of the temples also murals are seen in which additional episodes related to the ultimate gifts are depicted and these contribute to extra suspense to the visualization of the story.
In Wat Phuttha Nimit (Wat Phu Khao) in Sahat Sakhan District, Kalasin, an open bot is surrounded by a balustrade of which the wooden panes are decorated with reliefs showing episodes of the Vessantara Jattaka and other Jatakas. Both the Lotus Pond scene and Matsi’s Delay are represented in the carvings of separate wooden panes (Fig. 3A and 3D), but there is also a carving that shows the Brahmin Chu Chok beating the two children of Prince Vessantara and leading them away into the forest (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. Chu Chok is beating the two children while he is leading them away as his slaves. This scene, this final episode of the Kan Kuman dealing with the fate of the ‘Royal Children’ is not often seen in temple murals or woodcarvings.

This scene about the ultimate sacrifice is not often seen in temple murals or in the wood carvings, but it is an important part the story — it shows that the prince has not just allowed his children to become the servants in the household of the elderly Brahmin, it clearly demonstrates that the prince is fully aware that he has given his children away to a brute who regards the kids as his slaves and treats them in a most cruel way. The act of giving away his children is therefore not just an ultimate act of giving, it is also a cruel act of non-detachment, a sacrifice…and therefore a painful dilemma to the prince.
This dilemma is best expressed in a rare painting which I spotted in Wat Phu Po, a remote temple in Mueang District, Kalasin Province, Northeast Thailand. In this mural the Lotus Pond scene is different from the standard, as both children are hidden in the pond, but the prince is absent on the bank of the pond. However, in the following painting the old Brahmin Chu Chok is leading the children away, his cane raised to beat the children.
In the foreground the prince is standing, his back leaning on a pillar of the hermitage. He is in a contemplative mood. The sight of his children being mishandled by the old man (and crying for their mother) is too much for him, yet it has been the prince’s ardent wish to accomplish this gift of his children, so he had insisted on doing so despite all the grieves it would cause.

Figure 5. Wat Phu Po, Kalasin. A. The lotus pond scene. Both children are hiding in the pond. The prince still has to arrive there to summon his children to leave the pond and follow the old Brahmin Chu Chok. B. The prince in distress: Chu Chok is beating his two children while leading them away. C. The expression on the prince’s face shows his inner torments.

As a matter of fact, the realization of this gift was not easy. The mother, princess Matsi, would have found it difficult to accept that her husband gives away her children. The clever Chu Chok is well aware of this, and therefore waits until Matsi has left the hermitage to collect fruits in the forest, and only then approaches the prince. Before leaving, Matsi had a nightmare and asked her husband the meaning of it. Vessantara understands that the dream means that he will soon give the children as alms, but he does not tell her. And to be sure that Matsi will not return before Chu Chok has taken the children off into the forest far beyond the hermitage, the god Sakka (Indra) intervenes and sends heavenly beings in the form of three wild animals to block the path when the princess is on her return home.
The giving away of the children to Chu Chok is not taking place very smoothly. When the old Brahmin asks for the gift of the two children, the prince agrees but requests that the visitor wait until Matsi returns. But Chu Chok refuses to wait for the princess, so Vessantara asks that Chu Chok take the children to the palace in Sivi to exchange them with the king (the grandfather of the children) for money. Then Chu Chok refuses again. The conversation frightens the children and they sneak away to the lotus pond and hide under the leaves in the water. The children gone, Chu Chok accuses Vessantara of breaking his agreement. The remaining part of the chapter Kuman is summarized as follows in Jory’s study on the Vessantara Jataka and the idea of a perfect man: ‘Vessantara goes in search of the children and, seeing footsteps leading to the lotus pond, calls the children to come out of the pond. Vessantara explains to the children that his gift of the children will enable him to achieve enlightenment, and so to deliver the world. Vessantara makes the gift of the children to Chuchok. There is an earthquake in approbation of the gift. Chuchok ties the children’s hands and whips them with a vine. Chuchok slips and the children run back to Vessantara. Chuchok recaptures the children and continues to drive them off, beating them all the way. Vessantara feels intense grief for his children. The children once again escape and run back to Vessantara, pleading for him to help. Vessantara is almost overcome by emotion but using his wisdom he is able to suppress his emotion and regain his equanimity. The children cry for their mother as they are led away by Chuchok.’ (Jory, 2016: 192-193)
So actually the children succeeded to escape twice from the old brute and cried for their mother, but this did not make the prince change his mind. It is probably this last, emotional scene that is depicted in the temple at Phu Po (Fig. 5B).
In modern times Vessantara’s giving away of the two children has often met with strong disapproval. Condemnation of his behavior toward Matsi and toward his children was common among progressive scholars and writers in the 1960s to 1980s. In the short story Matsi, writer Sri Dao Ruang tells the story of a woman with three children who has been abandoned by her husband. She wishes to become a nun and therefore has to give away her children. Her behavior is condemned by the policeman who arrests her. When the policeman rhetorically asks what kind of a man would act in such a heartless way, she replies: “Prince Wetsandon”.
In an interesting essay, Jory argues that the commonness and often general acceptance of corruption in Thai and other Buddhist Asian societies, is rooted in the immanent importance of the virtue of giving, as is exemplified by the popular and influential story of the Vessantara Jataka.
I wonder if there may be a similar link between this popular story and the common phenomenon of ‘poor Thai parents selling their children into prostitution’ (to be elaborated).


Figure 6. Lotus in Buddhist art.