A Forest of Spiritual Jatakas

I would like to submit to your discussion various writings of mine on the subject of the Jatakas and the value of Buddhist meditation in the imagination of Homo Sapiens when he started trying to understand the universe, and nothing has changed since these ancient times some 300,000 or 350,000 years ago. A lot more could be said but that is a project of mine that will never be finished and that cannot grow without any discussion from everyone.

Buddhism is a philosophical meditation into the mind of Homo Sapiens

PALI TEXT SOCIETY — GENERAL EDITORSHIP E.B. COWELL — SIX VOLUMES — THREE BOOKS

VOLUME I — TRANSLATION ROBERT CHALMERS, B.S. — 1895 — LAST REPRINT 2013

VOLUME II — TRANSLATION W.H.D. ROUSE, M.A. — 1895 — LAST REPRINT 2013

VOLUME III — TRANSLATION H.T. FRANCIS, M.A. & R.A. NEIL, M.A. — 1895 — LAST REPRINT 2005

VOLUME IV — TRANSLATION W.H.D. ROUSE, M.A. — 1895 — LAST REPRINT 2005

VOLUME V — TRANSLATION H.T. FRANCIS, M.A. — 1895 — LAST REPRINT 2005

VOLUME VI — TRANSLATION E.B. COWELL, M.A. & W.H.D. ROUSE, M.A., LITT.D. — 1907 — LAST REPRINT 2005

This is a general assessment for the whole collection. You can get the three volumes separately on Amazon, but you can get the three volumes in one operation from the Pali Text Society that is clearly identified and described on the Internet.

These 547 stories are essential in Buddhism, particularly in Theravada Buddhism. They are the 547 lives of Buddha before his last birth and life when he reached nibbana (nirvana in Sanskrit). You can then take them as stories and read them as literature. The fact that they are attributed to Buddha himself who would have told them is purely anecdotic and secondary, and by the way either fictional or the revelation of a great literary imagination in Buddha himself. They are varied and all of them very interesting. They often go long before and beyond Buddha himself and have deep roots in Indian religious traditions of old forms of Hinduism.

But these stories were originally written in Pali, which means they had been transcribed into Pali long after the death of Buddha himself since Pali was a language devised to transcribe the canonical preaching of Buddha in the Theravada tradition four or five centuries after his death. We must understand the great advantage of Pali for the spreading of Buddha’s teachings: Pali does not have a writing system of its own and it can be transcribed with any writing system available in the Indian subcontinent and in South East Asia, provided these writing systems are based on the phonetics of the language, hence is alphabetical based on phonemes, though some maybe syllabic writing systems which is secondary since then they have diacritic signs or single vocalic signs for the various vowels to change the basic vowel that is attached to the consonant of the syllable.

These stories have become very popular and are the objects of a lot of interest, with festivals, recitations, readings, theatrical performances, illustrations of many types. Among these 547 lives the last ten are emphasized more than the others because they are closer to Buddha’s last enlightened life. They should be studied from a Buddhist point of view with one question in mind: what prevented Buddha from reaching nibbana in every single of these lives? This is typical of the last one in which Prince Vessantara who is the embodiment of the future Buddha is pushing the desire to give so far that he gives away the elephant which is considered by the people of his community as the national symbol of the kingdom where he lives. But even worse: when he is banned from his community he goes as far as giving his own children into slavery to a Brahman and his wife as a concubine to a god disguised as a Brahman. Obviously here he demonstrates his obsessive compulsive disorder that is simply called “tanha” in Pali, excessive attachment, and that is part of his merit, but a negative part. He has to become detached from even this desire to be detached from all possessions and understand that children, spouse and quite a few other things are not private possessions you can give away.

This reading is still missing in many ways.

In the same way these stories give life to many divine beings and gods or goddesses and that goes against Buddhist teaching: Buddha refused to commit his life and mental consciousness to any divine creature or creator because such gods explained no mystery in life but only replaced one with another. In the same way this rejection of any divine creation of the world and humanity enabled Buddha to reject the caste system that is based on each caste being created from one part of the divine body of Brahma himself, the Dalits, the untouchables being created from no part of the divine body at all, hence not being human beings, hence being nothing but animals. The recent case of human sacrifice of a ten year old child in Nepal in a Dalit community shows how far their rejection out of humanity can go in the negation of basic human rights and dignity and the internalization of this negation in the victims themselves. We are here living a permanent trauma in a community and that trauma creates a Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome that can easily become murderous or criminal. Buddha is the negation of this system by his negation of the existence of gods and even the concept of god.

These volumes are superbly precious in the way they are built. First each volume has a long and very detailed table of contents identifying each jataka. Then the last book has a long and detailed general index. But the main advantage is in the body of each story. A rich corpus of notes in each story gives the various variants of the jatakas, and important linguistic remarks about the Pali original terms used in the original jataka, which enables us to verify the translation. The translation itself is an old translation when the theory was that you had to find an “equivalent” in English of each Pali phrase. The equivalent was then typical of English culture and conveyed an English interpretation, hence at times moving the text from one meaning to another. These notes thus restore some authenticity since we can go back to the Pali concepts that have at times very little to do with English. I used the concept of “tanha” in this review with the meaning of “obsessive compulsive disorder” and with the traditional rendering of “excessive attachment.” It is obvious the concept of OCD could not be used in these translations since it is a modern concept and in the older period we are speaking of (more than one century ago) even the concept of excessive attachment was not used for “tanha” which was only understood as “attachment” which transfers the negative dimension of “tanha” from the attachment itself to what this attachment is attached to, hence the object of the attachment. That is the very germ of ascetism that Buddha rejects: to be detached from food, let’s get rid of food altogether.

My last remark is about the verses that are integrated in the jatakas and that are translated in versified verses in these translations. It is where I miss the original text most to verify the versification of the original because the versification itself is meaning something with the focalization on and topicalization of some elements by the linguistic form itself and that cannot be kept in English. But the original can be found on the Internet though it is rather hard to find it in Latin transcription since the original Pali versions are for southern and south-eastern Asian communities, hence in the writing systems they commonly practice.

This set of three books bringing together the six volumes two by two is a great tool for the discovery of this Buddhist culture that is too often only seen through the glasses of Tibetan Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism is for me a lot more human because it does not believe in the transmigration of the perfect enlightened Buddha, or whoever, beyond his or her enlightenment. In other words the concept of Dalai Lama is in full contradiction with the concept of nibbana that is central in Buddhism in general and in Theravada Buddhism in particular since enlightenment, or nibbana, takes the enlightened Buddha out of the cycle of dukkha, of birth-life/decay-death-rebirth, hence liberate the enlightened Buddha of the fate of being reborn.

Dr Jacques COULARDEAU

Buddha seen as the rising sun of the mind awakening to life

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, Sri Lanka 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 anachronistic.

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 and 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 it.

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.

Conclusion

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

Buddha as the other side of our self that has so many facets of existence that 547 Jatakas are not enough to cover them all

PETER SKILLING — PATTARATORN CHIRAPRAVATO — PIERRE PICHARD — PRAPOD ASSAVAVIRULHAKARN — SANTI PAKDEEKHAM — PAST LIVES OF THE BUDDHA, WAT SI CHUM, ART, ARCHITECTURE AND INSCRIPTIONS — RIVER BOOKS — BANGKOK, THAILAND — 2008

We can consider this book from many different points and under many different lights.

First it is the presentation of an extremely important archaeological site, stamped as essential human heritage by UNESCO. The book gives all the possible archaeological details that can be known on how it was discovered and how it was saved and then valorized. It is difficult because many people set foot and entered in that temple of Wat Si Chum and apparently some things may have been displaced and quite a few were misinterpreted. The immense treasure of this site is a passage and staircase within the wall itself that goes from the entrance to the top of the present building (we will regret the second passage on the other side of the main door was walled in because of its poor state of repair). The ceiling of this passage and staircase is decorated with plaques that are engraved with the famous jatakas, one inscription identifying the jataka and an illustration of the jataka itself.

Up to very recently it was believed by archaeologists that these engraved plaques had been moved there from another temple where they were on display and visible, whereas in this corridor they are invisible since the corridor has no light. This volume rejects this idea for two reasons. First of all the plaques are included in the masonry so that it was impossible for them to be added afterwards. They are sealed in by the masonry itself. The second reason is a misunderstanding of these jatakas and their illustrations. To illustrate them like that, or in any other way, is in itself an act of piety, fervor and merit. Such an act does not require public recognition but is in itself valid for the author of the act, of the illustration, in his/her own mind. Since there is no reason to believe all the slabs and their illustrations were produced by one person, we obviously have then a collective project of a community that is performing an act of respect that requires a lot of mental concentration and meditation, hence that brings a lot of merit.

In fact we could even consider that setting them up for the public might be a negative vanity: to show one’s merit building and in a way to boast about it. Of course such illustrations can be produced to be set up in a temple for the illumination and inspiration of the community in full light. But such a public exhibition requires a totally personal reception of them: each monk in the temple receives the messages from these jatakas personally, in his own mind. Even a collective reception with a mantra or the recitation of the verse or verses attached to a particular jataka is not building a collective awareness but a collection of personal and individual awareness in each member of the assembly. There is no communion in other words but a samsara is built by the bringing together of individual finite mental acts.

The corridor and staircase then becomes some kind of path that you have to climb to go to the top. Each one who is going up the passage to the top can stop at each slab and, knowing what is on it, evoke in his mind’s eyes that only needs mental light to see the jataka itself represented there and even retell it in his mind, either the verse or verses attached to it or the whole jataka or a shorter version as is done in the Dhammapada. These jatakas are a canonical book of Theravada Buddhism and knowing the five hundred odd stories is just a must for any Buddhist and that knowledge added to the going through the whole passage is like performing in oneself the very many lives of the Buddha that led him to becoming the Buddha. Going up the corridor and passage is thus a mental trip to purification and meditation. I am afraid the desire for some archaeologists to consider nothing exists if it is not exhibited in public is a misunderstanding of Buddhism itself which is an inner voyage and not a public one. What we see is hardly what counts in Buddhism, or we are speaking of what we see in our own minds.

The second interest of the book is the historical exploration of the context that made this temple be constructed. So we find out a lot about the historical importance of the city of Sukhothai, the old capital of Thailand. This temple then becomes a monument to Thai history. It reveals the fact that in these centuries (thirteenth and/or fourteenth centuries). At that time the Thai kingdom was central in South East Asia but also in the Indian Ocean, central because of the commerce it enabled and controlled in all directions and with all neighboring countries particularly Myanmar, Cambodia and China, but also and essentially with Sri Lanka and Theravada Buddhism that spread in South East Asia thanks to the Mon people today situated on both sides of the border between Myanmar and Thailand. It is also in this period and area that a new writing system was introduced for Thai replacing the Khmer system used up to then. There is a lot of discussion about this capital turning point in the cultural identity of the country invented and introduced by Ram Khamhaeng at the end of the 13th century.

Actually it is surprising that in this book no allusion is done to that debate about the Ram Khamhaeng Inscription and this first entirely Thai writing system is only alluded to as “old Thai script.” We have to keep in mind that in those centuries the connection with Sri Lanka was constant and direct. It is no surprise then that many temples were built and that in this particular temple the jatakas were illustrated in a very special way. This temple is a Mondop that had a Wihan in front of it, the Mondop being an enclosed place with the statue of a sitting Buddha, partly visible from the Wihan due to the vast vertical opening in the front side of the Mondop. The Mondop was for small numbers of monks coming to meditate and eventually evoke the teachings of the Buddha, whereas the Wihan was more for a vaster congregation assembled for some ritualistic activities. On this point too the book seems to be slightly deficient. What kind of rites and rituals were performed and set up in these two structures? There is no really detailed answer.

I will of course note here the touristic value of the book and the monument, but this touristic dimension is absolutely secondary in what can interest us in this site.

The last and probably most important side of the book is the listing of all the stones, properly numbered and identified with a full description of what is still visible on the stones and what we can deduct was on the stones, both illustrations and inscriptions. The second half of the book gives such listings and descriptions and it also provides the various jatakas as they come on the stones, I mean the stories themselves in full version.

These stories have been compared to La Fontaine’s Fables, hence indirectly to Aesop’s fables. This was coming from a French man who had a rather limited cultural scope. Never mind who. The stories are always telling particular events in a particular situation in which the Bhodisatta (Buddha in becoming) is confronted to events and people who require his knowledge and wisdom to find a solution. These stories are not written for children but for an adult and normal Buddhist audience. Their main dimension is that they are moral lessons given to their audience who is supposed to follow the example of this Bhodisatta.

This very fact gives to these stories a dimension that has been neglected. It is in no way a defense and illustration of the reincarnation so firmly established in Brahmanism or Hinduism. Buddhism rejects this idea in itself. If a person does not have a self (anatta) because that person is constantly changing (anicca) which is the basis of the constant cyclical birth-life-death-rebirth (dukkha), that person cannot in anyway be reincarnated. How could this person be reincarnated into another body if he/she is no soul, no self, no permanent and essential component that could transmigrate from one dead body to a live one?

But these stories reveal how improving your life, getting onto the “octuple” way, the eightfold way to enlightenment and nibbana, is possible by reflecting on and getting inspired by what the Buddha himself would have done in such situations, would have done to become the Buddha. One is not born Buddha, one becomes Buddha. One does not receive in any way Buddha-ism from come superior being or authority, but one conquers Buddha-ism with one’s own work and effort, meditation and mental cultivation of control over the mind and the body by the mind itself.

Now when we read these stories that become parables we can try to imagine what they meant to people in the 13th or 14th centuries, when there were no cars, no TVs, no telephones, smart or otherwise, no computers, etc. We can then try to imagine what these stories invented most of them by Buddha and his followers before the Christian Era can mean to us, can bring us. What kind of enlightenment, what kind of metta and upekkha can we get out of them? Because that is the essential element in life: we have to love everyone and everything around us because everyone and everything is alive and we have to love life. There are many ways of loving but without love nothing can happen that has any value. Metta I said. But Upekkha is just as important because we have to build some kind of serenity in our own minds and with the people around us and their minds. Without that serenity we cannot love the world and we cannot love people and we cannot improve ourselves and liberate ourselves from the enslaving impulses, passions, feelings and even emotions that pervade our existence.

That does not mean impulses have to be negated, passions have to be rejected, feelings have to be destroyed and emotions have to be diabolized. Without impulses, particularly the sexual impulse, there would be no descent to our species. Without passions, particularly love, there would be no metta and no humane communion with the world. Without feelings there would be no possible real communication and understanding: one does not understand with rational arguments but with the inspiration that comes from feelings and intuition. Without emotions the world would be dry as a rock and indigestible: we have to be constantly impressed by the world into emotional states that have to be valorized and controlled. There is no shame in being moved by what we see and in crying or laughing at what we try to do and witness.

The last point to be mentioned here is quite obvious. The illustrations and images of the book are in themselves a tremendous voyage into time and space. We can learn how to dream with them and that dream will lead you thousands of miles away and centuries back into the past, which will enable us then to travel centuries into the future and dream this time a world that could be so much better if only half of this Buddhist wisdom were to come true.

Maybe the book, by wanting to be objective misses that last point and treats Buddhism as if it were an animal that has to be dissected, hence killed first. Buddhism can only be understood when we feel the emotions metta and upekkha bring into our minds.

Dr Jacques COULARDEAU

Jatakas from all over the world and for all over the world

BAREND JAN TERWIEL — THE RAM KHAMHAENG INSCRIPTION, THE FAKE THAT DID NOT COME TRUE — REIHE GELBE ERDE 5 — OSTASIEN VERLAG — 2010

This is a small book on an explosive subject and what some have tried to identify as a mystery, if not a plain fake artifact. Such an accusation in archaeology and history is of course of great weight and it could destroy the reputation of researchers and archaeologists. I will not enter the debate because I consider it is more or less solved and that the arguments leveled against the fake-supporters are fair enough to show they have just been misled.

The book is essential because it provides the full text of the inscription, line after line in the original script, in modern Thai script and with an English translation. Just this is a treat if you are interested in this old and first original Thai writing system invented by King Ram Khamhaeng, the Thai king who established the kingdom centered on Sukhothai and opened it up in the four directions, hence to its surrounding world, Laos, Cambodia, and the Gulf of Thailand that provided commercial contact with Chinese ships and merchants. He also brought a venerable Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka who introduced Theravada Buddhism in its Forest reformed branch from Sri Lanka. That gave a real impetus to Theravada Buddhism that spread in the whole South East of Asia. This same king decided to invent a new writing system for the Thai language, liberating it from the Khmer writing system. Note, what the book does not say, that Theravada Buddhism is preached and codified in Pali, and Pali does not have a writing system of its own, and that must have incited King Ram Khamhaeng to have his own writing system to be able to communicate the Pali Buddhist canon to the people.

We are in the 13th century and it is a period when commerce and maritime communication develop tremendously in Asia. The kingdom — or empire — of Sukhothai is thus part of this development. It is strange that the meaning of Sukhothai in Pali is not given and exploited by the author, since it means “Dawn of Happiness.” The concept of “sukha” in Pali is very important since it designates the satisfaction of man’s needs, all needs, without any excess or attachment, “tanha” to call it with its name. Sukha is also a concept that means the individual is in phase with his/her surrounding complex living reality, the “samsara” of this world, the cycle of birth or rebirth, but in agreement with the basic values of Buddhism that prevent individuals from experiencing “dukkha” that brings dissatisfaction in a way or another. All that Buddhist context is essential to understand the inscription which is an illustration of such Buddhist “sukha.”

The question of the writing system is essential. In the 13th century languages want to have writing systems that correspond to their real nature and logic. We know the dilemma of Vietnamese that had to use the Chinese writing system till the arrival of the French colonizers who introduced them to the Latin alphabet. We know the case of Pali that does not have a writing system for all languages to be able to use their own writing systems, hence making Pali, a foreign language in itself, closer to the local people. The fact that Ram Khamhaeng introduced a writing system of his own also shows that at that time the cultural unity of the Thai people was becoming ripe. The book refers to Hans Claessen’s theory of the “early state” defined as having five characteristics:

1- Its central government (legitimized by reciprocity);

2- Its strongly hierarchical character;

3- Its ethnic diversity;

4- Its agrarian economic basis;

5- The importance of trade and markets.

The text mentions several times the existence of “slaves” but we are unable to qualify this society because we do not know the real status of those who work the land and those who are taking care of all crafts. We know one thing though; the great number of kilns show that this society had reached its proto-industrial revolution since it was exporting the bricks and particularly glazed tiles and bricks they were able to produce in great quantity. This might only be the primitive proto industrial evolution of the Romans who had big pottery centers, like Lezoux in France, but which is not enough to qualify for a full proto industrial revolution like the one in the 11th-12th centuries in Europe centering on the use of watermills to harness hydraulic power to replace human work itself with mechanical work. But we hesitate to say the society is a slave society in which slavery is the basic working people status, or a serfdom system in which the land workers are attached to the land and not the possession of a landowner. It would have been interesting to solve this problem. A feudal society based on allegiance up and down the hierarchy but also on the fundamental human dignity for all, including those who are at the bottom of the hierarchy who are not chattel that can be sold like animals, but human beings though attached to the land they cultivate for the landowner.

It is implied we are not in a slave society, and we can presume slavery is rather marginal and that the deep Buddhist inspiration that rejects such degrading social statuses (like the untouchables or Dalits at the time of the Buddha in India) as slavery, would allow all members of this society to be equal in front of religion, not God since Buddhism does not believe in God. That’s where another element should have been made clear. What is the status of “the Sacred Kaphung, the divine spirit of the mountain who is more powerful than any other spirit in this realm?”

This Mountain Spirit is found in India for example:

“Mountain spirit (Kaphung Kameo): The spirit that lives in the mountain, the one who owns the mountain is called Kaphung Kameo. If a road is to be constructed passing that very mountain or the need arise to cut down a tree from that mountain, sacrifice and offering has to be done first and that will be a kind of taking permission from the spirit, the offering and sacrifice has to be done through blood by killing some animals. On the day of the sacrifices the village priest and few elders will go to that mountain top in the early morning and kill the animal. They will spread the blood of the animal through different direction of north, east, south and west from the mountain top. They will cook the meat and put it in a clean banana saying this is the head, heart, leg, ribs etc making sure they mention each part of the animal and the meat is left with the belief that the meat will become cold when it has been eaten by the spirit.

On the way back home they are not supposed to turn back if they turn back it is believed that the spirit gets suspicious. The necessary work on the mountain can start the following day.” (Rimai Joy, International Journal of Research in Sociology and Social Anthropology, 2013, 1(2): 31–36)

It would have been interesting to articulate this Spirit of The Mountain onto the Theravada Buddhism that is advocated and preached in the inscription with particularly the Kathina Feast. We could easily think there is a contradiction, though I have witnessed in modern Sri Lanka the perfect cohabitation between Buddhism and the survival of local deities and road side shrines and taxi drivers stopping by them and paying their respect. The survival of such traditions in the 13th century must have been a lot stronger, if survivals at all.

It would also have been interesting to connect this inscription with the full Buddhist and royal heritage of Sukhothai that is extremely famous for the art, architecture and inscriptions of Wat Si Chum. My experience, and my conviction, is that nothing can be taken in isolation. In the discussion on the writing system, other inscriptions are mentioned but they are not specified, neither in origin, identity and content. If the present inscription is to be taken as authentic, what are the relations of it to the other inscriptions that can be found in the Sukhotai area, especially since Ram Khamhaeng is credited with building most of the temples around the city. Is there a graphic relation between the writing system of this inscription and what is known as Inscription II at Wat Si Chum attributed to King Löthai (1298–1346/47). By keeping the present inscription locked into itself and locked into Ram Khamhaeng, we lose some power in the arguments, especially since one of the protagonists of the fake theory is Prasert na Nagara who is considered an expert on inscriptions, including Inscription II which came just some time after the one concerned here.

The debate revolves a lot around the writing system of this inscription. Many people seem to ignore what a tremendous invention writing was, and the tremendous time it must have taken for human beings to invent writing systems that were at first iconographic and directly representative of what was being said. At the same time, and this seems to be a vast reality the move towards alphabets was possible by abstracting the initial sound of the word represented by the icon and the icon became the symbol of this sound and was eventually stylized and simplified. We have this procedure systematically in Celtic and Germanic cultures. We had it in Phoenician culture. The first real writing system that does not seem to be attached to such icons is the Sumerian system in which each character is composed of various diacritic signs that are the impressions of a stylus in the soft clay of a tablet, hence a writing system produced by the writing tool and technology rather than by the language itself.

But what most people ignore is that it takes a tremendous long time to invent a writing system and very few writing systems have been produced by one person only. In fact the Phoenician produced their system, like the Sumerian theirs, for commercial and accounting reasons, and it took a long time before the mercantile corporation was able to come to a stabilized system that nevertheless continued to evolve. The Phoenician writing system is Semitic and only has one vowel, and mind you when it is the initial letter of a word, whereas the Greek system that is derived from the Phoenician system has a full set of vowels because Greek is an Indo-European language. Such an invention may take centuries, if not many centuries. In later periods then a writing system can be devised by one person, or a small number of persons. We can think of short hand writing systems, of the Braille writing system, or some others like smileys and emoticons. In the present case we have a writing system attributed to one person. But what is the devising procedure used by this person?

That’s the question that could have been asked. Was Ram Khamhaeng’s writing system based on words and the first sound of that word becomes the letter that may keep the word as its name, or is it totally arbitrary like the Sumerian system, or is it iconographic like the Phoenician and Greek alphabets for which the letter is a stylized representation of an object? In fact it is such questions that might lead to a final answer to the problem. What is the logic behind the various writing systems of Indo-Aryan or Tibeto-Burman languages and the languages of South east Asia, which are more or less alphabetic, as opposed to the Chinese system which is logographic?

So a very interesting book that brings a general solution to an artificially-produced mystery that would never have existed if the people who started it had not been authorities in their domain, but some more general research is necessary to close up the mystery for real and ever, though we can live with it at the back of our minds quite safely.

Dr Jacques COULARDEAU

The world is like the mind infinitely varied and all inclusive

LEZEDOM LEFFERTS & SANDRA CATE — BHUDDIST STORYTELLING IN THAILAND AND LAOS — THE VESSANTARA JATAKA SCROLL AT THE ASIAN CIVILISATIONS MUSEUM — 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 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?

Dr Jacques COULARDEAU

Salvation is in your mind and the way you may learn how to use it
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