Revisiting Buddha's incarnations

by Vasana Chinvarakorn, The Bangkok Post, Aug 6, 2005

An accessible, thought-provoking and occasionally irreverent retelling of some of the classic 'Jataka' tales, illustrated by some marvellous period art

Bangkok, Thailand -- It all began in April 2001. Uthong Prasart-winijchai went on an excursion to southern Italy where her travel companions lavished on themselves an ample supply of illustrated titles on European art, history and architecture.

Then someone in the group remarked on the pathetic lack of books of equal calibre back home. Surely this must be an embarrassment to a country so proud of the richness of its cultural heritage! But suppose they were to embark on a project to write good-quality guides to Thailand, what topic, the friends wondered, should be the first candidate for coverage?

Uthong proposed doing something about the classic Jataka tales, specifically on Buddha's 10 major incarnations (there were, in total, over 500). Plenty of marvellous mural paintings and other artwork are available to go with the texts, she pointed out, works that have unfortunately been neglected by most Thais. So Uthong, a sociologist, was unanimously chosen to be the one to do the writing.

Exploring the Ten Lives of Buddha Through Paintings was completed a year and seven months later. The two-volume set recently won the Toyota Thailand Foundation's Award of Honour. When it first came out three years ago, in hardback, the book won the documentary category in CP 7-Eleven's "7 Book Awards".

Exploring is, as the title suggests, a book to delve into, be it for the highly entertaining stories or the remarkable set of illustrations. Uthong has successfully rendered the Buddhist tales, many of which are well known among her compatriots, in a way that makes them both fun to read and something to ponder on long after the last page has been turned.

In a way Exploring could be described as a book on dharma subtly cloaked in colourful garb. And that, in itself, is an achievement not to be sneezed at. Uthong notes in an appendix how several people laughed when they first heard about her assignment; it'll be a complete waste of time, she was told. Isn't the theme of Buddha's incarnations too arcane, too full of inexplicable "miracles" to attract modern-day readers, she was asked. And Uthong herself doesn't seem the devout type: She does visit temples regularly, yes, but more to savour the aesthetics of Buddhist religious art, she says, than to listen to monks' sermons!

The book is divided into 10 chapters to correspond to 10 of Buddha's jataka (incarnations). Uthong's choice of narrative style - the book is written as a series of letters to a friend, "Namrin" - is deceptively simple.

The Jataka tales have been circulating in this part of the world for many centuries; how then to re-present them without boring readers to death? And some have storylines that are not, as Uthong put it, very sensible ("virtually all the main characters weep most of the time"), while others initially seem uninspiring.

But she did, ultimately, hit upon the right formula. In the chapter on Nemiraj, she starts by telling us right out that she was utterly bored by this tale while she was growing up. Personifying the virtue of surmounting all obstacles in order to accomplish what one has set out to do, Nemiraj was a king who got the opportunity to visit both heaven and hell. Upon his return to this world, he told his subjects about what he had seen, urging them to do good and avoid evil. End of story.

That's only the beginning of Uthong's version, though. She probed the Jataka more deeply and came up with the "prequel". Thousands of years before, another king, actually an earlier incarnation of Nemiraj himself, started the tradition of entering the monkhood after the appearance of his first grey hair. Each successor - 84,000 were predicted - was to abdicate from the throne at this point and inform his heir about the custom which had prompted his ordination. The last in the line was Nemiraj himself, who decided to leave his heavenly abode and be born as a human again in order to fulfil the original prediction.

Next, Uthong supplies a preview of Nemiraj's tour of the underworld. We get graphic, lurid images of bodies being impaled or cut up and tossed into boiling, acidic water. (She confided that descriptions of the celestial world seemed a lot less thrilling by comparison.) The reproductions of temple murals that accompany this chapter are a joy to behold, too.

Here, Uthong details anecdotes about master artists during the reign of King Rama III; one, in particular, delighted in sneaking mischievous, unexpected scenes into his otherwise fabulous work. That display of naughtiness is not unlike Uthong's approach to retelling what are supposed to be solemn, didactic tales. For instance, she tell us that an old painting of a horse with magical powers reminded her of the Hollywood film 101 Dalmatians, and that one of the heroes could have set the world record for jumping if we were to take the description of his prowess in the Jataka as the literal truth.

Ultimately, though, this playfulness is but a precursor to drawing some serious morals. At the end of each chapter, Uthong tries to link its content to various Buddhist teachings - on the virtues of patience, "loving-kindness", wisdom, giving, and the equanimity that a bodhisattva must achieve on his spiritual mission - and to a modern-day context, too. There are allusions to Aung San Su Kyi and oppressive dictatorship, for example; to rampant consumerism and the principle of non-violence in a world that is growing increasingly violent.

However, some of the deeds described in the Jataka, particularly those attributed to incarnations of Buddha, may not appear very sensible judged by contemporary standards. For many feminists, Vessantara, vaunted as the epitome of dhana (giving) in the Jataka, comes across as merely selfish when he decides to give away his wife and children. And how can Janthakumara be praised for his patience when all this prince basically did was cry and plead with his father to abandon the idea of human sacrifice?

Uthong does not try to give definitive, conclusive answers to all the questions raised. Indeed, one merit of Exploring is that it doesn't seek to be dogmatic.

Debates are initiated and the status quo is sometimes challenged as we read her versions of the tales. Underneath it all can be seen her attempts to cherish the basic, intrinsic quality of goodness - something that is getting harder to find in our modern world.

Thus, Exploring does not only fill in gaps in a local literary genre; it also satisfies a widespread yearning for spiritual solace in this day and age.