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Painting the “Great Life” Forrest McGill The “Great Life,” or Vessantara Jâtaka, and the other stories of the Buddha’s last ten lives have for centuries been among the most important texts for Southeast Asian Buddhists. The stories provide not only the amusements of well-told tales, but also moral instruction, as their protagonists have come to be seen as exemplars of Buddhism’s Ten Perfections of patience, wisdom , giving, and so on.1 Four paintings now in the Phoenix Art Museum illustrate four of the key episodes of the Vessantara Jâtaka (plates 1–4). Almost uniquely among published paintings they bear donative inscriptions. These inscriptions name the persons who gave the paintings and their home village, identify the chapters of the text depicted, and suggest the donors’ motives. Thus we are in the unusual position of having four sorts of text—the jâtaka itself; the paintings; the inscriptions; and, as will be seen, a Thai scholar’s description of a relevant ceremony—to help us begin to understand what the “Great Life” meant to people in a nineteenth-century central Thai village. In the story, Prince Vessantara is motivated by boundless generosity. When eight brahmans from a drought-stricken neighbor kingdom ask him for his own kingdom’s rain-bringing white elephant, he gives it. His people angrily send him into exile. Before leaving, however, Vessantara dispenses enormous riches in the “great seven-hundredfold donation.” Later, on the way to the forest retreat, Vessantara, his wife Maddi, and their two children are asked first for their horses, then for their chariot, which of course Vessantara readily bestows. Eventually he gives away his children to the brahman Jujaka and is only prevented from giving away his wife by a 195 gentle trick played by the god Indra. Meanwhile, the royal children are ransomed from Jujaka by their grandfather, and Jujaka, enjoying a new life of wealth and luxury, dies from overindulgence. Grandparents and grandchildren are reunited with Vessantara and Maddi, and all return to the capital, where Vessantara resumes his royal duties.2 Because the Vessantara Jâtaka tells of the Buddha’s immediately previous life, the last and most perfected of 500 or more,3 it must be particularly worthy of respect and attention. In fact, the jâtaka informs us that it was first related by the Buddha himself. Shortly after the First Sermon the Buddha returned to his father’s capital; in his father’s presence he performed a miracle to awe some proud relatives, and then he told the story of his last life.4 The Buddha’s recounting the Vessantara story to his father and other relatives was echoed in traditional Thai custom. When a young man entered the monastery and became a novice, his family would gather to hear him recite part of the Vessantara story. In an even closer imitation of the Buddha’s life, this custom was followed in the palace too. In 1817, 1866, and 1891 ceremonies were held in which a royal prince in his novitiate recited parts of the Vessantara story before his relatives and the king.5 Elaborate ceremonies for recitation of a full text of the Vessantara Jâtaka, called thèt Mahâchât, or “recitation of the ‘Great Life,’ ” were annual events in many Thai towns. An important reason for this was the widespread popular belief that listening to a complete recitation of the Vessantara Jâtaka would help assure rebirth in human form in the far future when the bodhisattva Maitreya descends to earth for his last life, during which he will attain Buddhahood. Meeting Maitreya was a common goal among Theravâda Buddhists; why this was so, what role the Vessantara Jâtaka had, and how the Phoenix paintings served in achieving the goal will become clear later. Thai Versions of the Vessantara Ja –taka Thailand’s earliest version of the Vessantara Jâtaka of which some parts may survive is the Mahâchât Kham Luang, or “Royal Version of the Great Life,” said to have been composed in 1482 by King Bo̧rommatrailòkkanât of Ayutthaya.6 Much of this version seems to have been lost and replaced during subsequent centuries, and the present compilation dates only from 1815.7 Other versions, including another Mahâchât Kham Luang composed by King Song Tham in 1627, have continued to appear.8 Writing in 1892, G. E. Gerini noted that “quite a number of different versions are now...


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