Illuminating the Life of the Buddha

Illuminating the Life of the Buddha

Book Review: Illuminating the Life of the Buddha

In doing our research for Sinxay we have read a lot of books, some extremely helpful and some returned quickly to the library. In mentioning the library, we would like to give a big shout out to the Sacramento Public Library system and their Link Plus system. It has been a godsend as we have been able to access books and materials normally unavailable to ordinary citizens through the Internet or our local library system.

One of our favorite books we’ve read in researching Sinxay is Illuminating the Life of the Buddha: An Illustrated Chanting Book from Eighteenth Century Siam by Naomi Appleton, Sarah Shaw and Toshiya Unebe. We were led to this book while reading Naomi’s blog, reflections on Buddhist studies, South Asian narrative and related matters. In the menu on her blog under Publications we discovered Naomi had recently co-published this book through Oxford: Bodleian Libraries in 2013. We checked at Amazon and discovered it was available and purchased a copy. It’s not cheap at $58.50, but it is beautifully done with superb reproductions and for us an excellent investment.

We knew of Naomi because her first book, Jataka Stories in Theravada Buddhism: Narrating the Boddhisatta’s Path, was a book we often returned to while writing our Buddhism section in Sinxay. One of the many things that makes Sinxay unique is that it is a Theravada Jataka tale, and there is relatively very little written from a Theravada perspective these days. Discovering her book about four years ago was like digging up buried treasure and the insights we gained into Sinxay still resonate to this day. We will discuss her book in a later blog post.

The description from Amazon and the inside of the book jacket is worth repeating here.

“Illuminating the Life of the Buddha investigates an outstanding eighteenth-century samut khoi, a type of beautifully illustrated, folded book found in Southeast Asia and popular as a repository for the Buddha’s teachings. Written in Pali and produced in Siam, the samut khoi features finely executed paintings on khoi paper portraying key stories from the Buddha’s past lives. These stories, known as the Jatakas, were the principal means by which Buddhist teachings were communicated and were thus a favored theme for samut khoi. However, this samut khoi stands out for its extensive series of paintings from the last life of the Buddha, including his final awakening and teaching, which are distinctive to the region.

Affording readers immense insight into a spectacular eighteenth-century manuscript, and Thai Buddhist manuscripts and temple culture as a whole, this book will be of great interest to art historians and scholars of Buddhism and Southeast Asia.”

In the book Appleton authors the first chapter on “The past lives of the Buddha.” Jātaka tales are often misunderstood and undervalued and Appleton is to be commended for “illuminating” the importance of Jataka tales, especially from a Theravada perspective. She writes, “According to the Pali tradition in which Thai Buddhism situates itself, the Buddha’s long life story involves the pursuit of ten ‘perfections’ (paramī or pāramita) that are required for Buddhahood. These perfections are giving morality, renunciation, wisdom, vigor, forbearance, truthfulness, resolve, loving kindness and equanimity. The Buddha-to-be, known at this stage as the Bodhisatta [more commonly spelled Boddhisattva from the Mahayana tradition], an awakening being, must work to complete each of these qualities within himself before he can become the Buddha, the Awakened One. Jātaka stories are believed to narrate the Bodhisatta’s efforts in acquiring these perfections.”

Appleton goes on to discuss the ten jatakas associated with the ten paramis, recognizing that it is the Vessantara Jataka that is the favorite of the Thai and Lao and it’s illustrations are the ones most commonly seen in Lao and Thai wats.

In Appleton’s chapter on “The past lives of the Buddha” she writes a short section on “The gods” where she explains the various roles the gods have in Jataka tales. It’s fascinating to think that even with being godlike, the gods are still subject to death and rebirth, possibly in lower realms, so the teachings of the Buddha are just important to them as ordinary mortals. An important god mentioned here is Indra (Sakka), also a major character in Sinxay. Sinxay is dependent on his assistance and is in fact one of three sons of Sakka who are reborn as brothers in our retelling of Sinxay. The brothers are Sinxay, Sangthong and Siho.

Appleton also discusses the importance of spirit deities featured in jataka tales, extremely important in Sinxay. She talks about the nagas, ubiquitous in Laos and fairly common in Thailand, garudas known as khuts in Laos that are omnipresent in Thailand and rarely seen in Laos. The yakkhas which are more commonly known as nyaks in Laos and yakshas in Thailand, are much more prevalent in Thailand.

The antagonist in Sinxay is a nyak, Nyak Koumphan, who is responsible for abducting the sister of the king, Phanya Kousarat, and eventually it is Sinxay who is tasked with rescuing her. Appleton captures their importance in jataka tales when she writes at the end of the section, “Thus the jatakas are not only concerned with the human realm, but also the various categories of deity and demon that surround us, providing plenty of scope for imaginative illustrations.” So true, so incredibly true! You will see this reflected in all the artwork we will be including in our site and eventually in our own book on Sinxay.

We will continue the review of this outstanding book in a later post. With all the illustrations it’s a visual feast and what Sarah Shaw had to write in the Introduction and the final chapter on “The lifestory of a manuscript” is equally illuminating.

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