Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Giving way

On pedagogical principle, I never ask students to do something like a free writing assignment without doing it myself. Amazingly, the assignment does its work on me too. I surprise myself every time.

This time we were moving from the Jataka Tales to Fear and Trembling, a big leap I grant you! But the final Jataka - the final life of the bodhisattva (future Buddha) and the longest - tells of a father who gives his children away, Prince Vessantara. The part of Fear and Trembling we'd read provides four sketches of the story of the binding of Isaac, each quite different, focusing on the many different things which might have been going on in the silence of that story - all in service of the larger argument that people think they understand Abraham but in fact refuse to abide long enough with the story to face the central monstrous paradox of it. Kierkegaard invites/forces us to wonder: what look was on Abraham's face when he raised the knife? What went through his head, through Isaac's? How did they remember it? There is no answer in the text, and that is part of its power and terrible significance - if we don't quickly fold it into a banality like "testing" or "giving the best you have."

I thought we'd try the same thing with the story of Prince Vessantara who, banished by his people for giving away the source of their prosperity, goes into the forest with his wife and two children. Along the way the future Buddha gives away their chariot, horses, etc., too. He came into the world wishing to give unstintingly, whenever asked, to good and evil without distinction, and when he demonstrates a particularly spectacular feat of generosity, the earth trembles.
Eventually a wicked Brahmin named Jujaka (the Jatakas' stock villains are Brahmins) finds the family in the woods and asks to have Vessantara's children as slaves. The bodhisattva graciously obliges. But - and I read this part of the oldest surviving textual version to class on Monday - there is much pathos in the scene. (It has inspired much art, like the Thai depiction above.) The children hide in a lotus pond but Vessantara finds them and asks them to let him fulfil his vow. They acquiesce, but cling, crying to his legs. He weeps, his tears falling on their backs, but passes them on to Jujaka, who binds their hands together and leads them away, beating them. When Jujaka slips and the children escape, running back to their father, Vessantara returns them to Jujaka.

The story's awful, even when you know that the children are ultimately reunited with their father, Jujaka dies of overeating, and Vessantara goes on to become the Buddha. So I was curious how the class remembered it, and asked them to take ten minutes to write the story of Vessantara, Jujaka and the children. I did too (see below). But an interesting thing happened. None of the students wrote about it! Some tried to tell the whole story of Vessantara, starting with his birth and barely getting into the tale before time ran out, others hurried through many of his fabled acts of generosity in a matter-of-fact summary way. I suggested that there was something so appalling about the story of his giving away his children that we couldn't bear to dwell on it, and the class agreed. We hadn't shared, perhaps even with ourselves, how disturbing the religious celebration of Vessantara's generosity was to us. (Richard Gombrich thinks it records the structural pain of Theravada societies, where most families give up sons for the monasteries.)

For my part, I did much the same thing as my students avoiding the terrible scene, and without planning to. (The point of writing exercises is that you just write, and keep writing, seeing where the process of writing takes you.) I started out writing about Vessantara, then switched to the perspective of his children, and looked away at the crucial moments. I felt Kierkegaard watching scornfully but couldn't help myself. It makes an eloquent little story, making the looking away a sort of literary trope. But it was a looking away nonetheless...

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