By Kim Collins
Buddhists traditions of south East Asia revere the story of Vessantara. In Buddhism there are ten (or six depending on the tradition) main virtues. The first virtue is the paramita (or perfection) of dana (generosity) (Ratnasinghe, 1). The paramita of dana is extolled in the tale of Vessantara.
Vessantara, the incarnation before Siddhartha, was born into a royal family. His birth caused the gods to take note of his generous character, as his first words were “Mother, what gift can I make?”(The Vessantara Jakata, 1). Throughout his childhood and into his reign as Prince, Vessantara was generous with all he had. A neighbouring king was jealous of his virtue and sent a brahim to request that Vessantara give him his white elephant. This elephant was considered to be the reason for the areas prosperity as it had magical rain making abilities (Swearer, 11). Once the community learned Vessantara had given away the elephant, he was banished along with his wife and two children. The tale maintains that while living in banishment, a poor brahim came and asked Vessantara for his children to use as servants. Without hesitation, Vessantara gave his away children. The god Indra then arrived in disguise and asked Vessantara to give him his wife. Vessantara agreed, thus proving his perfection of dana, as he was willing to give away both his children and his wife. At the end of the tale, Vessantara is reunited with his wife and children and returns to rule as a Prince (Swearer, 11-12).
This tale exemplfies the extremes to which dana can be prefected. In terms of understanding modern Buddhist philantrophic tendancies this story is important in that it relates several keys elements. Firstly, the importance of the Jakata (tales) of Vessantara demonstrates the value placed on giving. In modern Myanmar the Jakata are publicly recited and it is considered an honour for a family to sponsor the three day event (Pannyawamsa, 1). Secondly, dana is the first paramita listed thus showing the importance of generosity in Buddhist traditions (Ratnasinghe, 1). Thirdly, it is widely held that Vessantara was the incarnation before Siddhartha (The Vessantara Jakata, 1). This indicates the importance of dana in terms of creating karma. Karma means that “whatever we do, with our body, speech or mind will have a corresponding result. Each action, even the smallest, is pregnant with consequences.” (Rinpoche, 92). It is clear from the Jakata of Vessantara that the karma created by Vessantara’s devotion to dana aided in his rebirth as Siddhartha the Buddha.
It is clearly evident from the Jakata of Vessantara that the practice of philanthropy in the Buddhist traditions of South East Asia is of extreme importance. Philanthropy is not only beneficial for those in need but also for the giver, as the karmic result of the perfection of dana increases the likelihood of release from the cycle of rebirth and death.
Pannyawamsa, Sengpan. “Recital Of The Tham Vessantara-jAtaka: A Social-cultural Phenomenon In Kengtung, Eastern Shan State, Myanmar”. Contempory Buddhism; May2009, Vol. 10 Issue 1, p125-139, 15p. Retrieved from http://web.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/
Ratnasinghe, Aryadasa. ‘Dana Paramita’ – Perfection of generosity. Buddhist Era 2547 Il First Quarter -Sunday, November 30,2003. Retrieved from http://www.lakehouse.lk/budusarana/2003/11/30/Budu17.pdf
Rinpoche, Sogyal. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
Swearer, Donald K.The Buddhist world of Southeast AsiaAlbany: State University of New York, 1995.
The Vessantara Jakata. Retrieved from http://www.buddha-images.com/vessantara-jataka.asp