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Art and Images in Psychiatry
December 2013

Lives of the Buddha: Vessantara the Charitable PrinceThai School

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Developmental Neuropsychiatry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland
JAMA Psychiatry. 2013;70(12):1259-1260. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.2023

Searching I saw the first perfection, of generosity, the magnificent highway walked by the teachers of old.

The Jatakas: Birth Stories of Bodhisatta1(p2)

Knowledge about the past lives of the Buddha is essential to understanding Buddhist practice in Theravada Buddhist countries. Although not well known or emphasized in the West, the stories provide a rich narrative underpinning about how to attain the virtues necessary for a meaningful life. Mural paintings of the past lives of the Buddha have illuminated the walls of Buddhist temples in countries practicing Theravada Buddhism (Doctrine of the Elders) in Southeast Asia for centuries.2,3 Particular attention is paid to the last 10 lives (incarnations) of the Buddha because in them, he perfected the cardinal virtues that were requisite to being reborn as a Buddha. The last of these lives celebrates Prince Vessantara’s mastery of the virtue of generosity. Generosity is a virtue celebrated in the West at the end of each year; perhaps this ancient Buddhist tale will resonate with the upcoming holiday season.

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