Prince Sattva and the Tiger

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on August 29, 2016.)

A replica of a Dunhuang painting of Prince Sattva and the Tiger by
Chinese painter Guan Shanyue at the Shenzhen museum named for him

I have never had the opportunity to visit the famous Mogao Caves at Dunhuang, Gansu. So I was especially excited when the Guan Shanyue Museum in Shenzhen shared a traveling exhibit of Dunhuang art back in 2011. The connection was this: Guangdong-born artist Guan Shanyue had visited Dunhuang on an art tour of China's West in the early 1940s, and painted a number of things he saw there.

One of these was a panel rendered in a 125 x 168 cm watercolor, of which a copy hung in the exhibit. It depicted a tiger eating a young man, with other figures around the two in the center. Terrible, right?

But what this illustrated was an oddly beautiful story. The Jataka Tales tell stories of the Buddha Shakyamuni in his previous lives. In this one, he was a young prince named Sattva.

Out hunting with his brothers in the woods one day, Sattva came across a mother tigress who was so hungry that she was preparing to eat her babies. Horrified, the young prince decided that he would give his life to save hers--and those of her seven cubs.

After sending his brothers away, he lay down in front of her, but she was too weak to eat him. So Sattva climbed a nearby cliff, stabbed himself in the neck with a piece of bamboo, and tumbled down to lie dead at her feet.

The grateful mother licked the blood from his neck until she was strong enough to eat him, thus saving herself and her babies. This is the scene in the center of the panel. (The others around it show the other parts of the story.)

And so the young prince gained good karma on his way to Buddhahood.

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