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http://www.buddha-images.com/vessantara-jataka.asp

It depicts the life of prince Vessantara who gives away all his possessions, including his children to become servants of an evil spirited character.

What can this say that Buddha encourages the laymen The Middle Way, while his act of donating children during the life of prince Vessantara seems quite extreme for a layperson?

Monks, these two extremes ought not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the household life. (What are the two?) There is addiction to indulgence of sense-pleasures, which is low, coarse, the way of ordinary people, unworthy, and unprofitable; and there is addiction to self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.

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Giving away children does not come under self-mortification. Self-mortification is torturing the physical body.

“Venerable Nàgasena, do all the Bodhisattas give away their wives and children, or was it only Vessantara?” “All of them do.” “But do those wives and children consent to it?” “The wives do but the children do not due to their tender age.” “But was it then a meritorious deed if the children were terrified and cried at being given away?” “Yes it was. As a man desiring merit might take a cripple wherever he wanted to go in an ox-cart and thereby the oxen would be made to suffer; or as a king might levy a tax in order to perform a great meritorious deed; so too, giving, though it may cause anguish to some, is conducive to rebirth in heaven. Is there, king, any gift that should not be given?” “Yes, Nàgasena, there are ten kinds of gifts that should not be given, the giving of which leads to rebirth in states of woe: a gift of intoxicants, of a festival, of a woman, of a man,of suggestive designs, weapons, poisons, chains or instruments of torture, fowls and swine, or false weights and measures.” “I am not asking about gifts that are not approved of in the world. I am asking if there is any gift that should not be given when there is someone worthy of it.” “Then, Nàgasena, there is no gift that should not be given. When satisfaction in Dhamma has arisen, some people give a hundred thousand, or a kingdom or even their life.” “Then why do you criticize the gift of Vessantara so harshly? Is it not sometimes the case that a man in debt may sell his son or leave him as a pledge? Just so, Vessantara gave his son as a pledge against his future attainment of omniscience.” “Nevertheless, why did he not give himself instead?” “Because that was not what was asked for. To offer something else would have been ignoble. Furthermore, O king, Vessantara knew that the Brahmin would be unable to keep the children as slaves for long since he was advanced in years. Anyway, he knew their grandfather would pay a ransom for their return.” “Skilfully, Nàgasena, has this puzzle been unravelled. The net of heresy has been torn to pieces. Well has the letter of the scriptures been maintained while you have thus explained the spirit. This is so and I accept it as you say.” - Milinda Panha

  • Why does the Bhante say that a gift of Women is inappropriate but he approves Vessantara's dana? – Luv May 18 '18 at 7:19
  • @SankhaKulathantille The bit you quoted says, "there are ten kinds of gifts that should not be given ...: a gift of intoxicants, of a festival, of a woman, of a man ...". user1926852 is asking about this, why does he approve Vessantara's dana, and also say that a gift of women is inappropriate? – ChrisW May 18 '18 at 8:26
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    @ChrisW That's what King Milinda said. Not venerable Nagasena. – Sankha Kulathantille May 18 '18 at 8:38
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According to the story, wasn't prince Vessantara still a lay person who didn't reach full enlightenment yet? He wasn't a Buddha yet so knowledge of noble paths had not yet occured to him.

Your question would be much more interesting subject to study if Buddha gave away his children AFTER the enlightenment.

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    Also it is worth noting that how Buddha got to know that extremes did not work was by practicing them and not reaching enlightenment through them. – RRR May 18 '18 at 3:34

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