About the Jataka Tales

For an adult class this evening, I made two video talks giving an overview of the Jataka tales. Links to the videos are below the fold. [talks removed from Youtube, sorry.] Also below the fold: text versions of both video talks.

References cited in the talks:

E. B. Cowell, ed., The Jataka or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births; in six volumes: Cambridge University Press, 1895; repub. in three volumes, Pali Text Society, 2004.

D. L. Ashliman, “The Jataka Tales,” on his “Folktexts” Web site, http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/jataka.html

Felix Adler, The Moral Instruction of Children, 1892.

Christopher Key Chapple, “Animals and Environment in the Buddhist Birth Stories,” in Mary Evelyn Tucker and Duncan Ryuken Williams, Buddhism and Ecology: The Interconnection of Dharma and Deeds, Harvard Univ., 1998.

Texts of the talks:

These texts have not been corrected, and in some cases the videos differ significantly from these texts.

In the first part of this series of videos on the Jataka Tales, I’m going to give a short introduction to the tales.

The Jatakas: an introduction, part one

Professor D. L. Ashliman, a scholar of folklore, says of the Jataka tales: “Part of the canon of sacred Buddhist literature, this collection of some 550 anecdotes and fables depicts earlier incarnations — sometimes as an animal, sometimes as a human — of the Bodhisatta, the being who would become Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha. Traditional birth and death dates of Gautama are 563-483 BC. The Jataka tales are dated between 300 [before the common era] and 400 [of the common era]. In spite of the collection’s sacred and didactic nature, it nonetheless includes elements — obviously derived from ancient folktales — whose primary function is entertainment.”

So writes D. L. Ashliman. I will add that the tales vary greatly in length. The longest Jataka tale, number 547, runs to fifty-nine pages in English translation published by the Pali Text Society. Quite a few short tales last just a page or two in the same edition. And some of the Jatakas, such as 224 and 82, have no story at all; number 224 consists of just one sentence and four lines of poetry.

The typical Jataka tale consists of three parts.

First, there is an introductory section, which typically tells a story of life in the religious community that gathered around Gotama Buddha after his enlightenment. These introductory sections are typically fairly short, but not always; for example, in Jataka number 77, the introductory section takes up six pages of small type.

The middle section is the core story. One of the characters in the story is always the Buddha; sometimes some of the characters in the story are followers of the Buddha. The core story typically concludes with a short poem, which contains the moral or some piece of wisdom.

In the final section, typically fairly brief, the Buddha reveals which of the characters in the story he was. Sometimes the Buddha also adds a moral or other brief teaching.

So the typical structure of a Jatka tale consists of the core story — the middle section — and the framing story — the introduction and conclusion, which take place during Gotama Buddha’s lifetime. Most English-language retellings of the Jataka tales leave out the framing story — the introduction and conclusion — and only focus on the core story.

So you get a better idea of how this works, I’m going to read you a short Jataka tale. This is Jataka number 145, as translated by Robert Cowell, first published in volume one of the six volume E. B. Cowell edition in 1895, and republished by the Pali Text Society on 2004:

[Here’s the introductory section:]

“How many more?”–This story was told by the Master while at Jetavana, about hankering after the wife of one’s mundane life. The incidents of the introductory story will be told in the Indriya-j?taka [Jataka no. 423].

The Master spoke thus to the Brother, “It is impossible to keep a guard over a woman; no guard can keep a woman in the right path. You yourself found in former days that all your safeguards were unavailing; and how can you now expect to have more success?”

And so saying, he told this story of the past.

[Now Buddha begins to tell the core story:]

Once on a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta was born a parrot. A certain brahmin in the K?si country was as a father to him and to his younger brother, treating them like his own children. Po??hap?da was the Bodhisatta’s name, and R?dha his brother’s.

Nov the brahmin had a bold bad wife. And as he was leaving home on business, he said to the two brothers, “If your mother, my wife, is minded to be naughty, stop her.” “We will, papa,” said the Bodhisatta, “if we can; but if we can’t, we will hold our peace.”

Having thus entrusted his wife to the parrots’ charge, the brahmin set out on his business. Every day thenceforth his wife misconducted herself; there was no end to the stream of her lovers in and out of the house. Moved by the sight, R?dha said to the Bodhisatta, “Brother, the parting injunction of our father was to stop any misconduct on his wife’s part, and now she does nothing but misconduct herself. Let us stop her.” “Brother,” said the Bodhisatta, “your words are the words of folly. You might carry a woman about in your arms and yet she would not be safe. So do not essay the impossible.” And so saying he uttered this stanza:–

How many more shall midnight bring? Your plan
Is idle. Naught but wifely love could curb
Her lust; and wifely love is lacking quite.

And for the reasons thus given, the Bodhisatta did not allow his brother to speak to the brahmin’s wife, who continued to gad about to her heart’s content during her husband’s absence. On his return, the brahmin asked Po??hap?da about his wife’s conduct, and the Bodhisatta faithfully related all that had taken place.

“Why, father,” he said, “should you have anything more to do with so wicked a woman?” And he added these words,–“My father, now that I have reported my mother’s wickedness, we can dwell here no longer.” So saying, he bowed at the brahmin’s feet and flew away with R?dha to the forest.

[Now the core story is over, and Buddha concludes:]

His lesson ended, the Master taught the Four Truths, at the close whereof the Brother who hankered after the wife of his mundane life was established in the fruition of the first Path.

“This husband and wife,” said the Master, “were the brahmin and his wife of those days, ?nanda was R?dha, and I myself Po??hap?da.”

OK — now you’ve heard the basic story structure.

So let’s take a little closer look at this Jataka tale. Let’s pick it apart a little bit.

Folklorists have categorized European, and to some extent Indo-European, folk tales according to the basic plot; each basic plot is assigned to an Aarne-Thompson-Uther type, or ATU type. This Jataka is of ATU type 243A. Other tales of ATU type 243A include Jataka number 198, and the tale “Of Maintaining the Truth to the Last,” a tale found in the fourteenth century English work “Deeds of the Romans,” or “Gesta Romanorum.” Let’s listen to the fourteenth century story so you can hear the parallels, and hear how it’s different:

Of Maintaining Truth to the Last

In the reign of Gordian, there was a certain noble soldier who had a fair but vicious wife. It happened that her husband having occasion to travel, the lady sent for her gallant. Now, one of her handmaids, it seems, was skillful in interpreting the song of birds; and in the court of the castle there were three cocks. During the night, while the gallant was with his mistress, the first cock began to crow.

The lady heard it, and said to her servant, “Dear friend, what says yonder cock?”

She replied, “That you are grossly injuring your husband.”

“Then,” said the lady, “kill that cock without delay.”

They did so. But soon after, the second cock crew, and the lady repeated her question.

“Madam,” said the handmaid, “he says, ‘My companion died for revealing the truth, and for the same cause, I am prepared to die.'”

“Kill him,” cried the lady, which they did.

After this, the third cock crew.

“What says he?” asked she again.

“Hear, see, and say nothing, if you would live in peace.”

“Oh, oh!” said the lady. “Don’t kill him.” And her orders were obeyed.

Application [or moral]:

My beloved, the emperor is God; the soldier, Christ; and the wife, the soul. The gallant is the devil. The handmaid is conscience. The first cock is our Savior, who was put to death; the second is the martyrs; and the third is a preacher who ought to be earnest in declaring the truth, but, being deterred by menaces, is afraid to utter it.

So goes the fourteenth century English story. In addition to a similar plot, you will notice that the two tales share a theological perspective on women: men are depicted as being more capable of reaching spiritual perfection than women.

However, aside from the essential misogyny of both stories, the theological content is quite different. So it’s interesting to see how a Christian source, and a Buddhist source take the same basic story type, and use it to serve their own ends.

So that’s my basic introduction to the Jataka Tales. These stories make up one of the sacred texts of Buddhists. Each Jataka tale typically consists of an introductory section, a core story, and a conclusion. The Jataka Tales draw on a stock of widely-spread folk tales as source material. But the Jataka Tales put their own specifically Buddhist interpretation on the source material.

The Jataka Tales: an introduction, part two

In the previous video on the Jataka Tales, I gave a brief overview of the tales. Now I’d like to look at some of the theological interpretations of the tales.

And I’ll begin with Felix Adler, a former rabbi who left Judaism to found the Ethical Culture Society. If you’re not familiar with the Ethical Culture Society, some people have called it post-Judaism, analogous to the way that Unitarian Universalism is a post-Christian liberal faith; theologically speaking, Ethical Culture Societies and Unitarian Universalist congregations tend to be very close.

In his 1892 book “The Moral Instruction of Children,” Felix Adler discusses using fables to teach moral instruction to children. Adler tends towards religious naturalism, that is, he wants to get away “from whatever is merely superstitious.” From that perspective, he feels that fables can be a good source of moral instruction for children. First, he tells a little bit about the back-story of the Jataka Tales:

“The collection of fables which figures under the name of Aesop has to a very remarkable degree maintained its popularity among children…. Recent researches have brought to light the highly interesting fact that these fables are of Asiatic origin. A collection of Indian and, it is believed, Buddhist fables and stories traveled at an early period into Persia, where it became known as the Pancha-Tantra. The Pancha-Tantra was translated into Arabic, and became the source of the voluminous Kalilah-wa-Dimnah literature. The Arabic tales in turn migrated into Europe at the time of the Crusades and were rendered into Greek, Hebrew, and Latin….”

Adler goes on to say that the Jataka Tales also drew on some of the same source material. But while Adler thinks some of the Jataka Tales should be shared with children, many of the Jataka Tales communicate what he calls “Oriental despotism”; these are stories which he claims “depict a state of society in which the people are cruelly oppressed by tyrannical rulers, and the weak are helpless in the hands of the strong.”

It is not clear to me that the cruelties of Adler’s “Oriental despotism” are very different from the cruelties of rapacious European and North American colonialism. What is clear to me, however, is that Adler ignores the Buddhist content of the Jataka Tales — he ignores the introductory sections of each story, and he ignores the Buddha’s lesson that concludes each story. What he’s trying to do, I think, is to remove all the religious content, leaving behind a collection of folk tales, some of which are suitable for the moral instruction of children.

Adler’s approach to the Jataka Tales has been widely adopted in the United States. We mostly see the Jataka Tales in children’s books, or other material aimed at children. Typically, the explicitly Buddhist material is stripped out of the stories, leaving only the core story. And only a small number of the Jataka Tales are retold in children’s literature.

I’d like to propose that we also take the Jataka Tales seriously as adult literature. I was alerted to this possibility in an essay that appeared in the book “Buddhism and Ecology: The Interconnection of Dharma and Deeds,” edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker and Duncan Ryuken Williams, one of the books that grew out of the conferences on religions of the world and ecology that took place at Harvard University from 1996 to 1998. One of the essays in that book, “Animals and Enviornment in the Buddhist Birth Stories,” by Christopher Key Chapple, discusses in some detail how the Jataka Tales can serve as the grounding of a Buddhist environmental theology. Let me read you an excerpt from this essay:

“[Another story] with an underlying ecological theme is the Vyaddha Jataka, a tale reminiscent of Aldo Leopold’s concept of ‘thinking like a mountain.’ In this story, the Buddha dwelt in a forest as a tree spirit. In this particular forest also lived a lion and a tiger, who used to ‘kill and eat all manner of creatures,’ leaving behind their offal to fester and decay. Because of the ferociousness of these predators, ho humans dared to enter the forest, let alone cut down even a single tree. However, one of the tree spirits could not stand the stench generated by the lion’s and the tiger’s rotting victims. One day, against the advice of the Buddha-tree, the spirit assumed an awful shape and scared off the killers. The people of the nearby village noticed that they no longer saw the tracks of either the lion or the tiger and began to chop down part of the forest. Despite the entreaties of the foolish tree spirit, the animals would not return, and after a few days the [humans] ‘cut down all the wood, made fields, and brought them under cultivation.’ thus driving out the spirits of the forest.

“To moral given by the Buddha was that one should recognize that one’s peace sometimes depends upon being able to stave off the incursions of others, and that one should not disturb such a state of affairs. From an environmental perspective, the presence of predators maintained an acceptable balance within the ecosystem, a balance that could not be restored after the predators were driven off, opening the land for clear-cutting and agricultural use.”

Chapple goes on to add that this story “exhibits a continuity of life-forms illustrative of the integrated nature of Buddhist cosmology.”

Now I’m particularly interested in using religious resources to further environmental justice. But I also want to point out a parallel between what Felix Adler did. Adler wanted to use the Jataka Tales to provide moral instruction to children. Chapple wants to use the Jataka Tales to promote environmental justice work. Adler picked out those stories that he felt would provide suitable moral instruction for children, and left behind those that didn’t further his theological ends. Chapple, for his part, picks out the stories where the Buddha was reborn as a non-human organism, and ignores the stories that don’t further his theological ends. These are both perfectly legitimate uses for the Jataka Tales.

We might even say that this is what theology is all about. We start with some basic source material from some religious tradition — the Jataka Tales from Buddhism, for example, or the Gospels from Christianity, or the hymns of Guru Nanak from Skhism. After spending some time with that source material, we begin to see how the source material might apply to the problems we’re facing in the world today. Then we interpret the source material in such a way that we address today’s problems in a creative and effective way. So we could say that the purpose of theology is to affect the world in creative, productive, positive ways.

However, the source material of religion always remains incompletely explained by theology — indeed, like all stories, like all literature, like all art, religious source materials such as the Jataka Tales really can’t be logically explained in every detail. There is no theology that is complete and perfect. And so it is that we find ourselves continually re-engaging with texts, or songs, or art works — continually interpreting and re-interpreting texts in light of our encounters with the real world.

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