The jataka talesâ€”stories of the Buddhaâ€™s past livesâ€”have had a long and very rich history. First told, it is said, twenty-five hundred years ago by the Buddha himself, they have ever since been gorgeously sculpted, painted, carved, and inscribed on great stupas and monuments, within cave-temples and monasteries, as well as written, dramatized, told and retold by itinerant storytellers, by lowly horse traders on caravan trails, and by professionals in the halls of the noble and great throughout Buddhist Asia. Within Buddhism itself, the jatakas remain at the heart of the oldest layers of tradition and teaching. And they have been perhaps the most popular level presentation of the Buddha Way for ordained as well as lay followers. Everyone, monks and lay believers alike, knew the jataka tales.
For the last hundred years or so jatakas have begun appearing in translation in the West. These versions have most often taken either the form of scholarly texts or Aesop-like stories for children. Only recently, however, have they been seen for what they truly areâ€”dramas of the great vow, great work, effort, and aspiration of the bodhisattva (literally â€świsdombeingâ€ť), the Buddha-to-Be on the way to Buddhahoodâ€”in other words, as serious teachings that embody the Way and awaken our own wisdom-heart. Actually, these stories have already had a long history in the West. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Kipling, as well as a Greek tragedian or two, all drew on jataka tales that came to them through centuries of Western trade with the East. And through conquest. Alexander the Greatâ€™s armies carried jatakas back with them. There is even speculation that Aesopâ€™s Fables may actually be Greek reinterpretations of jatakas, and the name â€śAesopâ€ť itself a corruption of â€śbodhisattva.â€ť The essential morality of the jatakas is clear and familiar, East or West. Kindness, courage, humor, and respect for living things are poised against selfishness, cruelty, cowardice, and endless grumpiness. It is the most ancient morality of ahimsa, or nonharming; the essential ground of the Buddhist paramitas, or perfections; and the fundamental ethical stand of literatures, cultures, and communities worldwide. The jatakas also deepen our understanding of how the Buddha became the Buddha. We think of Siddartha Gautama as a prince born twenty-five hundred years ago in India, who, as a young man discovering the painful realities of birth, aging, sickness, and death, became determined to find a path beyond these terrors. After six years of unrelenting effort, the legend goes, he attained full and perfect enlightenment and then from the foundation of that experience taught others how they too might find meaning, freedom, and joy in the very midst of the terrors of impermanence itself. What the jatakas reveal is that those efforts actually began lifetimes ago, when the Buddha was no different than any one of us.Â And then the only difference from that point on was that despite the difficulties and challenges that came his way, he just kept at it. Most uniquely, they not only show this founder of a world religion having had many difficult past lives, lives of poverty and low status, but they also show him facing ethical and spiritual challenges in countless animal existences â€“ as a jackal, lion, elephant, deer, horse, dog, crow, or bear. How strange and, at the same time, how wonderful is that?!
Given this, perhaps the Buddhist jatakas can help return us now, when it is so very much needed, to a vision of our place and role in the multileveled universe of all living beings, human and nonhuman alike. Through them we can renew our empathy with all life and regain a felt connection to animals as thinking, suffering, caring, aspiring beings, not machines in fur. We may recognize that they, like us, are individuals are on a Path, each responsible for finding his or her own way. Is it true? Is it fact? At the least, itâ€™s a vision of life that we would all be the poorer and lonelier without. Science keeps edging closer to the view that animals are not simply â€śon automatic,â€ť but that they think and feel and can manifest quite flexible, innovative, and individual behaviors and personalities. The jatakas allow us to reenter this world and feel it. Our own lives benefit from this imaginative reconnection with the countless living beings that we stillâ€”so farâ€”share our Earth with. There is healing in that, and not just for us, but for the Earth and animals. Where we find sympathy, indeed unity, we are less likely to willfully cause harm. Ecological wisdom arises out of felt connection, not simply out of the rational, and these days usually awful, deluge of facts about environmental degradation. Finally, it is out of the imagination that we create our real lives. Athletes know this perhaps better than anyone. If you want to swim better, you visualize yourself in the pool, the water flowing smoothly past, the chiming, churning sound of that flow, the kick of your legs, the perfect effortless stroke, the echoing sounds of the tiled pool, even the smell of chlorine. Do it over and over and, when you get in the real pool, you swim better. What happens in the imagination changes us, makes us who we are. â€śIn dreams begin responsibilities,â€ť says Yeats. Why donâ€™t we teach this to our children? Why donâ€™t we take the time to train the imagination, not just the intellect? One day, hopefully, we will. We may have to. For by dreaming well, we live well. Stories are the tools that our ancestors worldwide have passed down to us, an impressive technology, if you will, to improve and refine our inner life, which means our dreaming, which in time becomes our outer life, our actual one. Stories change our imaginations just as visualizations change the swimmerâ€™s abilities, and by doing so they increase our actual life skills, our mental and emotional ones. Tales of courage make us braver. Tales of kindness make us kinder. Tales of cause and effect make us wiser. Tales of the consequences of hate and cowardice make us want to shun those possibilities from taking over within ourselves. Tales of endless perseverance and aspiration awaken dormant potential within us. Tales of the Buddha Way help us rediscover the endless path unfolding even now beneath our feet.
CLICK HERE to visit my website.
CLICK HERE to learn more about my book, Endless Path.