Buddhist Tales for Young and Old


Interpreter’s Introduction

The Jataka stories, over millennia, have been seminal to the development of many civilisations, the cultivation of moral conduct and good behaviour, the growth of a rich and varied literature in diverse parts of the world and the inspiration for painting, sculpture and architecture of enduring aesthetic value. The Buddha himself used jataka stories to explain concepts like kamma and rebirth and to emphasise the importance of certain moral values. A Jataka bhanaka (jataka storyteller) is mentioned to have been appointed even as early as the time of the Buddha. Such appointments were common in ancient Sri Lanka and among others, King Llanaga (1st century AD) is recorded in the mahavamsa, to have heard kapi jataka from a bhanaka bhikkhu. It is in continuation of this noble tradition that these stories are now re-told in print to an audience which had been denied access to them by language and other cultural barriers. These stories are ever more relevant in the fragmented societies of today, where especially children, in their most formative years, seek helplessly for guidance in steering their lives to success and fulfilment.
No other civilisation has been as much nourished by this rich source as that in Sri Lanka. Sinhala, the language of the people of Sri Lanka, in which script the teachings of the Buddha were written down for the first time ever, carrier unerring marks of that nourishment. Both the most hallowed literary works as well as the colloquial language of ordinary present day villagers are replete with allusions to the better-known Jataka stories. The latter would frequently refer to “king Vessantara” (who was generous to a fault), ‘king Cetiya” (an inveterate liar), the blind jackal (a most grateful friend) to prince Mahaushadha (of unfathomable wisdom), to a tortoise who readily takes to water or to the occasion when the sky fell on the hare.

There is hardly any form of Sihala literature which has not been fed by the well springs of jataka stories. Works of poetry beginning from Sasadavata (12th century), Muvadevdavata (12th century), Kausilumina (13th century), Guttila kavyaya and Kavyashekharaya (14th century), Kusa jataka kavyaya and Asadisa da Kava (17th century) embody jataka stories. Poems of other genre are replete with allusions to incidents and personalities drawn from jataka stories.

Among prose works Sulu Kalingu da vata (12 century), Ummagga Jataka (13th century), Bhuridatta Jataka (13th century) and Vessantara Jataka are jataka stories re-told in inimitable fashion. Other works such as Amavatura (12th century),Butsarana (12 century) Pajavalia (13th century)

Saddharmaratnavalia (13th century), and Saddharmalankaraya are deeply embellished with material form jataka stories. Until quite recently, the most widely read Sinhala prose work was Pansiya Panas Jataka Pota, number 6 in our list of sources.

Later works of drama such as the Sandakinduru Nadagama, Vessantara Nadagama, Pabavati, Kada Valalu, Kala gola and Pemato jayati soko are based on jataka stories.

Stories similar to jataka stories occur in the Vedas. Some of the Brahmanas and Puranas are simply narrative stories. In many places, the context, the style or the core stories are altered. The same story is often told by different authors in different places, for example, Kausilumina and Kasadavata as poetry and Kabavati as drama are based on Kusajataka.

In Mahayana literature Asvaghos’s Sutralankara, Aryashura’s Jatakamala and Khsemendra’s Avadana Kalpalata are well known as jataka stories.

Indian Sanskrt works such as Katha sarit sagara, Dasa Kuamara carita, Panca tantra and Hitopadesa contain similar stories. These stories contributed to the later incomparable works of Kalidasa and Ashvaghosa.

There are also Mahayana jataka stories such as Vyaghri, Dhammasondaka and Seta Gandha Hasti which do not appear in Pali at all. Some jataka stories can be found in Jain literature, such as the story of Isisinga in Suyakadanga, which is the Nalini Jataka. They are found in even the Mahabharata, for example Rsissringa upakhyana.

Jataka and similar other stories travelled far and wide by word of mouth along caravan routes and contributed to the literature in Persia, China, Arabia (Arabian Nights) Italy (Boccaccio’s tales), Greece (Aesop’s Fables), Britian (Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) and Japan (Zen stories).

For developing moral conduct and good behaviour, there are few more instructive foundation than jataka stories. All Jataka stories hold out advice on how to correct our ways. They played and continue to play in some `societies an enormous role in the cultivation of peace and generosity. When Buddhist monks taught children in viharas, jataka stories took a prominent place in primary education. Young samaneras (novice monks) were required to read and preach effectively. In India these and similar other stories were a principal instrument in the socialisation’s of children, discouraging them from selfishness and laying foundations for family had community solidarity. Jataka stories speak eloquently of those human values, which contribute, to harmony, pleasure and progress.

Besides literature, painting, sculpture and architecture in many parts of the world carried the message of jataka stories. King Dutugemunu of Anuradhapura (2nd Century B.C.) had the inside shrine room of the Ruvanveliseya embellished with murals depicting scenes from Jataka stories. This practice is still carried on today in Buddhist viharas in Sri Lanka as well as in Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Viet Nam. Fa Hin, who visited Sri Lanka in the fifth century A.D. recorded that festival times the city of Anuradhapura was festooned with paintings from jataka stories. This practice continues today in major cities in Sri Lanka during Buddhist days of celebration. Jataka stories are well depicted in Amaravati, Nalanda, Ajanta, Ellora, Bharut, Nagarjunikonda, Borobudur and Angkor Vat. The late historian Mackensey in Buddhism in pre-Christian Britian (1928) demonstrated that there were artistic works based on jataka stories in pre-Christian Britain.

At this point I wish to draw the reader’s special attention to three stories in this collection. The first when the Enlightened one had been born as a quail. In the forest where he lived he befriended a monkey and an elephant. They raised a question among themselves: who was the most experienced and most worthy of respect?

After discussion,` they cam to a conclusion: whoever was the oldest would be the most experienced and the most knowledgeable. Then they had to decide which among them was the eldest and the most respected. Pointing to a very large and well-grown banyan tree the elephant said, “Can you remember that banyan tree in whose shade we used to rest sometimes? I used to scratch my tummy rubbing on it when I was very little.” Then the monkey responded “Oh, I ate its tender leaves while sitting next to it when I was very young.” Finally the quail chirped in, “When I was young, I ate a fruit from an old banyan tree. Afterwards I left droppings that held a seed that grew into this banyan tree.” They concluded that the oldest of them was the smallest, the quail. So they began to respect each other according to their age – first the quail, second the monkey, and last the elephant.

This story teaches respect for elders. It is an essential part of the Buddhist tradition to respect seniority. Amongst Buddhist monks this is strictly observed and it is an offence to violate this seemingly minor rule. It also points to the need to gain control over conceit, a minor defilement. This very same respect for seniority may have led to the development of historiography.

The second story, that of a half-blind fox teaches the value of being grateful. The half-blind fox was caught by a python in his coils and was fighting for his life. A poor peasant who was collecting wood in the forest helped the fox escape from his predator. After the same poor peasant was the victim of a python. The half-blind fox who heard the screams of the peasant ran in to a village field where a group of men were ploughing field and ran away with their clothing. The villagers chased after the fox, heard the screams of the helpless man and released him from the coils of the python.

The third story relates the fate of two parrots who were carried from `their next in a storm and one drooped in a hermitage and the other in a den of thieves. The one who fell among the hermits learned and eventually practised generosity and became quite gentle. The one who fell among thieves grew up like them – cruel, rough and wicked. This story teaches the ill of associating with bad people and helps to cultivate the mind in many ways. Generosity, the use of gentle language, the nobility of the ways of wise people, the value of morality and the evils of unwholesome associations are all thrown into high relief. In this any many other respects, jataka stories contributed to happiness and the development of the minds of young ones. The happiness they engendered went well beyond the mundane to reach the supra mundane. They led mankind to all that is good in this world and to the ultimate happiness taught by the Buddha.

The sources used in this second volume are as follows:

1. Jataka Pai (Colombo: Buddha Jayanti Tripitaka Series (Publication Board, 1983) – original Pali stanzas.
2. Jataka Pali (Colombo: Simon Hewavitarane Bequest, 1926) original Pali Jataka stories in Sinhalese characters.
3. Sinhala Jataka Pot Vahanse (Colombo: Jinalankara Press, 1928 Sinhalese translation of Pali Jataka stories.
4. Sinhala Jataka Pot Vahanse, (Colombo: RatnakaraBookshop, 1961 – Sinhalese translation of Pali Jataka stories
5. The Jataka or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Lives, ed. E.B. Cowell (London: Pali Text Society, 1981), 6 vols., index – English translation of Pali Jataka stories.
6. Pansiyapanas Jataka Pot Vahanse (Bandaragama: H. S. N. Prematilaka, 1987) – Sinhalese summaries of Pali jataka stories

The sequence numbers used for the stories are in the same order as the Jataka Pali and The Jataka or Stories of the Buddha’ Former Lives (numbers 1 and 5 cited above).

The publishers of this and other volumes, The Buddha Educational Foundation of Taiwan, are making a inestimable contribution of Dhamma. I offer my thanks to the Director of the Board and to all donors as well as to the office staff. They are making an essential contribution that the world badly needs today.

Since its inception The Buddha Educational Foundation has contributed to a marked rise in the reading of the Dhamma. While many kinds of reading material are chap and widely available, the precious and valuable works on DHAMMA that can instruct the minds of the people are scarce and costly. The Buddha Educational Foundation and its donors have eased the severity of these problems considerably. I wish to thank them all and say, ‘Much merit to them”. May they all be well and happy and live long. May the merit they acquire through this noble Dhammadana cause them to attain the ultimate happiness of Nibbana!

I would also like to thank John Patterson for his talents, skills and insights to create the marvellous illustrations. I wish him the greatest of success in the future.

I also take this opportunity to appreciate and thank my good-hearted friends (kalyanamitta), Todd Anderson, for his tireless effort and Tanh Van Nguyen and Dr. G.Uswattearatchi. My colleagues Ven. Higgoda Khemananda, HeenbunneKondanna and Aluthgama Dhammajothi are also especially thanked for their assistance in our work. May they be able to realise the Dhamma and attain Nibbana!

May all beings be well and happy!

Kurunegoda Piyatissa

February 28, 1996

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