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The Untapped Potential of the Jātakas

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi: Whereas Western intellectuals seek the essence of Buddhism in its doctrines and meditation practices, the traditional Buddhists of Asia absorb the ideas and values of their spiritual heritage through its rich narrative literature about the Buddha and his disciples. The most popular collection of Buddhist stories is, without doubt, the Jātakas. These are the stories of the Buddha’s past births, relating his experiences as he passed from life to life on the way to becoming a Buddha.

The Jataka tales have somehow garnered an undeserved reputation in English speaking countries as fairy tales unfit for adults. I’ve been reading the 1895 translation of these texts by E. B. Cowell to see for myself if they have value. As a lay follower, at this point in my practice, I’ve found these stories to be incredibly refreshing. They’re vibrant, full of life, and welcoming. Young and old householders alike could be more receptive to a wider scope of the teachings if they were transmitted—as they traditionally have been—via talks punctuated by a Jataka tale. These texts deserve far more consideration.

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Thanks once again for bring up a really interesting point and the opening up fascinating reflection on ways to engage with the teaching.

I think there’s a lot to your observation. I recall very clearly the point at which I became very receptive to the Jatakas: I had occasion to read ja322 and just found it so moving and relevant, or I might alternatively say, it gave what to me seemed a very an accurate description of how much suffering comes to be.

For myself the main reason I haven’t yet explored these texts a great deal further, is just a matter of time and already finding more precious teachings than I can “get through”, so to speak, in the MN, AN, SN and earlier KN texts.

That said, I think it’s important to acknowledge that—while it’s by no means a reason to “write-off” this collection or suggest it doesn’t contain any valuable teachings (particular, as you point out, that many are likely to be able to engage with in a very meaningful way)—these tales aren’t quite so much the word of the Buddha as other parts of the canon.

I’ve not studied it in anyway, but to the best of my understanding these are ancient folk tales originating before the time of the Buddha and then subsequently adopted and adapted by Buddhist followers. Nothing wrong with this! In fact, I’d say it is an excellent practice of effective communication. However, there is one point over which I’d suggest there’s cause for real caution; not all of these stories offer an especially Buddhist principle.

I think there can at times be a fine line between presenting things in a form that is accessible while retaining integrity in meaning on the one hand, and on the other, allowing essential principles to slip in to vagueness, obscurity or even worse, outright misrepresentation.

Again this isn’t remotely to say the Jataka’s should therefore be disregarded; it’s just to encourage engagement, but encourage it with the same approach I’d encourage engaging with any text: be discerning.

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Glad to oblige. :pray:

I’ve given up worrying about which teachings are authentic in the academic sense. It’s exhausting, and I’m tired. I’ll accept any Pali text that accords with the Noble Eightfold Path.

Welcome advice.

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Totally get you on that one! I’m extremely glad there are those interested and able to get into the scholarly nitty-gritty of these details; but for me personally, in terms of trying to apply these teachings, there’s a limit to how practical I find that line of inquiry.

Yeah, that was basically the exact point was I wanted to put forward.

Happy travels! :pray:

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Couldn’t agree more. I believe that, given time, the western Buddhist tradition will gradually absorb more elements of traditional Buddhism, realizing that they are not just “cultural” relics to be discarded by us more enlightened moderns (who of course don’t have a “culture” of our own :wink:)

Just the other day I was speaking with a life-long secular Buddhist, who recently spent some time in a Buddhist country and realized for the first time how the Buddhist “culture” shaped the being and lives of its people in all kinds of profound ways.

But back to Jatakas: we are very much on the same songsheet. I love Jatakas! The pioneering work of the translators is incredible, but it would be so great to have a modern translation. (Note to self: Life is short, and suttas are long. Do not start translating Jatakas!)

In my studies I have focused on one aspect of Jatakas: their connection with deep myth and fundamental archetypes. This is, I think, a fascinating field of study. But it only covers certain dimensions of certain stories, and there are a zillion other angles.

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I am unfamiliar with the scholarly proof of this but I dont doubt it exists. (Please give me some credit for not putting scholarly in quotes.)

The way I have dealt with the issue you raise is to press it through the mold of the suttas. If we accept the Buddha’s statements on the vast length and complexity of samsara, then it doesnt seem like a strech to think that the same or similar situations have repeated themselves countless times. And that these stories, when we can document them as pre Buddha, could ha seeped throug time and space to our current timeline via others who had the ability to draw on them by some means or another.

Mental gymnastics? Well, we all need some exercise some time.

Id love to dig into this in a new thread. It seems to fit the scope of a D&D topic. Dont know if you would have time to contribute.

Thanks for you comments!

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lol! Have an :peach: as a reward!

Wishing to address this quite briefly out of respect to the OP, yes, of course, mine is just second-hand account. To memory, I believe I’ve heard this idea in at least a couple of talks a long the way, but there’s absolutely no hope that I’d be able to track down which ones.

Consulting my “go to” on these matters, Venerables Sujato and Brahmali’s The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts, it suggests that actually some are likely to pre-date the Buddha while others are likely to originate some time after. Also, more recently Ven. Vimala’s research looking at average word length in the canon could possibly offer supporting evidence, and at the very least the paper given in the linked post may help to find more info on the point.

:laughing: Well, if it helps to lead out of samsara than hoorah! In a similar vein to Tony’s comment above, so long as whatever one finds connects well for them is aligned with the Dhamma, it is a magnificent thing.

I have to admit I can’t really imagine that I’d have any useful contribution to make, as mentioned, I haven’t really looked at this collection a great deal and I think it’s at least a couple of years since I read just one of them. That said, of course, I’d be fascinated to follow any such thread. :pray:

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This would be splendid. I appreciate the work and patience of you and others in chiseling through Western misconceptions about Buddhist traditions. My posts are largely motivated by that.

One day, maybe after this global pandemic passes, I’d like to go on a pilgrimage to Sri Lanka, or spend some real time there if I’m welcome.

Lol, a modern and accurate English translation of the Jatakas would be a great gift for the community. Personally, for now, I’m quite content with the by E. B. Cowell translation. I have a mild affinity for 19th century literature.

:pray:

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There is a more modern version by Ken and Visakha Kawasaki. It is a three volume anthology originally published by BPS. As I understand, they took the Cowel edition you mentioned and moderned it up. The only major change they made was to translate the verses as prose and format it into the text.

One thing i appreciate is that the always kept the frame story of the “present.” It is a major problem that in a huge number of publications, even Buddhist ones, the previous life story is the only thing told.

Even though it is an anthology, many stories they skipped are repitions any way. So you get most of the stories.

It is available as an ebook on Amazon.

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Link to the publisher (store.pariyatti.org) for those interested. There’s also Before Buddha Was Buddha: Learning from the Jataka Tales by Rafe Martin that explores the Jatakas from a Zen perspective.

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