Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Why are Jataka Tales told?

Wisdom Quarterly ANALYSIS

Some may wonder why Jataka Tales -- predecessors of many Aesop's Fables -- are told since nearly every one of them follows the same predictable pattern:

  • The Buddha hears of someone behaving in a peculiar way.
  • He points out that not only in this birth, but tragically in a previous birth as well, the person behaved in the same way.
  • King Brahmadatta is reigning in Benares (which he seems to have done for aeons).
  • Talking animals ensue.
  • And this connection is made: that very person was the protagonist, I was such and such, and some prominent disciple was the other.

The only logical conclusion to be drawn from reading hundreds of these fables (often parables) is the predictable fact that "as the person did before, he or she has done again." This would in no way justify these tall tales, which seem more child's entertainment than Dharma. What would justify them? Editor Prof. E.B. Cowell, and translator Prof. Robert Chalmers of Oxford University, point out the reason that is left from almost every translation of these tales:

Thus the Buddha ended his lesson -- the parable, fable, birth-story -- to show that as now so too in bygone days, and this done, he unfolded the Four Noble Truths. (This unfolding of the Four Noble Truths forms part of ALL the Jatakas).* But the Pali Text Society, unlike most other translators who neglect to mention the Four Noble Truths, only mentions them where it is expressly stated that doing so led to someone's enlightenment by way of stream-winning, the first stage of enlightenment.

Interestingly, "entering the stream" (becoming a sotapanna) -- a metaphor for a profound and irreversible psychological transformation -- may be taken to mean "entering (enlightenment) by way of the ear." Almost every occasion in the sutras when someone is said to become enlightened, it is by listening to the Dharma rather than silent meditation.

One's mind becomes pliable and tractable through meditation or through listening to a progressive discourse (on giving, virtue, the heavens, the Dharma, and the Abhidharma) leading to the arousal of spiritual/religious feeling, confidence (faith), yearning to attain liberation, and finally insight. The German scholar-monk, Ven. Nyanatiloka, explains:

PROGRESS OF A DISCIPLE: Gradual development of the Noble Eightfold Path. In many sutras an identical passage occurs that outlines the gradual course of development in the progress of the disciple. There it is shown how this development takes place gradually and in conformity with laws, from the very first hearing of the doctrine [Dharma], and from germinating faith and dim comprehension, up to the final realization of deliverance [nirvana].

"After hearing the [Dharma], one is filled with confidence, and one thinks: 'Full of hindrances is household life, a refuse heap. But the wandering life (of a recluse) is like the open air....'"

What are the Four Noble Truths, and why are they so important that they would be mentioned again and again at the end of every Jataka Tale? These pithy ennobling truths are an encapsulation of the Buddha's Teaching. Simply hearing an explanation often led to the arising of the "stainless eye of the Dharma," that is, the initial moment of enlightenment for those ripe in virtue, calm, and wisdom.

  1. There is dukkha (unhappiness of all kinds).
  2. Dukkha has a cause; it is not without a cause.
  3. There is perfect happiness (nirvana).
  4. There is a way to perfect happiness.

*This is noted in The Jataka: Stories of the Buddha's Former Births, Vol. I, Book I, p. 70, as a note connected to Jataka 27, Abhinha-Jataka, a story of an elephant and a dog who are best friends.

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