Crossing the wilderness: how the Buddha narrates his own travels.

by Dr. Sarah Shaw

In this paper I would like to look at a travel story of a different kind. It describes a physical journey, but begins a collection of stories about travel in a larger sense: the journey of one individual, and his followers,  across many lifetimes and rebirths as different kinds of  animal, human and god.

The Jātakas, or birth stories as they are sometimes known, are a collection of 547 tales dating from about the third century BCE. Each describes the bodhisatta, the future Buddha,  as he is reborn in different conditions in preparation for his final rebirth, in which he becomes not only enlightened but, on the basis of these countless lifetimes of experience, able to teach others. All are linked by the narrator’s  aha.m, or “I”, the method by which the Buddha, fully enlightened, discloses and acknowledges as his own a particular identity or character at the end of each tale. The tales are intended to inform, encourage and inspire Buddhist practitioners and are constantly told to children and adults throughout Buddhist countries.  Several come to be associated with one of ten perfections, moral qualities that need to be developed in the preparation for Buddhahood. Vigour is for instance developed when the bodhisatta is a prince who swims for days at sea after a shipwreck, loving kindness, when the Bodhisatta, born as a deer, by his fearlessness deflects the aggression of a king who wants to kill him.[1] Buddhists in Sri Lanka and South East Asia who may not know anything of other canonical texts grow up with jātakas stories, and they are repositories of a  folk Buddhism that informs the thinking, customs and even legal systems of these countries: in Laos for instance precedents from jātakas tales have even been used in courts of law.[2]

The way these tales are painted, carved and drawn in temples throughout the east suggests a kind of travel. Episodes from these tales, with the bodhisatta in different guises, as human, monkey, elephant, goose, cat, hare or even mouse make friezes which adorn shrine rooms throughout Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Laos and Cambodia, as well as the ancient Buddhist sites of Ajanta and Saסchi in India and Borobodur in Indonesia.[3] A visitor walks past and may stop to look at depictions of them as he makes his way into a shrine hall: murals shown on the outside wall or in the approach to the temple accompany the movement from the world of activity outside to the quiet space of the interior where the figure of the Buddha is placed and respected on a shrine.  Here the stories are also sometimes painted on the walls as one approaches the shrine itself.  In a site such as Borobodur this walking becomes a kind of meditative journey: in order to see all the reliefs on the outside of the stֻpa in their correct order, the visitor needs to circumambulate it ten times, through depictions of past lives of the Buddha and the realms of existence.[4] The monumentally long Vessantara jātaka, the last of the tales and the only one that has been well translated in recent years, is simply the most popular story in most Buddhist countries.[5] Friezes depicting scenes from it are frequent at the entrance into a shrine hall. The stories as a whole are, as Richard Gombrich points out, “one of the world’s oldest and largest collection of folk tales.”[6]They are also interesting from a narrative point of view: they must be the only collection of stories in the world linked by the experiences of one central character  through many lives. It is in this more far-reaching sense, of travel across many lives, that the idea of a journey informs early Buddhist understanding about the nature of our experience of existence and of the way to be free within it.

[1] Mahājanaka jātaka (539), Nandiyamiga jātaka (385).

[2]Pranee Wongthet, ‘The Jātaka stories and Laopuan world view’, Siraporn Nathalang ed. Thai Folklore: insights into Thai Culture (Bangkok 2000), 57.

[3] See Margaret Cone and Richard Gombrich, The Perfect Generosity of King Vessantara: a Buddhist epic translated from the Pali and illustrated by unpublished paintings from Sinhalese temples (Oxford 1977), xliv-xlvii and the accompanying photographs. This is the only easily accessible modern translation of the longer stories. The introduction by Richard Gombrich is invaluable for anyone who wants to find out more about the stories in general, as well as the last. For Thai temple depictions of the tales see See E.Wray, C. Rosenfield, D.Bailey, and J. Wray, Ten Lives of the Buddha, Siamese Temple Painting and Jātaka Tales (New York and Tokyo 1996). For those at Ajanta see M.Singh, Ajanta: painting of the sacred and secular(Lausanne 1965).

[4] These show the Sanskrit version of the tales, the Jātakamālā. See J.Miksic, photos, M.Tranchini, Borobudur, Golden Tales of the Buddhas (Singapore, London 1990), 71-6 and  Karel Werner, ‘Borobudur –  a Sermon in Stone’, Temenos Academy Review, 5 (Autumn 2002),48-69.

[5] By Margaret Cone/R.F.Gombrich ibid.

[6] Ibid, xvi.


 The Collection as a whole and the Frame Story

But before we move any further I should explain a little the textual history of the jātaka stories, and the way that this highly varied collection of tales about the past lives of the Buddha is held together. The evolution, structure and historical dating of strata of the text raise issues which are rather complex so I will try to summarise them in as concise a way as I can – with apologies for any inevitable omissions or generalisations. The earliest form of the jātakas are the verses which accompany the stories, which are very old, some possibly predating Buddhism.[7] The jātakas, like other early Buddhist texts, arose as part of an oral tradition and were not written down for centuries. The language they are composed in is Pāli, a form of middle Indo-Aryan that seems to be close to the language spoken by the historical Buddha.  It seems that the verses at an early date became settled and regarded as canonical. Perhaps because good storytelling is so often an extemporising art, the stories themselves did not become fixed then, though their presence is implied in the verses, which make little sense without them. The stories that we have are later formulations and technically known as commentary. There is also a long frame narrative, usually regarded as a book in itself, which is a later addition, though a beautifully simple and helpful one.[8] It supplies what the stories do not: a full life story of the Buddha in his last lifetime, preceded by description of a life in the far past in which he makes the resolve to become a bodhisatta and to develop the ten perfections through countless lives. It gives us a clear point of origin for the tales, a linking device that clarifies the intention of the stories as a whole and the “present” context of the Buddha’s teaching. It is in many ways though an independent work, and its description of the taking of the bodhisatta vow, the undertaking to fulfil the perfections and the presence of a particular figure, Dīpaṅkara, an earlier Buddha who witnesses the vow, has woven in some elements in Buddhist thought that emerged a little later in the tradition.[9] The fact that the stories describe a series of lives of a central character searching for enlightenment, though,  suggests the presence of some sort of tale that explains why he started doing this: perhaps the work existed from the earliest times, though it is unlikely it was in this form.  As it stands it is a work in its own right, and for the purposes of this paper I am not including it here but will refer to it as ‘the frame story’.

Instead I am looking at the first story and the unifying principles which are provided by the pattern governing the structure of each of the tales. This is extremely effective and, to an audience used to hearing the tales, gives a pleasing familiarity to any story, as elements that are repeated throughout would be recognised whenever any Jātaka is told:  they always begin, continue and end in a similar way. It starts with the Buddha, described in the third person, as a participant or watcher in a particular incident in the “present”: perhaps some monks are quarrelling or an odd marital feud has erupted. On the basis of this incident (paccuppannavatthu) the Buddha decides to tell a story of an earlier life from which it soon emerges that the characters, usually under different names or even in a different form of rebirth such as an animal, had a tendency to get into the same sort of problem long ago. This gives us the main body of the story (atītavatthu), and most of the tales start with the evocative atīte, once upon a time, or “in times long past”. Only the Buddha, with his omniscient knowledge of the past lives of the characters involved, is in a position to recollect all the details of the past for those who are listening. In this past story he appears as a character like any other, is described in the third person and has another name in that rebirth, though frequent use of terms such as bodhisatta or the mahāsatta – a word rather like “our hero”-  ensure that the reader knows who is meant.[10]  His behaviour also marks him out as different: he will be the one who is more heroic, or skilled or kind-hearted in some way, though he features sometimes just as a witness to the action. As he is not enlightened, his actions are not always perfect: because the material is drawn from such a diversity of folk sources he really does have a distinct character and different identity in his various rebirths, though he is usually treated as in some way exemplary. The story always includes verses (gāthā), the earliest layer of the texts: these vary in function and quality from simple folk homily to what are sometimes extended lyrical and emotional accompaniments to the story. They do not tend to be mechanisms for moving the plot, and sometimes include poetic interjections and comments attributed to the Buddha in the present, though this is always noted when it occurs.  At the end of the tale the threads from the different aspects of the story are tied together. The Buddha, still described in the third person, gives a short speech making appropriate connections (samodhāna). He assigns each character a counterpart in the present life and then reveals last the part he has played himself, with the first person, ahaṃ.  This revelation and acknowledgement of the earlier identity of the Buddha occurs at the end of each tale and provides us, along with the structure of the stories, an underlying pattern that links together what would otherwise be an unusually diverse group of stories, of many different genres and narrative methods.

There are a number of points to consider about the Jātakas, and the place of the first tale in particular, but rather than discussing them in the abstract I will go straight into the tale itself, and use that as the basis from which to explore its place in the collection as a whole.

[7] On dating of Jātakas and language, see ibid, xxvii-xxxv.

[8] A translation of the Jātaka nidāna by N.A.Jayawickrama is published as The Story of Gotama Buddha (Oxford 1990).

[9] The Mahāpadāna sutta (D II 1-53) describes earlier Buddhas, but not these incidents.

[10] I am grateful to Richard Gombrich for his suggestions about these words: that the word mahāsatta, “great being”, was originally a bahuvrīhi compound meaning “of great courage”. The bodhisatta is the awakening being, the “bodhi-being”; the word seems to have meant originally “attached to enlightenment”.


The story

In this case the first section, the story from the present, is quite long, and consists in large part of a eulogy of the Buddha himself, the character in the present who has become fully awakened, is able to teach and inspire others and who has spent countless lifetimes in preparation for the job of disseminating a teaching that will enable others to free themselves. In this regard it is clearly intended as an opening to the tales as a whole. It is, as one could argue is the frame story, in many ways an elaboration of a device found throughout the Pāli canon, whereby a homage is paid to the Buddha at the beginning of the text. We do not know at what stage it became routine as an introduction but the short preliminary, Namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammā sambuddhassa, “Homage to the exalted one, the enlightened one, the fully awakened Buddha”, prefaces all the collections in the Pāli Text Society: it precedes both the frame story and the first Jātaka itself. It is the usual way of beginning any auspicious undertaking in a Buddhist country: I once heard it chanted on a coach in Sri Lanka as the village set off on a pilgrimage. Considering the aspects of the Buddha in all his different characteristics is also one of the meditation practices of the Pāli canon. A single meditation subject, Buddhānussati, it often accompanies two other meditations, the recollection of the dhamma, the teaching, and the saṅgha, the assembly of monks, nuns and those who have followed the teaching in the past: the three are called the Triple Gem. These samatha, or calming, practices are particularly recommended for the laity in the canon for arousing cheerfulness and happiness in daily life and are constantly taught as ways of keeping the mind awake and in good spirits during the day.[11] In this preliminary tale we are presented with the Buddha as the teacher, and five hundred disciples of other teachers, who are friends of the treasurer Anāthapiˆ∂ika. These are proponents of views that are famous within the canon for their opinionatedness: they hold beliefs that our fates are fixed and predestined, for instance, or that there are no good or bad consequences to our actions.[12] Converted once by the Buddha, these five hundred followers have relapsed and the story describes the Buddha’s response to this before they join him again: he tells them that they have given themselves up into a wilderness of views and opinions, and that they have sought refuge where there is none.  By recollecting the qualities of the Triple Gem, they will attain complete freedom. This preliminary story arouses consideration of the figure of the glorious appearance and inspiring teaching of the Buddha, the hero whose contemplation would arouse great confidence in his followers. It also, as was pointed out to me by a research student here in Oxford, makes an unusual claim for meditations which are always felt to be helpful, but not generally regarded as salvific.[13]  It stresses that recollection of the qualities of the Triple Gem are the only true refuge, and that they lead to enlightenment. The text is emphasising,  right at the beginning, a series of popular meditation practices which are particularly aimed at laymen, and which seem here to be accorded unlimited potential. This perhaps does not mean they are the only practices one should do: there are many other meditations advised in the canon. In a Buddhist context it is a striking claim, though, and one which distinguishes the first part of the first story on its own: I do not think it is made elsewhere amongst the tales. The Buddha then asks the treasurer to listen, explaining that he has spent countless lifetimes cultivating the perfections so that he can help other beings. In order to illustrate his points about the followers, the Buddha compares the situation now to a series of events in the past, which he proceeds to relate in a formula we again do not find elsewhere in the tales: “as if breaking open the birthplace of the snow and releasing the full moon, he made clear what the gap between this and the previous life had kept hidden”.

This section of the narrative has been indisputably Buddhist.  The extended description of the teacher, the references to the recollection of the Triple Gem and the formula with which the story from the past is introduced all point to a preliminary story carefully designed to awaken faith in the figure of the Buddha, his teaching and his followers.  The first story set in the past, like many of the collection, is more of a folk tale, describing a journey. The bodhisatta, a caravan leader who trades with five hundred carts, going from east to west and west back to east, loads up all his carts with merchandise and prepares to cross a wilderness. Another foolish trader does exactly the same thing and intends to set off at the same time. The bodhisatta, seeing the danger in having too many waggons on the road at the same time, all using wood, grass and water, offers the other the choice of going first or second. The other, greedily perceiving an advantage in beating the bodhisatta to market, opts for going first. The bodhisatta however sees some advantages in going second; wells are dug, there will be a fresh, new growth of herbs and prices will already be fixed.  The foolish merchant sets off on the desert wilderness well prepared, with sixty jars of water. On the way however he meets a yakkha, or demon, who decides to play a trick on them. He conjures up a magic carriage drawn by white bulls and surrounds himself with a retinue of more demons with bows and arrows, with clothes and hair all dripping wet, lotuses in their hair, chewing luscious lotus stalks themselves. Persuading the caravan trader that there is water where there is a dark streak ahead – presumably a mirage – the yakkha successfully enjoins him to empty out all his water so that he can make faster progress. When they come to pitch tent, exhausted, thirsty and dried out, the demon eats them all. The same trick is tried on the bodhisatta, who is not so gullible. He dissuades his followers from doing what the demon asks by asking questions to which they find the answers themselves: why are there no rain clouds, no sound of thunder and no evidence of the winds that accompany rain? Realising himself that he is dealing with demons – whose red eyes and the fact they cast no shadow always betray their true identity to the observant – he persuades his followers to see for themselves the defects in the arguments, not to throw away their water, and to keep vigilant at night. Because of this they all cross the wilderness safely, add the goods of the dead merchants to their own, and make a very tidy profit when they reach the city.  The story, which is entitled “A True Story”, or  “a Story about Truth” elaborates this idea of truth in a single verse, commenting on the wisdom of following what is true rather than clever falsity. The final, connecting statement is made by the Buddha, in which he says that Devadatta, his rival over many lifetimes, was the foolish merchant; his followers those that accompanied him. The Buddha and his followers were the wise ones.

[11] See for instance A V 332-4.

[12] For six ascetics see Sāmaññaphala sutta, D I 52-9.


The metaphor of travel and Indian philosophy

We have had in the first part a discussion of the great qualities of the Buddha; but here we have an application of these when he is the bodhisatta. The story is a simple tale of physical travel. For ancient – and modern – Indians existence itself is perceived as a kind of travel.  According to the Indian traditions of  Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, all living beings exist in endless cycles and rebirths of wandering. The word saṃsāra,  derived from the root form sam sṛī, means “to flow together with, to go about, wander or walk or roam through; to walk or pass through (a succession of states), undergo transmigration, enter or pass into.”[14] It implies endless travel, but of a somewhat fruitless or aimless kind. It comes to be used within early Buddhism to denote the state of all beings, as they pass from one life to another without ceasing, until they find release. Within Buddhism, words connected with a more directed form of travel are also used to express the means by which we can free ourselves from that saṃsāra.[15] The content of the first sermon of the Buddha describes this eightfold path of right view, understanding, speech, livelihood, action, mindfulness, effort and concentration. It uses the same word, magga, one would apply to a local thoroughfare like the Cowley Road, for instance, and is employed for the “road” in this first tale; the word applies to any path that takes people from one place to another. The Buddha’s teaching is elsewhere likened to a path that the Buddha has found just as a man might cut through an overgrown track in a jungle, which leads to a beautiful forgotten city.[16]The word path has levels of meaning according to the particular area of Buddhist thought: in the philosophical tradition of abhidhamma, it refers to the attainment of stages along the way to enlightenment and, specifically, the moment of enlightenment itself.  To travel along this path is to find the means of release and escape from wandering. It refers also to the attainment of the four graded spiritual states of which the last is full enlightenment: stream entry, the moment when one first perceives the path, one-return, non-return, and arahatship. These are mentioned in the first part of the story in connection with the recollection of the Triple Gem. So “path” applies to the daily practice of life as a Buddhist, the way to the end of suffering and to the final fruition of all factors of the path in the awakened mind: only enlightenment itself reveals it in its entirety. Travel and movement from one place to another are certainly not the only analogies used by the Buddha to describe his teaching: metaphors and similes in Buddhism tend to be used in richly various ways, as these stories show us.  But the idea that how we behave, speak, think and deal with others places us on some sort of road and gives us the means to travel, and that this path will lead eventually to the end of suffering, indicates how deeply the association of movement in a certain direction is equated to the means and the end of spiritual development.  Further images employed within early Buddhism reinforce this association. The word of crossing over for instance, with its associations of finding a further shore and passing over a gulf, is used to describe the way to enlightenment.[17] The raft is taken as the teaching that takes us across an otherwise impassable river. Saṃsāra is also sometimes likened to an ocean. In the Vessantara Jātaka the bodhisatta entreats his son with the words: “Be a steady boat to carry me on the sea of becoming. I shall cross to the further shore of birth, and make the world with its gods cross also”.[18]

It seems apt that the followers who have left the path are compared to those who are not sensible and so cannot cross the terrible wilderness. Elsewhere in the Pāli canon the idea of a wilderness is used to express the state of scepticism and the kind of doubt that corrodes genuine search and investigation: in the Sāmaññaphala sutta the same word, kantāra, is used in a simile that describes overcoming the five hindrances to the meditation practice and a healthy and skilful mind (kusalacitta). Its placing as the fifth simile concerned indicates, as the commentaries point out, an association with doubt, the fifth hindrance.[19]  I think most of us today would use the word to describe a state of spiritual desolation, or a feeling of abandonment. One only has to fly over the sub-continent today to sense the power and sense of danger desert wastes would have held for ancient Indians. In early Buddhism it is used to express existence itself: in the Paṭisambhidāmagga the Buddha is quoted as saying, under the section on the Great Compassion, “Worldly life has entered a great wilderness, there is none other than myself to get it across the wilderness”.[20] I do not know if this meaning, so redolent of the first lines of both Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Dante’s Divine Comedy, applies to the first tale too.[21] It seems a very suitable image, though, for the outset of a collection of tales in which 547 separate and distinct identities across many aeons of time are described and explored.

[13] I am grateful to Justin Meiland for pointing out that whereas these recollections are said only to produce the meditative state of access concentration by Buddhaghosa in his commentary the Visuddhimagga (Vism III 121-2), here they are given far greater weight. See also A I 30.

[14] Monier Williams, SED 1119.

[15]Within the abhidhamma the concept of path itself is used in a technical sense to describe the moment of each of the four spiritual stages of enlightenment.  According to the Dhammasaṅgani, a canonical abhidhamma text, path factors may exist severally in any moment of skilful consciousness, such as the moment of giving, but cannot exist altogether as a fully activated path until one of these four stages has been attained (DhS 277ff). My impression is that the tales take the more conventional point of view of the path as a way of travelling. See R. M.L.Gethin, The Buddhist Path to Awakening, A Study of the Bodhi-Pakkhiyā Dhammā (London, New York and Cologne 1992), 223-226.

[16] S  II 105-6.

[17] See for instance the first sutta of Saṃyuttanikāya – another interesting beginning.

[18] J VI 546; Gombrich/Cone, ibid, 58.

[19] See D I 73. See Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Sāmaññaphala sutta and its commentaries (Kandy 1989), 145.

[20] Patis I 597.

[21] Pilgrim’s Progress, 1678: “As I walked through the wilderness of this world.” Dante’s opening lines to the Inferno: “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita/ mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,/ che la diritta via era smarrita.” (Biblioteca universale, 47-8, Milan 1949), I, i.

The merchant

The first story and its preliminary are fairly simple and self–explanatory: the preliminary in the present gives a paeon to the teacher and describes him encountering a situation of doubt, while the story itself gives an imaginative embodiment of the problem in a journey across a literal wilderness. The story describes the triumph of common sense, care in testing all new propositions and the ability not to take the obvious or seductive course of action. The followers discover the truth through their own questioning, and take nothing on faith – one of the central tenets of the Buddhist teaching which is described as ehipassiko, come and see, or come and see for yourself. These are very pragmatic, careful and even unassuming virtues, and bring us to a feature that is worth examining a little further. During the course of the stories the bodhisatta undergoes many transformations, and is reborn in all classes of society as well as in animal rebirths.  In those near the beginning of the collection he is quite often an animal, while in those towards the end he is usually human and often royal, though there is not much more of a pattern to be discerned in this: the tales are collected on the Ṛg Vedic scheme of an ascending number of verses, so that the first hundred and fifty are all grouped together only because they have one verse. The second vaggaincludes those with two, and so on in an ascending sequence. The last vagga of ten tales has the ones with the most verses. This does not at first sight accompany any other aesthetic sequence, nor is there any obvious development or “progress” in the type of rebirth. For instance the bodhisatta is a prince, a god,  a king and usually a human in some of the early Jātakas, which have only one verse; while in one of the very late stories in the twenty-first vagga (533), which has many verses, he is born as a goose, though a very noble one.

The last ten stories have acquired a particular importance, particularly in South East Asia. A great deal of verse suggests a large amount of poetry, and a likely debt to traditions such as epic and drama: generalisations are crude in this context but a story with many verses is more likely to have affinities with such genres. So these last ten are in many ways extended folk epics.[22] For whatever reason, they are the most popular and widely depicted of the tales: their length and complexity certainly allows for a great deal of drama, ambiguity, characterisation and detailed explorations of moral dilemmas and doctrinal points. Chronology does not seem to be much of a factor in this arrangement, though Vessantara is usually regarded as the “last” human birth in a temporal sense, as are all the last ten, which are given prominence in Thailand and in other countries and each associated with a perfection.[23] These are not necessarily the same as the ones assigned by the Cariyā piṭaka or the introduction to the Jātakas, suggesting a later or different tradition attached to these attributions.[24] But an aesthetic, chronological and spiritual importance has at some point been assigned to these last ten stories. They are perceived as significant throughout the East as representing some sort of summation or completion of the task of fulfilling the ten perfections.

But what about the beginning? Is that significant? The first vagga, of stories with single verses, which includes many very popular tales like the Maccha Jātaka (75), in which the bodhisatta is a kindly fish, does not seem to have any aesthetic “shape”.  The rebirths do not follow any pattern or apparently involve a sense of progress. The Aesop-like pithiness of the single verse method is well suited to the moral fables concerning an animal rebirth. Although there are not as many as the human, there are quite a few of these, though without any obvious pattern in their arrangement.[25]The stories tend to involve situations which can be summarised by a short formulation of the teaching: the single verse is often in practice a general homily or folk truth, expressed in a catchy and memorable form which for obvious reasons does not involve lengthy poetic or lyric description. All of this is inconclusive and does not suggest any obvious chronological beginning, or any sense of “progress”: there are quite a few lower rebirths, but they do not predominate. As we have seen there are nonetheless various thematic reasons for this as the choice of the first tale. It includes in the first part a homage to the Buddha and a statement of the efficacy of recollecting his virtues, his teaching and his followers. It then, in describing one of the lives that have contributed to these, includes a literal path, a wilderness, and a journey through inhospitable terrain.  The teaching is enacted in his method of dealing with the yakkha and his followers.

So the choice of a hero for the first tale also to me suggests deliberation. It is a kind of middle ground in rebirths: it is not regal, courtly nor heavenly; it is not an animal one either, technically known as a descent. We do know that many early Buddhists were drawn from the mercantile class. Donations are recorded from merchants on early inscriptions, who seem to have acquired a social status higher than they had in Vedic times.[26] It would be fitting that the first story in this collection speaks to an audience who appear to have received Buddhism so favourably. A practical, shrewd and kindly trader, not averse to making a good profit yet mindful of his responsibilities to his dependents, seems to me the ancient Indian counterpart of the bourgeois “common man”, intent on applying Buddhist principles of generosity and restraint to his own circumstances and making them work. It is just these careful qualities which, it is suggested, keep those in the higher life, as monks, on the right path so that they do not fall into harm. It implies also not just a certain target audience, but also a means by which the tales may have become so widespread. We do not know the nature of the audience to whom the Jātakas were addressed, but we do know that while they have remained rooted within the countries of Buddhist practice they themselves tended to travel too.[27] Buddhism arose in a time of great mercantile and urban development in India and we find the tales spreading over the next centuries as trade and communications opened up in China and central Asia in the first centuries CE.[28][29] It is a notoriously difficult area of research, but I would imagine that merchants on trade routes for silks and other goods, swapping stories, must be in part responsible for this.  It seems likely that the merchants appropriated such popularly accessible tales and that the laity drawn from this class will have been well represented amongst their early audiences. We even find a striking similarity to one of them in Chaucer, over a thousand years later.

[22] On this and the language of Vessantara Jātaka in particular see R.F.Gombrich’s intro., ibid, xxvii-xxx.

[23] In the very last life before taking rebirth as a human the Buddha was reborn for aeons in the Tusita heaven.

[24]/sup> See E.Wray etc, Ten Lives of the Buddha, Siamese Temple Painting and Jātaka Tales, 16.  Nemi or Nimi Jātaka (541) for instance is cited by the Cariyā piṭaka in association with generosity or giving as well as Vessantara. In Thailand Vessantara is regarded as exemplifying dāna in the series of the ten; Nimi is associated with resolve, adhiṭṭhāna.

[25] There are in fact only 30-40 stories involving an animal rebirth in the first vagga: there are about 90 as a human, and the rest involve other, temporary rebirths in heaven realms or as a spirit.

[26] For the improved status of the mercantile class and their association with the rise of early Buddhism see A.L.Basham, The Wonder that was India (1954), 143-4.

[27] See R.F. Gombrich/ M.Cone, ibid, xxvii ff for diffusion of the Vessantara story. I have found L.Gray’s A Concordance of Buddhist Birth Stories (Oxford 2000) particularly helpful in tracing the movement of each tale as it lists known articles on each one and analyses each according to folk motif number.

[28] See J.S.Strong, The Buddha: a Short Biography, 15-34.

[29] Rev Dr Richard Morris in The Contemporary Review, XXXIX (May 1881), 730 saw the resemblance between the 48th  Jātaka and the Pardoner’s tale. Versions also seem to have occurred in Persian, Arabic and French. See L.Grey, ibid, 475-6 for articles dealing with this.



If we open an anthology of poems or collection of stories in the west, we assume that the choice of the first text is in some sense significant. The first poem or story in a collection interests us: it may not be the best, but we would feel that it has been chosen to awaken a mood for the collection as a whole, perhaps setting in motion themes and ideas which come into play or are explored through the rest of the work. It lingers in the mind as in some sense our initial and most important contact with the text as a whole.  Indeed there are many books, poems, plays and novels memorable precisely because of the way the author interested us first. We do not make such assumptions about collections of early Buddhist texts. In the first place, they are not apparently the product of a single creative mind, but were, according to tradition, collected by the followers of the Buddha at various councils after his death. From a historical point of view it is generally agreed that in practice they evolved over a period of time as they were chanted and handed down by various bhāˆaka[30] Perhaps because of this we do not usually speak of the texts’ “author” and do not tend to focus on the artistry in the composition of the suttas, as they are called, or other canonical Buddhist texts. But these factors need not preclude artistic considerations, or the exercise of care in making a good beginning. Indeed the phrase evaṃ me sutaṃ, thus have I heard, begins many, if not most, of the suttas and is both a preparation for the hearer and an acknowledgement of those who have sustained the teaching. A highly personal statement, it nonetheless pays respects to those from whom the texts have been heard and who have shaped the form they take. While the history of the tradition has tended to stress other aspects of the text, such as the spiritual, the philosophical or the ethical, there is evidence of great care and skill employed by these unknown compilers, which has contributed to the texts’ construction.  If we examine this craft further we find that in the course of the process of transmission various emphases and excellences also seem to have emerged in the collections, which are now being acknowledged by contemporary scholarship.[31] It seems to me that all the major collections of early Buddhist texts have significant and pertinent beginnings, and that when we come to look at them more from the point of view of their literary artistry, it will become clear that such an appraisal need not detract from our sense of the Buddha’s creativity as a teacher. It rather enhances it, by placing it in a context where humour, drama and poetry and a sense of the aesthetic shape of a collection as a whole give substance to our interpretation of how the Buddha taught and behaved.  The first text of the Dīghanikāya, the Brahmajāla sutta, for instance, is an impressive choice to begin this series of lengthy texts. It has, though, a decidedly low-key frame story, involving a curious interchange between a teacher and his disciple as they follow, literally, in the footsteps of the Buddha on the road to Nālanda. It is a simple and very human beginning to the major Buddhist text on wrong views. traditions of reciters – groups of monks entrusted with this task. As the text that may be chanted on any occasion may not be the first one in a collection it could be argued that no mood needs to be set at all by the one placed at the beginning.  Texts were not composed or grouped together with an eye to a reader, but to an audience who would be listening to them over what may have been a long period of time, such as an overnight session. Constant contact with texts chanted in this way is part of a South East Asian Buddhist background; peace and reassurance would be found just by hearing them, and recognising the familiar features of the oral tradition.

The first Jātaka story seems to have been chosen for its encapsulation of the themes of the collection as a whole. A story of a safe journey across a wilderness, it designates the beginning of a larger one.  A description of a simple merchant, it represents the bodhisatta as the common man before the extensive explorations of the animal realms, and before the complex moral choices that are dramatised in the last ten rebirths. It  occurs after a homage to the central character, and like each of the tales, a way of exploring and revealing his true identity – the first person ahaṃ that is only revealed at the conclusion of the tale. I mentioned earlier that the preliminary story in the present specifically mentions the recollection of the Buddha as a meditation practice with limitless potential – an unusual claim for an early Pāli text. A question I have not dealt with is that of no-self. How can a collection of stories where the Buddha is described as “I” embody a doctrine where there is no “ I”? R.F. Gombrich points out that the stories are an example of folk Buddhism, intended for the general populace, who would not want to think too deeply about such matters.[32]Early Buddhism: A new Approach, writes,  “It has come to seem to me that the Buddhist teachings in the Sutta piṭaka emphasise above all else the centrality of personal experience…Moreover we all experience the notion of identity, being human being A and not human being B.”[33] In the Jātakas the Buddha travels through and experiences many identities, but is the only character in the tales who remembers and is free from them all. The reader, or hearer, does not really think much about the doctrine of no-self at all: it is enacted for him through the separate and distinct experiences of the Bodhisatta, recollected by the Buddha in the present. The Jātakas then seem to me to be a skilfully constructed journey through a wilderness of lives, linking the Buddha with all kinds of conditions, yet starting with the common man, the kind of person very likely to be listening to them.  Like the entrance to a temple in the East, the tales give us a way of travelling through an extended recollection of his qualities: they reveal the impermanence of each life before moving on to the next, and so elucidate a path for finding at the end of each tale the refuge of the awakened mind, free from any “I”-making at all. It seems to me that one way this method is so successful is through the flexibility of the narrative method, with its shifts of perspective that allow us to move from the present to the past and back again within each tale, before that identity is dissolved and a new story begins. The contradiction between the self that finds out that there is no self is one that provides a dramatic thread throughout this journey of lives: each story starts with the awakened mind, describes it at one remove so to speak in a past in which the bodhisatta was not enlightened, and then returns to the awakened mind at the end.  Sue Hamilton, in Early Buddhism: A new Approach, writes,  “It has come to seem to me that the Buddhist teachings in the Sutta piṭaka emphasise above all else the centrality of personal experience…Moreover we all experience the notion of identity, being human being A and not human being B.”[33] In the Jוtakas the Buddha travels through and experiences many identities, but is the only character in the tales who remembers and is free from them all. The reader, or hearer, does not really think much about the doctrine of no-self at all: it is enacted for him through the separate and distinct experiences of the Bodhisatta, recollected by the Buddha in the present. The Jוtakas then seem to me to be a skilfully constructed journey through a wilderness of lives, linking the Buddha with all kinds of conditions, yet starting with the common man, the kind of person very likely to be listening to them.  Like the entrance to a temple in the East, the tales give us a way of travelling through an extended recollection of his qualities: they reveal the impermanence of each life before moving on to the next, and so elucidate a path for finding at the end of each tale the refuge of the awakened mind, free from any “I”-making at all.

[30] For characteristic features of oral tradition see L.S.Cousins,’Pāli Oral Literature’, in P.Denwood and A.Piatigorski eds., Buddhist Studies: Ancient and Modern (1983), 1-11. For the place memorisation and chanting of texts see R.Gethin, ‘The Mātikās: Memorization, Mindfulness and the List’, in J.Ggyatso ed., Remembrance in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism (Albany, New York 1992), 149-72.

[31] See Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, 2 Vols (Somerville, MA Oxford  2000) I 31-40 and Joy Manne, ‘Categories of Sutta in the Pāli Nikāyas and their implications for our appreciation of the Buddhist teaching and literature’, JPTS, XV(1990), 29-87. More generally, see Steve Collins’s examination of the way the skilled use of imagery in the texts in Selfless Persons: Imagery and Thought in Theravāda Buddhism (Cambridge 1982).

[32] See R.F.Gombrich, ibid, xvii. See also S.Collins, ibid, 151-2.

[33] Early Buddhism: a New Approach. The I of the Beholder (Richmond, Surrey  2000), 6-7.