Jātaka Tales


by Eric Van Horn

The Jātaka Tales are the Buddhist equivalent of Aesop’s Fables. Coincidentally they date to about the same time, around the 5th century BCE. They are morality stories. Most of them are associated with one of the pāramīs (Pāli) or pāramitās (Sanskrit), the Ten Perfections. According to the Buddhist tradition, the Ten Perfections are qualities that the Buddha, in his previous lives as a Bodhisatta (Pāli, Sanskrit: Bodhisattva), cultivated in order to become the Buddha. The Ten Perfections are 1) generosity, 2) virtue, 3) renunciation, 4) wisdom, 5) effort, 6) patience, 7) honesty, 8) determination, 9) loving-kindness, and 10) equanimity.

(This formulation of the Ten Perfections is from Theravada, or Southern Buddhism. In Mahayana Buddhism there are Six Perfections: 1) generosity, 2) morality, 3) patience, 4) effort, 5) meditation, and 6) wisdom. The Buddha never referred to these qualities as the Ten/Six Perfections, although he often talked about these qualities. The categorization of these qualities as a distinct group probably came later.)

For many centuries and right up to the present day most lay Buddhists learned about the teachings of the Buddha from these stories. Lay people did not typically meditate or study the discourses, but they did learn the Jātaka Tales. As with Aesop’s Fables, in these stories the Bodhisatta can be a person, a king, or an animal.

Some people object to stories of this type on the ground that they are not literally true. But as Joseph Campbell used to say, a myth is a metaphor. I can tell you about the importance of good judgment or wisdom, for example, but you are more likely to remember it if I tell you the charming story of Jātaka 54 in which a clever monkey outsmarts a crocodile.

The Jātaka Tales follow a formula in which there is a “story in the present” followed by the Jātaka Tale, which is then followed by the end of the story in the present. The story in the present gives the context in which the Buddha supposedly told it.

I am always warning people when it comes to literature of this type not to get too hung up on its literal truth. The Buddha taught a path to freedom from suffering. It is a path that ends in the greatest joy:

Any sensual bliss in the world,

any heavenly bliss,

isn’t worth one sixteenth-sixteenth

of the bliss of the ending of craving. - [Ud 2.2]

So I suggest that a more skillful way to read these stories is to concentrate on the lessons they teach and to take them to heart. These stories are quite charming and often playful, and no one ever said that the Buddha’s path could not be fun.

As for the sources of these texts, the only complete translation of the Jātaka Tales is from the Pāli Text Society (PTS). They were originally published in six volumes between 1895 and 1907. The importance of the Pāli Text Society in Western Buddhist history cannot be overstated. PTS was founded in 1881 by Thomas William (T.W.) Rhys Davids and his wife Caroline. This was after T.W. published the first Pāli to English dictionary in 1874. At that time Buddhism in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) was under pressure from Christian missionaries. The Pāli Text Society was part of an effort that helped to revive Buddhism in Sri Lanka and laid the groundwork for our ability to read Pāli texts in English today.

The Jātaka Tales were originally translated and edited by Edward Byles Cowell, a professor at Cambridge University, William Henry Denham Rouse, a linguistics scholar and teacher who was also at Cambridge, Henry Thomas Francis, and R.A Neil, a fellow at Pembroke College. To them we owe a great debt. Having said that, the PTS editions use a lot of antiquated Victorian language, idioms, and punctuation. This makes them rather inaccessible to a modern audience.

My main goal with this effort is to make these wonderful stories more accessible, more fun (that word again!). This is not a scholarly effort. I am not a scholar or a Pāli translator. I have simply taken the original texts and edited them for a modern audience. I have also added some illustrations.

You will sometimes run across single Jātaka Tales in print, and some of them are really wonderful. One of my favorites is The Magic of Patience, which was also one of my childrens’ favorite books when they were young. I strongly encourage you to find such publications. But here I want to take the entire body of literature, all 547 stories, and re-tell and edit the stories as a complete collection. The Jātaka Tales are sort of the guilty pleasure (or, to be more Buddhist, a harmless pleasure) of Buddhism. I hope that you will enjoy the result.

Eric K. Van Horn

Rio Rancho, NM

December 2017