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Jātaka Tales

Introduction to Volume 2

by Eric Van Horn

As I have worked my way through these stories, and indeed in my entire experience of reading the Pāli Canon, I have come to some understandings about this extraordinary literature that I would like to share.

I am not a scholar. There are many erudite discussions of the Jātaka Tales in books and on the Internet, and I am not trying to do what they do. This is not because I do not respect that type of effort because I most certainly do. But I am trying to make these stories more accessible. And to that end I am trying to balance the idioms of the original Pāli – which uses a lot of passive tense – the unique and sometimes quirky Victorian language of the original translations, and modern language. One advantage that we have now is that many Buddhist terms like “dharma” and “karma” have come into common use. The Victorian translators did not have that luxury, and so they tried to find terms that the people of that time would understand.

Some of the language defies translation. For example, the original texts use the term “bhikkhu.” This is normally translated as “monk.” However, the convention of that time was to address a gathering using the term that referred to the highest-ranking person in attendance. The rank order was 1) monk, 2) nun, 3) layman, and 4) laywoman. So if only laywomen were present, the Buddha would address the talk to laywomen. If both laymen and laywomen were present, the talk was addressed to laymen. And if even a single monk were present, the Buddha would address the talk to monks. Thus the term “bhikkhu” simply meant that one monk was present.

There is no way to capture this convention in English. Most of the Jātaka Tales refer to “bhikkhus.” The Victorian translations used the term “Brethren,” which mapped to their Anglican understanding. But this does not mean that only monks were present. It only means that among the members of the Buddha’s community that were present, there was at least one monk. I was tempted to simply use the word “bhikkhu,” but the tradeoff is that in stories that I am trying to make accessible, this is an awkward term for most people. I use the term “monk” in my versions of the stories, but frankly, I cringe every time that I do it. I wish there was some more gender and rank neutral way to capture the flavor of the way in which the word “bhikkhu” was used.

Another issue is the as mentioned passive tense. Modern writers will probably cringe at the pervasive use of passive tense. But this is how both the original Pāli and the Victorian translations tend to be. I have also seen – since I live in the desert Southwest – that the oral traditions of Native Americans tend to be this way as well. Again, I am no expert in this area, but it may be that stories that are told around a campfire tend to use more passive tense.

So these are some of the language issues that I am trying to balance. The goal is to provide a readable rendering of the stories, one that is enjoyable and yet also maintains some of the original idioms and flavor.

And while I am on this topic, I would like to give special thanks to the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico. Before I moved here, I read a lot about the oral tradition. I experienced a little of that when I went to India. But here in New Mexico, living among Native Americans, I have gotten to experience first-hand what that is like.

Native American languages are, like Pāli, oral traditions. They have no written language. So from the time children are very young, they learn everything from stories that are told and retold.

Last year I had two wonderful experiences in how this feels. One was at Taos Pueblo, where a young University of New Mexico student and a member of the Pueblo gave a tour of the Pueblo. He told many stories. When I got home I looked up his stories on the Internet, and what I found was that the stories that the Indians tell about events can be quite a bit different from the “conventional history.” For example, the Taos Pueblo version of the Taos Revolt of 1847 is quite a bit different, and it turns out that there is a lot of evidence to support the Taos Pueblo version.

Later that summer I had a wonderful tour of Santa Clara Pueblo, which is near Los Alamos. This was also done by a member of the Pueblo. His day job was as a fire fighter. Many of the Pueblos and Reservations here have firefighting brigades, mainly to fight wildfires. It is one of the ways in which they can make a living. It is extremely dangerous work.

This man was on vacation, but instead of going away or doing nothing, he decided to give tours of the Pueblo. For over two hours he told story after story. One story went as far back as pre-Spanish times. (Coronado led the first Spanish expedition to New Mexico in 1540. Locally this is known as the Entrada.) Another story happened only a few years ago. He went from one story to another as if all of time were part of a single continuum. What happened 600 years ago may as well have been last Tuesday.

You could tell that these stories were embedded in his DNA, and that is probably true for most of the people from the Pueblo. It is one thing to write something down and read it in a book. It is quite another thing to grow up hearing these stories over and over again. Everyone in the community knows these stories, and they can probably all repeat them verbatim.

The issue of time in such a culture is quite different from what we normally experience. When I was in India they told me that they do not think of time as being a particular year or day or month. Time is relative. It happened before this or about when that happened and so on. Time is more fluid. It weaves together. It is more like the water in a stream than discrete events. And as for the Santa Clarans, it all blends together.

This is why for cultures like Native Americans the preservation of language is so important. Language reflects culture, and the culture can only be properly preserved in a language that reflects that culture. For Buddhists, we are fortunate that Pāli and Sanskrit - which are the technical languages of Buddhism - did not face near cultural extinction. In fact, Pāli and Sanskrit have thrived and been preserved now for something like 3,000 years. And many times the best way to “translate” something into English is not to translate it at all, but to use the original term, and then make sure that English speakers understand the nuances of the term.

One of the advantages of reading a great deal of the Pāli Canon is that over time some of these subtle cultural nuances work their way into your own DNA. This is why I tend to emphasize quantity over detailed analysis in reading the Buddhist texts. Just read as much as you can and understand it as best as you can, and don’t turn anything that isn’t clear into a problem. Even the greatest scholars disagree about what some things mean. But by reading as much as you can rather than diving in as deep as you can, I think you can replicate some of the experience of the oral traditions. Then a lot of the subtle culture of Buddhism creeps into your DNA, rather than putting you in a position to write a paper about something.

But whatever you do or however you approach these texts, please do not follow what I say blindly any more than you would anyone else. The best way to approach the Pāli Canon is to work your way through it as best you can. Over time it will become personal. You will make your own observations and come to your own conclusions. The best outcome is that at some point you make it your own.

Eric K. Van Horn

Rio Rancho, NM

June 2018