The Jataka are teaching stories from the Buddhist tradition. Jataka means "birth-story" in Pali. These are tales of the previous lives of the Buddha, in which he was developing the qualities of heart and mind that led to his full awakening as the Buddha of our era.
The Jataka is among the most ancient story collections in human history, dating to the time of the Buddha, more than twenty-five hundred years ago. While there are references to the Buddha recollecting his previous lives in the early texts of Theravada Buddhism, the Jataka are generally considered to be reworkings of Indian folklore. Preserved, embellished, and transcribed by early monks, they have been called "the lay-person’s entrance into the Buddhist teachings."
Each story begins with a frame narrative, in which the Buddha remembers an incident in an earlier life. He then tells the story of his life as a deer, an elephant, an outcast, or a prince (among many forms). As the Buddha-to-be, he is referred to as the Mahasatto (the Great Being) or the Bodhisatta (the Awakening Being). In the course of the narrative, he exemplifies one or more of the qualities of mind known as the ten perfections (Pali, parami). The frame story wraps up with the Buddha identifying the characters of the story of the past as his chief disciples or members of the monastic community.
Twenty years ago, when I began practicing in the Insight tradition of Theravada Buddhism, I heard storyteller Rafe Martin’s wonderful versions of the Jataka1. In 1998, I began studying Pali and translating the Jataka from Pali to English to create my own versions of the tales.
I have told the Jataka in many different settings, from schools to meditation centres and hospital chapels.
1 See The Hungry Tigress: Buddhist Legends and Jataka Tales by Rafe Martin.
To date, I have translated fifteen Jataka, including:
1. The Antelope Birth (Kurunga-miga-jataka) – The Bodhisatta is born as an antelope. He and his two friends, a woodpecker and a turtle, live together and take care of each other. This is a wonderful story of friendship and cooperation. To listen to an audio version of this story, visit this link -
2. The Wisdom of Crows (Kaka-jataka) – The Bodhisatta takes the unlikely form of a crow. A story about revenge and alternatives to revenge, this Jataka reflects one of the most well-known teachings of the Buddha: “Hatred never ceases through hatred, but only by love alone.”
3. Mangos for All (Amba-jataka) – A story about generosity and reciprocity. The Bodhisatta is born as the son of a wealthy family, but goes to the Himalayas to become an ascetic. To create my version of this story, which is set in the jungles of northern India, I researched the flora and fauna of the area.
4. Two Acrobats (Citta-Sambhuta Jataka) – One of the longer Jataka tales, this one features the Buddha-to-be and his cousin Ananda as outcast acrobats who appear in four lifetimes together. I wrote my Master’s thesis on this story and performed it with musical accompaniment in the chapel at the Harvard Divinity School in 2003.
5. The Golden Swan (Suvannavanna Hamsa-jataka) – Both the Bodhisatta and his cousin Ananda are born as swans. Another one of the longer Jatakas, this story is about friendship as well as human greed.
6. The Virtuous Elephant King (Silavanaga-jataka) – This tale is a fascinating look at the addictive and dangerous nature of both greed and generosity. Here the Bodhisatta is born as an elephant who gives away his tusks to a greedy forester.
7. The Good Sal Tree (Bhadda-Sala-jataka) – One of the few stories in which the Bodhisatta takes birth as a tree-spirit. Here he teaches a king about selflessness. My translation of this story appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Insight Journal, a publication of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies.
8. Something Good to Eat (Sudhabhojana-jataka) – The Bodhisatta is born as the king’s treasurer and establishes a great tradition of giving in the city. His descendant, however, has different ideas about what to do with his wealth. This story was published in Parabola Magazine in the Imagination issue (Spring 2009) under the title, "Kosiya, the Buddhist Scrooge."
9. The Dog Birth (Kukkura-Jataka) – The Bodhisatta is born as a dog who lives in a forest cemetery. Similar to “The Wisdom of Crows” in plot, the story is about unjust persecution. Published in Parabola with a short commentary in November, 2008.