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Home Academic Work Articles Archive Crossing the wilderness: how the Buddha narrates his own travels.

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

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


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