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Home Academic Work Articles Archive Crossing the wilderness: how the Buddha narrates his own travels. - Page 2

Crossing the wilderness: how the Buddha narrates his own travels. - Page 2

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Crossing the wilderness: how the Buddha narrates his own travels.
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 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, aha.  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”. 


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