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Home Academic Work Articles Archive Crossing the wilderness: how the Buddha narrates his own travels. - Page 5

Crossing the wilderness: how the Buddha narrates his own travels. - Page 5

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

The first story and its preliminary are fairly simple and self–explanatory: the preliminary in the present gives a paeon to the teacher and describes him encountering a situation of doubt, while the story itself gives an imaginative embodiment of the problem in a journey across a literal wilderness. The story describes the triumph of common sense, care in testing all new propositions and the ability not to take the obvious or seductive course of action. The followers discover the truth through their own questioning, and take nothing on faith – one of the central tenets of the Buddhist teaching which is described as ehipassiko, come and see, or come and see for yourself. These are very pragmatic, careful and even unassuming virtues, and bring us to a feature that is worth examining a little further. During the course of the stories the bodhisatta undergoes many transformations, and is reborn in all classes of society as well as in animal rebirths.  In those near the beginning of the collection he is quite often an animal, while in those towards the end he is usually human and often royal, though there is not much more of a pattern to be discerned in this: the tales are collected on the g Vedic scheme of an ascending number of verses, so that the first hundred and fifty are all grouped together only because they have one verse. The second vagga includes those with two, and so on in an ascending sequence. The last vagga of ten tales has the ones with the most verses. This does not at first sight accompany any other aesthetic sequence, nor is there any obvious development or “progress” in the type of rebirth. For instance the bodhisatta is a prince, a god,  a king and usually a human in some of the early Jātakas, which have only one verse; while in one of the very late stories in the twenty-first vagga (533), which has many verses, he is born as a goose, though a very noble one. 

The last ten stories have acquired a particular importance, particularly in South East Asia. A great deal of verse suggests a large amount of poetry, and a likely debt to traditions such as epic and drama: generalisations are crude in this context but a story with many verses is more likely to have affinities with such genres. So these last ten are in many ways extended folk epics.[22] For whatever reason, they are the most popular and widely depicted of the tales: their length and complexity certainly allows for a great deal of drama, ambiguity, characterisation and detailed explorations of moral dilemmas and doctrinal points. Chronology does not seem to be much of a factor in this arrangement, though Vessantara is usually regarded as the “last” human birth in a temporal sense, as are all the last ten, which are given prominence in Thailand and in other countries and each associated with a perfection.[23] These are not necessarily the same as the ones assigned by the Cariyā piaka or the introduction to the Jātakas, suggesting a later or different tradition attached to these attributions.[24] But an aesthetic, chronological and spiritual importance has at some point been assigned to these last ten stories. They are perceived as significant throughout the East as representing some sort of summation or completion of the task of fulfilling the ten perfections. 

But what about the beginning? Is that significant? The first vagga, of stories with single verses, which includes many very popular tales like the Maccha Jātaka (75), in which the bodhisatta is a kindly fish, does not seem to have any aesthetic “shape”.  The rebirths do not follow any pattern or apparently involve a sense of progress. The Aesop-like pithiness of the single verse method is well suited to the moral fables concerning an animal rebirth. Although there are not as many as the human, there are quite a few of these, though without any obvious pattern in their arrangement.[25]The stories tend to involve situations which can be summarised by a short formulation of the teaching: the single verse is often in practice a general homily or folk truth, expressed in a catchy and memorable form which for obvious reasons does not involve lengthy poetic or lyric description. All of this is inconclusive and does not suggest any obvious chronological beginning, or any sense of “progress”: there are quite a few lower rebirths, but they do not predominate. As we have seen there are nonetheless various thematic reasons for this as the choice of the first tale. It includes in the first part a homage to the Buddha and a statement of the efficacy of recollecting his virtues, his teaching and his followers. It then, in describing one of the lives that have contributed to these, includes a literal path, a wilderness, and a journey through inhospitable terrain.  The teaching is enacted in his method of dealing with the yakkha and his followers. 

So the choice of a hero for the first tale also to me suggests deliberation. It is a kind of middle ground in rebirths: it is not regal, courtly nor heavenly; it is not an animal one either, technically known as a descent. We do know that many early Buddhists were drawn from the mercantile class. Donations are recorded from merchants on early inscriptions, who seem to have acquired a social status higher than they had in Vedic times.[26] It would be fitting that the first story in this collection speaks to an audience who appear to have received Buddhism so favourably. A practical, shrewd and kindly trader, not averse to making a good profit yet mindful of his responsibilities to his dependents, seems to me the ancient Indian counterpart of the bourgeois “common man”, intent on applying Buddhist principles of generosity and restraint to his own circumstances and making them work. It is just these careful qualities which, it is suggested, keep those in the higher life, as monks, on the right path so that they do not fall into harm. It implies also not just a certain target audience, but also a means by which the tales may have become so widespread. We do not know the nature of the audience to whom the Jātakas were addressed, but we do know that while they have remained rooted within the countries of Buddhist practice they themselves tended to travel too.[27] Buddhism arose in a time of great mercantile and urban development in India and we find the tales spreading over the next centuries as trade and communications opened up in China and central Asia in the first centuries CE.[28][29] It is a notoriously difficult area of research, but I would imagine that merchants on trade routes for silks and other goods, swapping stories, must be in part responsible for this.  It seems likely that the merchants appropriated such popularly accessible tales and that the laity drawn from this class will have been well represented amongst their early audiences. We even find a striking similarity to one of them in Chaucer, over a thousand years later.

[22] On this and the language of Vessantara Jātaka in particular see R.F.Gombrich’s intro., ibid, xxvii-xxx.

[23] In the very last life before taking rebirth as a human the Buddha was reborn for aeons in the Tusita heaven.

[24]/sup> See E.Wray etc, Ten Lives of the Buddha, Siamese Temple Painting and Jātaka Tales, 16.  Nemi or Nimi Jātaka (541) for instance is cited by the Cariyā piṭaka in association with generosity or giving as well as Vessantara. In Thailand Vessantara is regarded as exemplifying dāna in the series of the ten; Nimi is associated with resolve, adhiṭṭhāna.

[25] There are in fact only 30-40 stories involving an animal rebirth in the first vagga: there are about 90 as a human, and the rest involve other, temporary rebirths in heaven realms or as a spirit.

[26] For the improved status of the mercantile class and their association with the rise of early Buddhism see A.L.Basham, The Wonder that was India (1954), 143-4.

[27] See R.F. Gombrich/ M.Cone, ibid, xxvii ff for diffusion of the Vessantara story. I have found L.Gray’s A Concordance of Buddhist Birth Stories (Oxford 2000) particularly helpful in tracing the movement of each tale as it lists known articles on each one and analyses each according to folk motif number.

[28] See J.S.Strong, The Buddha: a Short Biography, 15-34.

[29] Rev Dr Richard Morris in The Contemporary Review, XXXIX (May 1881), 730 saw the resemblance between the 48th  Jātaka and the Pardoner’s tale. Versions also seem to have occurred in Persian, Arabic and French. See L.Grey, ibid, 475-6 for articles dealing with this.


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