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Home Academic Work Articles Archive Crossing the wilderness: how the Buddha narrates his own travels. - Page 6

Crossing the wilderness: how the Buddha narrates his own travels. - Page 6

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Beginnings

If we open an anthology of poems or collection of stories in the west, we assume that the choice of the first text is in some sense significant. The first poem or story in a collection interests us: it may not be the best, but we would feel that it has been chosen to awaken a mood for the collection as a whole, perhaps setting in motion themes and ideas which come into play or are explored through the rest of the work. It lingers in the mind as in some sense our initial and most important contact with the text as a whole.  Indeed there are many books, poems, plays and novels memorable precisely because of the way the author interested us first. We do not make such assumptions about collections of early Buddhist texts. In the first place, they are not apparently the product of a single creative mind, but were, according to tradition, collected by the followers of the Buddha at various councils after his death. From a historical point of view it is generally agreed that in practice they evolved over a period of time as they were chanted and handed down by various bhāˆaka[30] Perhaps because of this we do not usually speak of the texts’ “author” and do not tend to focus on the artistry in the composition of the suttas, as they are called, or other canonical Buddhist texts. But these factors need not preclude artistic considerations, or the exercise of care in making a good beginning. Indeed the phrase eva me suta, thus have I heard, begins many, if not most, of the suttas and is both a preparation for the hearer and an acknowledgement of those who have sustained the teaching. A highly personal statement, it nonetheless pays respects to those from whom the texts have been heard and who have shaped the form they take. While the history of the tradition has tended to stress other aspects of the text, such as the spiritual, the philosophical or the ethical, there is evidence of great care and skill employed by these unknown compilers, which has contributed to the texts’ construction.  If we examine this craft further we find that in the course of the process of transmission various emphases and excellences also seem to have emerged in the collections, which are now being acknowledged by contemporary scholarship.[31] It seems to me that all the major collections of early Buddhist texts have significant and pertinent beginnings, and that when we come to look at them more from the point of view of their literary artistry, it will become clear that such an appraisal need not detract from our sense of the Buddha’s creativity as a teacher. It rather enhances it, by placing it in a context where humour, drama and poetry and a sense of the aesthetic shape of a collection as a whole give substance to our interpretation of how the Buddha taught and behaved.  The first text of the Dīghanikāya, the Brahmajāla sutta, for instance, is an impressive choice to begin this series of lengthy texts. It has, though, a decidedly low-key frame story, involving a curious interchange between a teacher and his disciple as they follow, literally, in the footsteps of the Buddha on the road to Nālanda. It is a simple and very human beginning to the major Buddhist text on wrong views. traditions of reciters – groups of monks entrusted with this task. As the text that may be chanted on any occasion may not be the first one in a collection it could be argued that no mood needs to be set at all by the one placed at the beginning.  Texts were not composed or grouped together with an eye to a reader, but to an audience who would be listening to them over what may have been a long period of time, such as an overnight session. Constant contact with texts chanted in this way is part of a South East Asian Buddhist background; peace and reassurance would be found just by hearing them, and recognising the familiar features of the oral tradition. 

The first Jātaka story seems to have been chosen for its encapsulation of the themes of the collection as a whole. A story of a safe journey across a wilderness, it designates the beginning of a larger one.  A description of a simple merchant, it represents the bodhisatta as the common man before the extensive explorations of the animal realms, and before the complex moral choices that are dramatised in the last ten rebirths. It  occurs after a homage to the central character, and like each of the tales, a way of exploring and revealing his true identity – the first person aha that is only revealed at the conclusion of the tale. I mentioned earlier that the preliminary story in the present specifically mentions the recollection of the Buddha as a meditation practice with limitless potential – an unusual claim for an early Pāli text. A question I have not dealt with is that of no-self. How can a collection of stories where the Buddha is described as “I” embody a doctrine where there is no “ I”? R.F. Gombrich points out that the stories are an example of folk Buddhism, intended for the general populace, who would not want to think too deeply about such matters.[32]Early Buddhism: A new Approach, writes,  “It has come to seem to me that the Buddhist teachings in the Sutta piaka emphasise above all else the centrality of personal experience...Moreover we all experience the notion of identity, being human being A and not human being B.”[33] In the Jātakas the Buddha travels through and experiences many identities, but is the only character in the tales who remembers and is free from them all. The reader, or hearer, does not really think much about the doctrine of no-self at all: it is enacted for him through the separate and distinct experiences of the Bodhisatta, recollected by the Buddha in the present. The Jātakas then seem to me to be a skilfully constructed journey through a wilderness of lives, linking the Buddha with all kinds of conditions, yet starting with the common man, the kind of person very likely to be listening to them.  Like the entrance to a temple in the East, the tales give us a way of travelling through an extended recollection of his qualities: they reveal the impermanence of each life before moving on to the next, and so elucidate a path for finding at the end of each tale the refuge of the awakened mind, free from any “I”-making at all. It seems to me that one way this method is so successful is through the flexibility of the narrative method, with its shifts of perspective that allow us to move from the present to the past and back again within each tale, before that identity is dissolved and a new story begins. The contradiction between the self that finds out that there is no self is one that provides a dramatic thread throughout this journey of lives: each story starts with the awakened mind, describes it at one remove so to speak in a past in which the bodhisatta was not enlightened, and then returns to the awakened mind at the end.  Sue Hamilton, in Early Buddhism: A new Approach, writes,  “It has come to seem to me that the Buddhist teachings in the Sutta piaka emphasise above all else the centrality of personal experience...Moreover we all experience the notion of identity, being human being A and not human being B.”[33] In the Jוtakas the Buddha travels through and experiences many identities, but is the only character in the tales who remembers and is free from them all. The reader, or hearer, does not really think much about the doctrine of no-self at all: it is enacted for him through the separate and distinct experiences of the Bodhisatta, recollected by the Buddha in the present. The Jוtakas then seem to me to be a skilfully constructed journey through a wilderness of lives, linking the Buddha with all kinds of conditions, yet starting with the common man, the kind of person very likely to be listening to them.  Like the entrance to a temple in the East, the tales give us a way of travelling through an extended recollection of his qualities: they reveal the impermanence of each life before moving on to the next, and so elucidate a path for finding at the end of each tale the refuge of the awakened mind, free from any “I”-making at all.



[30] For characteristic features of oral tradition see L.S.Cousins,’Pāli Oral Literature’, in P.Denwood and A.Piatigorski eds., Buddhist Studies: Ancient and Modern (1983), 1-11. For the place memorisation and chanting of texts see R.Gethin, ‘The Mātikās: Memorization, Mindfulness and the List’, in J.Ggyatso ed., Remembrance in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism (Albany, New York 1992), 149-72.

[31] See Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, 2 Vols (Somerville, MA Oxford  2000) I 31-40 and Joy Manne, ‘Categories of Sutta in the Pāli Nikāyas and their implications for our appreciation of the Buddhist teaching and literature’, JPTS, XV(1990), 29-87. More generally, see Steve Collins’s examination of the way the skilled use of imagery in the texts in Selfless Persons: Imagery and Thought in Theravāda Buddhism (Cambridge 1982).

[32] See R.F.Gombrich, ibid, xvii. See also S.Collins, ibid, 151-2.

[33] Early Buddhism: a New Approach. The I of the Beholder (Richmond, Surrey  2000), 6-7.



 

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