Week 2: Jataka Tales (Birth Stories of the Buddha)

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Background Reading (2): Introduction to Buddhist Jataka Tales

Depending on the week's assignment, you may have several pages of Background Reading. This week, you have THREE PAGES of Background reading.

  1. Frametales: Let's review the basics!
  2. Introduction to Buddhist Jataka Tales
  3. Terms and Definitions

The reading this week consists of a collection of Buddhist jataka tales. You have probably heard of the Buddha and Buddhism, but I'm guessing that most of you have not heard the term "jataka tales" before. This introduction will provide you with the basic information you need to start reading these stories.

What is Buddhism? Buddhism is a religion (some might call it a philosophy) that began in India, and later spread throughout Asia. Today, there are followers of Buddhism all over the globe and it is one of the largest religions in the world (there are upwards of 300 million or more practicing Buddhists around the world today). Although Buddhism originated in India, there are not many practicing Buddhists in India today. Most of the Buddhists living in India are Tibetans, who fled to India after the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1950.

Who was the Buddha? The nickname "Buddha" means the one who is "awake." This is the name given to Siddhartha Gautama, the founding figure of Buddhism. Gautama was born in India, sometime around the year 525 B.C.E. (this makes him roughly a contemporary of Confucius in ancient China, and of Pythagoras in ancient Greece). Gautama was born into a royal household and was a great prince, but he turned away from the material world in order to understand the problem of human suffering. He achieved spiritual awakening, and spent the rest of his life as a teacher and as a leader of monastic communities. The stories you will read this week show the Buddha using stories to teach spiritual lessons to the monks in his communities.

Buddhist beliefs. One of the central ideas of Buddhism is that there are "four noble truths" which are fundamental to human existence.

Buddhist writings. Although there is not a single book like the "Bible" in Buddhism, there are many sacred writings in the Buddhist tradition. At first, the teachings of the Buddha were preserved by means of the oral tradition. Then, around the first century B.C.E., the Buddha's teachings were put into writing. The language that was used was Pali, a form of the ancient Sanskrit language. Pali and Sanskrit are basically similar, but the words often sound different: in Sanskrit, for example, the Buddha's name is "Gautama" but in Pali this same name is "Gotama," and so on. The birth stories of the Buddha that you will be reading this week are translations from Pali into English, using some Pali names and terms. For example, you may have heard the term "Boddhisattva," which means "Enlightened Being." This is a Sanskrit term, and it comes out as "Bodhisatta" in Pali. You will find a list of important terms on the next page.

Jataka tales, or "Birth-Stories" of the Buddha. The "jatakas" are an early collection of Buddhist writings. The word "jataka" means "birth", so the "jataka tale" are the "birth-stories" of the Buddha. The "jataka stories" are built as frametales, which makes them one of the oldest and most important examples of frametales in world literature. In each jataka story, the Buddha is shown in his present life, usually speaking with his monks about problems and disputes at the monastery. This is the frame. Then the Buddha tells a story about a past life. This is often a famous folktale - and sometimes they are very humorous stories! Humor can actually be a powerful teaching tool. In some cases, though, the stories are very serious. When the Buddha finishes telling the story of the past, you return to the present, and the Buddha provides an interpretation of the story, explaining the incarnations and the moral of the story. The incarnations provide the connection between the frametale and the folktale: the characters in the frametale were previously incarnated as characters in the story of the past. The jataka tales are written in prose, but each jataka also contains a bit of poetry, which expressed the "moral" of the story. Each of the jataka tales follows exactly this same structure. As you read each of the jatakas, make sure you understand clearly the difference between the frametale which tells the story of the "present life," as opposed to the story of "past life."

  1. Frametales: What is a frametale anyway?
  2. Introduction to Buddhist Jataka Tales
  3. Terms and Definitions

Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM