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Sutta Pitaka: The Jātaka Tales

Updated on June 11, 2011

Buddhist Scriptures (4th Century B.C.)

The Sutta Pitaka is the second part of the three-part Tripitaka, or (Three baskets [of texts]), the primary canon of Buddhism.The Sutta Pitaka contains more than 10,000 suttas delivered by the Buddha around the time of his 45 year teaching career. It also contains many additional suttas from members of the sangha. (sangha are groups of Buddhist monks)

There are five nikayas (collections) in the Sutta Pitaka. Looking at the nikayas you'll notice Khuddaka Nikaya, which is "the division of short books". This consists of 15 books (eighteen in the Burmese edition) with many Buddhist stories and verses inside. Book 10 of the Khuddaka Nikaya is the Jataka.

The Jātaka is a collection of 547 stories, from the Sutta Pitaka division of the Tripitaka. Like the rest of the Tripitaka, the Jataka is in Pali, a north Indian dialect related to Sanskrit, which appears to be the literary language of early Buddhism.

In ancient times the Pali Canon was written on thin slices of wood. The 'pages' are kept on top of each other by two thin sticks, which go through little holes in the scripture. The scripture is wrapped in cloth and stored inside the box Click thumbn
In ancient times the Pali Canon was written on thin slices of wood. The 'pages' are kept on top of each other by two thin sticks, which go through little holes in the scripture. The scripture is wrapped in cloth and stored inside the box Click thumbn
A deity who stands for wisdom. She holds an upraised knife in one hand, a skullcap in another. She stands in a dancing position
A deity who stands for wisdom. She holds an upraised knife in one hand, a skullcap in another. She stands in a dancing position

The Jataka

Jataka means "the story of a birth," and the Jatakas are stories, in a mixture of prose and verse, of the 550 lives through which Gautama Buddha is said to have passed before his birth as Prince Siddhartha of the Sakya clan in northern India (563 B.C.)

In his earlier births Gautama is said to have been a Pali Bodhisatta (a being destined to achieve enlightenment), who in each life, born as an animal, person, or god, moves a step closer to perfect wisdom. The perfect wisdom being the attainment of Buddha (an "Enlightened Being").

As the tale begins, you find the Buddha in conversation with his Buddhist monks or lay followers. A question from one of them will bring to the teacher's mind a story of the past (that is, of one of his past lives as a Bodhisattva), which he then tells to illustrate a point of conduct. This is the main narrative, with its most dramatic moments highlighted by one or more stanza (gatha) spoken by a character or characters within it. At the end, the Buddha comments on his role as the Bodhisattva hero of the tale. The rebirth theme, together with the specifically Buddhist ideals of conduct expounded, mark the story as a Jataka.

Tathagata - one who has thus gone (Tath-gata) and one who has thus come (Tath-gata) Buddha refers to himself as thus in the writings of the Pali Canon
Tathagata - one who has thus gone (Tath-gata) and one who has thus come (Tath-gata) Buddha refers to himself as thus in the writings of the Pali Canon

Buddhist Beliefs

Buddhist beliefs are evidenced in the stories at moments like that of the hare's self sacrifice. In the Buddhist doctrine utterly selfless acts and attitudes are a crucial component of the path to enlightenment and thus to liberation from the cycle of birth and death.The basic decider of one's liberation is karma. Good deeds, like that of the hare's self sacrifice, will bring one good fortune. While bad deeds, such as the jackal's theft, will return later as bad fortune. Even if the act is severely detrimental to the actor it will bring positive karma if it's done for the benefit others.

Tortoise from Kaccapavadana
Tortoise from Kaccapavadana

As Buddhism spread, the jatakas spread with it to become a part of literature, art, and culture of Sri Lanka, Burma, Tibet, China, Japan, and other countries in East and Southeast Asia.

The arrangement of the Jataka as we have it today may have been made as late as the fourth century A.D. based on the text preserved by Sri Lankan Buddhist monks. Many Jatakas are also sculpted on the north Indian relic shrines (stupa) of the Buddha at Bharhut and Sanchi (Second century B.C. to A.D. first century) the earliest surviving Buddhist monuments in India, thus confirming the antiquity and importance of these tales in tradition.

Northern Sanchi Gateway (stupa)
Northern Sanchi Gateway (stupa)
The Chinese Diamond Sutra, the oldest known dated printed book in the world, printed in the 9th year of Xiantong Era of the Tang Dynasty (Buddhist)
The Chinese Diamond Sutra, the oldest known dated printed book in the world, printed in the 9th year of Xiantong Era of the Tang Dynasty (Buddhist)

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