Bringing the birth stories to life

A superb new translation of the Great Ten jataka tales

The Ten Great Birth Stories of the Buddha: The Mahānipāta of the Jātakatthavaṇṇā

The jataka tales or birth stories are the most vivid and accessible part of Buddhist teaching. The Buddha, once he gained the ability to recall his past lives, related all 550 of them to the monks in his following. In some lives, he was a king, some a hermit, some a pauper, and in a few an animal. The 10 longest of these tales became associated with his 10 last lives and with his attainment of the "perfections" that enabled him to be born as the historical Buddha. In this book, this Great Ten have been translated anew for the first time in over a century.

The first translator, E.B. Cowell, was a model Victorian man of letters. In his portrait (on Wikipedia), he has a long grey beard, wire-rim spectacles, a heavy black suit, and a stern gaze. The new translators, Naomi Appleton and Sarah Shaw, teach at the universities of Edinburgh and Oxford, and smile out of their faculty web pages looking bright-eyed and fashionable. Their translation is as different from Cowell as their pictures are. Although his rendering was worthy, it's hard to read it for fun. The Appleton-Shaw translation bounces along like a ball.

Here is Cowell's version of a couplet from the Mahosadha tale: "Thinkst thou that the sire is always better than the son, O excellent king? Then is yon creature better than the mule; the ass is the mule's sire."

In the Appleton-Shaw version, this becomes: "Do you think that in this case the father is always better than the king, your majesty? Then is that colt better than his father?"

In the famous scene where Prince Vessantara asks his son to consent to being given away to the evil Brahmin, Jujaka, Cowell subjected the reader to a forced diet of plonking rhymed couplets: "Come hither, my beloved son, my perfect state fulfil; Come now and consecrate my heart, and follow out my will. Be thou my ship to ferry me safe o'er existence's sea, Beyond the worlds of birth and gods I'll cross and I'll be free."

Appleton-Shaw's simpler version allows the poetry of the moment to work directly on the reader: "Come, dear son, fulfil my perfection, Consecrate my heart and do just as I say. Be a steady boat that takes me on the ocean of becoming, For I shall cross to the farthest shore, and bring freedom to the world and its gods."

Both Appleton and Shaw have a string of earlier translations and academic works on the jataka to their credit. In this book, they provide a short introduction to each of the 10 tales, alerting the reader to the key messages, the unusual bits, and the literary devices. In a 49-page introduction, they condense a huge amount of academic research and thinking by themselves and others into a highly readable survey of the history, importance and role of the stories in Southeast Asia. Peter Skilling contributes a preface sketching their wider context.

Appleton and Shaw point out that one axial theme of these stories is the tension between kingship and renunciation -- having ultimate power and wealth on the one hand, and going off to the forest on the other. In the Temiya Jataka, the Bodhisattva goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid becoming a king, and after he goes off to the forest, almost the whole world follows him. More commonly, the act of renunciation is part of the journey whereby the Bodhisattva or Buddha-to-be becomes the model of a good king. But sometimes he is an adviser, or just a contrast, to a very bad king indeed. These stories taught about religion but about politics too.

Appleton and Shaw address the criticism that these stories are "the most blatantly misogynous texts of the Pali literature". They argue that women have roles as good wives and mothers in which they become "supportive, creatively resourceful, and truly active heroines". But they skip too easily over the stories' portrayal of women as intrinsically inferior.

The jataka tales have been the single largest influence on the visual art of Southeast Asia, rivalling portrayal of the Buddha and his life. Appleton and Shaw give us a capsule history of this process, spanning Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. They also give us almost 200 colour illustrations of the Great Ten, collected from their own studies and travels or contributed by other scholars. These range from plaques made at Pagan a millennium ago to murals made in Thailand in the last few years. They show how artists condensed each story into a handful of distinctive scenes, which acted as a reminder for the whole tale.

The tale of Prince Vessantara is the last, most famous, and arguably the greatest of the Great Ten. In her introduction, Shaw sets out to explain why this tale has become so extraordinarily popular. She notes that besides illustrating one of the perfections, the tale itself has a "perfection of plot". The tale describes a full circle: the prince begins with everything, gives away everything he has, and then has everything restored. Along this journey, he is observed by his family, the gods, and more remotely by the people of his city. As readers, we join this audience. As the plot approaches the near-tragedy at its climax, there is some relief for the reader with a celebration of the forest's beauty and a comic interlude with clownish Jujaka. The finale becomes a celebration of not only kingship but also family. Although the tale is nominally about the perfection of giving or generosity, Shaw points out that its popular message is that "children are the supreme gift".

The publication, a joint venture between Chulalongkorn University Press and Silkworm Books, is beautifully done. This is a landmark in the world of Buddhist studies, made in Thailand. The translators note that these tales, especially Prince Vessantara, rank "among the greatest narratives of the world". They have been dramatised or chanted at festivals for centuries, and today they are still being painted on temple walls or turned into operas. These lively translations allow us to understand why they have been so popular for so long. This is one of these books which feels like an act of love on the part of all concerned, from the translators, to the publishers, to the editors, and to the colleagues who have contributed to the illustrations.

The Ten Great Birth Stories Of The Buddha: The Mahãnipãta of the Jãtakatthavannanã

Translated by Naomi Appleton and Sarah Shaw

Chulalongkorn University Press and Silkworm Books

Two-volume boxed set, hardback

ISBN 978-616-215-112-5

3,000 baht

Paperback

ISBN 978-616-215-113-2,

1,500 baht

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