Jataka Tales, Zen Practice, and Daily Life

 

 

Once long ago, when Brahmadatta still reigned in Benares, the bodhisattva was born as a crow. In time he became the leader of a great, raucous troop of crows, nearly a thousand strong, that lived in the cemetery…

So starts The Wise Crow Jataka, presented in Chapter 6 of Endless Path. The Jataka tales are a collection of stories that supposedly tell the tales of Shakyamuni Buddha’s many previous lives. The Buddha appears in many forms, from God to crow, and from King to beggar. An obvious moral teaching can be at the heart of each tale, similar in some respects to Aesop’s fables. From my experience, in Western convert communities, the Jataka tales are generally seen as children’s stories, rather than important moral lessons for all practitioners. Enter Rafe Martin.

Rafe Martin is the author of several books, including The Banyan Deer, Straight to the Heart of Zen, and One Hand Clapping: Zen Stories for All Ages. With Endless Path, Martin has found 10 Jataka tales that relate directly to the 10 paramitas (also known as the 10 perfections). In so doing, he brings them off the children’s shelf and into the lives of every modern-day Buddhist, young and old.

The he uses is almost like that of a koan. First he presents the Jataka, each one given fresh new life as an original telling, all with a dash of Zen. Then he spends a few pages extolling commentary on each one. Martin’s commentary stays with the contemporary theme in order to reach a modern audience as diverse as the characters we find in the Jatakas. This is definitely the first Buddhist book that I’ve ever read with references to President Obama, iPods, and 9/11. His commentary roams from personal narrative to a bit of Buddhist history, and covers the morals, ethics, and finer details of each tale wonderfully.

Rafe Martin breathes fresh new life into these wonderful old tales, and in doing so, provides us with a much-needed perspective into our individual lives and practice. He doesn’t really touch on whether or not these stories actually took place. Certainly there are those out there that believe they did, and there are many out there that see them as nothing more than folklore and stories left over from a far-away culture. Instead, Martin prefers taking up the task of telling each story, and bringing out its full potential to a modern audience. It doesn’t really seem to matter here if the tales are true or not, because they are reflections on our own lives, here and now. In his commentary, Martin shows that each Jataka stands on its own, fiction or non, because the lessons we take from them can affect us deeply, here and now.

Something we fail to realize is that this life, right here, now, is a Jataka in the making. We might not be a talking crow or a monkey king, but we do each have our own stories of struggle developing these 10 perfections, developing the life of a Buddha. Something that I appreciated while reading these tales was how much the Buddha struggled through his previous lives! It wasn’t always so easy for him, and sometimes he failed miserably. It should give us hope then, that the struggles we work through here in this life are not just the mud of life, but they have the potential to become the very thing that drives us on this difficult path we walk.

I wholeheartedly recommended Endless Path to any practitioner out there. There are lessons we can all take away from these Jatakas and Martin’s commentary on them. As I said, these tales are for people of all ages. So those of you out there with children have the added bonus of being able to read these tales to them, and maybe create your own commentary, something that touches you and your family.

 

Cheers.

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