I am devoting this piece to share some glimpses of moral truths conveyed by the Buddha (563 – 483 BCE; Buddhist Calendar shows Buddha’s lifetime as: 624 – 544 BCE) through story telling. These stories--some 500 were compiled as Jataka Tales in the Buddhist scripture, Tripitaka. In an earlier piece, Story Times with Frank – 2, I have presented a brief introduction on it. The two 1994 Buddhanet publications authored by Anderson and Ven. Piyatissa compiled 100 stories--written suitably with illustrations for young people and all. In this first piece, I am highlighting the morals gleaned from the first 50 tales—and have written them in accordance with my reading of the stories, which may not always in verbatim sync with the authors.
Jataka Tales were told by the Buddha to convey his teachings of practical matters in an interesting and attractive style. In addition to giving birth to many myths and legends, they have populated many historic temples, pagodas and stupas in wall paintings, frescoes, and stone carvings. I had the opportunity of seeing the spectacular reliefs and stone carvings of Jataka Tales on the terrace walls of Nalanda ruins in India, and of Borobudur in Java, Indonesia. The tales refer to Buddha’s Bodhisattva lives—during which he was completing paramita—the process of perfecting Bodhi in quests for understanding and finding the truths to help humans escape from the cobweb of conflicts and unhappiness—to the tranquility of Happiness. During the process he was also earning merit or punya (it simply refers to the accumulation of positive energy in an individual). Buddha’s teaching tells one to earn punya by doing kushala karma—through the processes of wholesome or merit-making thoughts and deeds. He advised all to transfer or make dana of the earned punya to people one loves, to the deceased parents and ancestors—and largely to all sentient beings.
How do the punya dana or offerings work? I always wondered about the question—and heard a simple but lucid answer from Nepalese nun Ani Choying Drolma (1971 - ). She is not only a famous singer of Buddhist chants and songs, but is also an eloquent speaker of Dharma. During her presentation at Stanford in November 2017 she shared a story how she felt proud for being able to address the question satisfactorily. Referring to an encounter with a teenage questioning girl, her answer to the girl was like this: People send New Year greetings to friends, families and others wishing them prosperous time in the future, happiness, and all that. The sender may get reply or may not—but it does not matter, because by sending he or she feels happy for being part of them by setting-up the mutuality of humility, friendship and happiness. The practice of punya dana, therefore is a way of connecting with the tradition to establish the mutuality of goodwill and friendship with families—past and present—as well as with all for common wellbeing and harmony. In traditional Buddhist practices, the dana ceremony is conducted with chanting while pouring water-of-life in a bowl containing coins.
A little background. I got introduced to Jataka Tales through some books borrowed from our temple library while in Grade VIII. Around the same time, borrowed from a friend also came across the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata--the war stories originated in family feuds within the high caste Brahmins and Khastryas, and ended up in gods’ interventions. As a young enthusiast, I read the fascinating stories in earnest—perhaps not understanding some of the Jataka morals—the way I understand them now. After a long time since then, came across the two publications to comprehend how the stories are relevant in modern times.
For the sake of brevity I have only highlighted the title of the tales together with a one-line gist describing the content. The interested readers can visit the Buddhanet.net website to freely download the two-volume stories. My primary focus is on the morals (presented in italics) gleaned from the stories. The Buddha’s Jataka stories tell how one can derive strength from the solid foundation of morality—and use it in practical life. As one goes through them one soon realizes that the Buddha was not telling fantastic and magical stories—but selected only those from his paramita experiences that are relevant in everyday life—saying to be heedful and respectful to elders, the wise, pious and the honest. In most stories, the importance of intellect, wisdom and Panchsila (see Symmetry, Stability and Harmony)—described as the Five Basic Training Steps, came again and again—and of the necessity for caring about all lives. They were interwoven into the storylines demonstrating the necessity for practicing Meditation and Sublimities to lead a harmonious life in Happiness. It seems in the original compilation of 500 tales, some were repeated. Therefore the authors have merged them by showing the relevant serial numbers together.
I have posted this piece on 7th May Full-Moon day—the International Buddha Day or Vesak 2020 (2564 BE, according to the Buddhist Era) to commemorate the Buddha’s Birth (at Lumbini), Enlightenment (at Bodhgaya) and Mahaparinirvana (at Kushinagar). The day (different dates in each year according to the Theravada full-moon night in April-May) is recognized for worldwide celebration by the United Nations. This year, the worldwide celebrations—such as the Saga Dawa Festival in the Himalayan Buddhist countries, festivities at Bodhgaya, Lumbini and others, and the release of thousands of sky lanterns (adapted to the release of water lanterns in some countries)—will perhaps be cancelled or subdued due to COVID-19. Buddhist devotees release sky lanterns to pray to Dharmakaya or Mahabodhi of the historic Shakyamuni Buddha—envisioned in popular beliefs as Buddha Amitabh or Buddha Vairocana (in Sukhavati or Pure Land). The practice of lantern or lamp festival dates back to Buddha’s time. The scripture says that a poor girl named Nanda bought a lamp with her only coin to pay respect to the Buddha. It so happened that the power of her sincere devotional dana-citta – let the lamp remain alight all night while all others got extinguished. She earned superb merit for bringing light to the darkness. On this year of pandemic, let us transfer our merit or punya to all the worldwide victims and sufferers. To that end, I have selected a Zen sketch (image credit: anon) of the Buddha sitting in a lotus position with the Noble Eightfold Path (the Path of Purities of Mind, View, and Morality) radiating out from him.
Stories of Moral Strengths Told by the Buddha
1. Demons in the Desert: The story of two merchants: the foolish and the wise
Tricky talk and false appearance fool the ignorant—but the wise manages to remain untouchable by them.
2. Finding a New Spring: The story of a courageous intelligent tradesman
Do not falter and give up easily--because the trophy waits for those who persevere with due diligence.
3. The Golden Plate: The story of two salesmen: the tricky and the honest
In the end, the honest always triumphs while the greedy stumbles.
4. The Mouse Merchant: An entrepreneur began his business with a dead mouse
Even very meager means are adequate for an able and energetic person to be successful.
5. The Price Maker: A dishonest king’s price setting minister got caught
One dishonest person in high office is enough to bring shame to the whole nation.
6. Prince Goodspeaker and the Water Demon: the story of three princes and a demon
Unwholesome deeds bring shame; their damaging consequences are dreadful—do away with shame and fear by being kind and doing wholesome works.
7. Little Prince No-Father: A brave little prince born out of wedlock makes the king realize the truth
Do not get swayed by bullying—be courageous to stand up and use the power of truth.
8. The One-hundredth Prince: The wisdom of a teacher saves a kingdom from a bloody battle among brothers
Heeding to the advice of a wise teacher can save lives, even a kingdom from disastrous consequences.
9. The King with one Gray Hair: One piece of gray hair motivates a king to seek truth
Often a small thing has the power to cause great change.
10. The Happy Monk: Happiness of meditating monks
Attachment to power and wealth makes it difficult for one to be happy.
11. Beauty and Gray: The story of two brother deers
To a great leader, the safety of his or her followers is paramount.
12. King Banyan Deer: A deer king demonstrated the power of compassion to a human king
The morality of Panchsila ensures true harmonious living of all sentient beings.
13. Mountain Buck and Village Doe: The story of an infatuated buck
Even impending dangers are not apparent to an individual blinded by infatuation.
14. The Wind-deer and the Honey-grass: A wind-deer was lured to bondage
Be aware of temptation—do not underestimate its enslaving capacity.
15. The Fawn Who Played Hooky: The fate of a student who was careless in learning
Do not spend all the time playing—let learning make inroad into you.
16. The Fawn Who Played Dead: A well-learned student escaped from a death trap
Learning helps one to figure out a tool to get out of dangers.
17. The Wind and the Moon: The story of a silly quarrel between two friends
Weather comes weather goes—but true friendship remains intact in times of conflict.
18. The Goat Who Saved the Priest: The story of sins caused by animal sacrifice
As we love our life, so do all creatures. So be compassionate to all sentient beings.
19. The god in the Banyan Tree: The story of unwholesomeness of animal sacrifice
Unwholesome deeds like animal sacrifice follow one like a shadow to usher in misery.
20. The Monkey King and the Water Demon: The story of how wisdom can save many lives
Always test the water before jumping in.
21. The Tree that acted like a Hunter: An antelope outwitted a hunter by using the knowledge of gravity
Sometimes watching the action of gravity is helpful for not getting fooled by trickery.
22. The Dog King Silver: A dog makes the king realize the injustice caused by prejudice and taught him the virtue of Panchsila
The powerful must rise above prejudice to ensure justice for all.
23 and 24. The Great Horse Knowing-one: The story of a mighty horse helping win a battle without bloodshed
One must be courageous to let peaceful means win conflicts.
25. Dirty Bath Water: A royal horse refused to bathe in dirty water
Cleanliness is loved by all creatures in their own way.
26. Ladyface. A nice gentle elephant became violent hearing unwholesome words.
Be watchful with whom you associate—association with rogues could turn a gentle person into a bad character.
27. Best Friends. The story of a friendship between an elephant and a dog
Give a chance to friendship--it has the power to bring enemies together.
28 and 88. The Bull called Delightful. A bull refused to obey until the master was respectful
Be respectful to others—it benefits all—more than one knows it.
29. Grandma’s Blackie: A black bull paid to its kind and loving master by doing hard work
Loving kindness makes the poorest house the richest home.
30. Big Red, Little Red and No-squeal: The story of two goats and a pig
Do not envy the well-off—until you know the price they pay.
31. The Heaven of 33: The merit of doing wholesome works
There are no spells better than loving kindness and compassion—Panchsila followers earn superb merits.
32. The Dancing Peacock: The story of a vain peacock
Do not fool yourself by getting puffed up by flattery.
33. The Quail King and the Hunter: The Quail king tried his best to save all from a hunter
There is safety in unity—and danger in conflict.
34 and 216. The Fortunate Fish: A fish blinded by desire was saved
Passionate desire drives people to act foolish.
35. The Baby Quail who could not Fly Away: A raging fire miraculously could not touch a compassionate little Quail.
Wholesome works, righteousness and compassion are powerful to save one from danger.
36. Wise Birds and Foolish Birds: Foolish birds got trapped in a raging fire
It is important to listen to the wise words of elders to guide oneself.
37. The Birth of a Banyan Tree: Three friends agreed among themselves who was the eldest and wisest
Heeding to the wisdom of elders help living in harmony.
38. The Crane and the Crab: A wise crab understood the trick of a wicked greedy crane
Do not be fooled by trickery of the greedy—that comes with all different colors and lures.
39. Buried Treasure: Betrayal of a trusted servant
Be aware, trusts are easily broken by a dishonest and vain person.
40. The Silent Buddha: The story of how wickedness is defeated by the courage of righteousness
Those who observe Panchsila and are generous—fears cannot overwhelm them.
41, 82, 104, 369 and 439. The Curse of Mittavinda: The story of vicious jealousy, insatiable greed and deep realization
When one overcomes jealousy and greed—the attained peace of mind is blissful irrespective of loss or gain.
42, 274 and 375. The Pigeon and the Crow. The story of a wise pigeon and a greedy crow
The greedy loses all senses of seeing things as they are—even fails to heed to the sound advice of impending dangers.
43. Bamboo’s Father: The tragic story of keeping a dangerous pet
Do not project your own image on a pet to assume that it behaves like you.
44 and 45. Two Stupid Children. Unintentional foolish acts costed the life of parents
A foolish friend can often be more dangerous than a wise enemy.
46 and 268. Watering the Garden. Fool monkey troops destroyed a garden.
Do not trust fools and ignorant to do the work for you.
47. Salty Liquor. A foolish bartender messed up while trying to please the owner
An ignorant can mess up things while sincerely trying to do good.
48. The Magic Priest and the Kidnapper Gang. A learned priest made a grave mistake and paid for it by his own life
Even the wise becomes prone to make grave mistakes—when power and greed overtake them.
49. The Groom who lost his Bride to the Stars. A wedding collapsed because astrological charts of two priests did not agree
Do not depend on foretells and speculations—when you know what actions to take.
50. The Prince who had a Plan. A prince cleverly implemented a plan to prevent animal sacrifice in the kingdom
Even gods are happy if one sacrifices the practices of wrong doing by observing the Panchsila.
Before finishing, I like to pay tribute—on his centennial birth-year, to one of the greatest sons Bangladesh produced. He is the founding Father of Bangladesh—Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (1920 – 1975). Like the British arrogance created Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948) by imprisonments and inflicting racist harassment and humiliation upon him, so did the West Pakistani Junta on a fellow East Pakistani—the Bangabandhu. And like Gandhi was assassinated by a misguided extremist—so was the brutal killing of Sheikh Mujib and most of his family members—by some arrogant and corrupt army officers. His towering personality had an aura of exceptional courage and leadership—saturated with love for his country and people. Perhaps he was also remarkably different from most Bengalis—in a sense that he was taller than average—and his pipe-smoking was something of an uncharacteristic practice in Bengali culture.
Maturity of his political career began with the independence India movement—continued to the 1952 February language movement (In 1999, 21st February is declared the International Mother Language Day by UNESCO) in East Pakistan—to the 6-point self-rule demand he initiated through a mass movement in 1969. Pakistan government portrayed this movement as a collaborative Indian conspiracy to break Pakistan, and implicated Bangabandhu with treason in the Agartala Conspiracy Case. The case was proved false at a later time and the charges were dropped—but it was too late. The sowed seeds of mistrust and animosity became fertile in people’s mind—to let them sprout into Bangabandhu’s call for independence. It is impossible for anyone not to have patriotic goosebumps listening to his famous 7 March 1971 powerful speech (In 2017, UNESCO included the speech in the annals world heritage documentaries)—calling for independence of Bangladesh. And it did come to fruition after a bloody struggle smeared with painful hardships and many deaths—on December 16th, 1971. People from all walks of life – of different creed and religious backgrounds responded to Bangabandhu’s call to liberate the country. In order to bind all Bangladeshis harmoniously together in a newly independent secular country, Bangabandhu-led government included the Buddha Day as a national holiday—along with national days for other religious minorities.
Buddhism is one of the traditional religions of Bangladesh (the greater Bengal of India is rich in the historical landscape of unique culture and spirituality, and the presence of Buddhism was ubiquitous there until about the 12th century)—with ruins of numerous monasteries, temples and stupas scattered all over Bangladesh (at present Bangladesh has some 1.2 million Buddhists). Another great soul born on the soil of Bangladesh at Bikrampur was Atisha Dipankara (980 – 1054 CE)—a prince-turned Buddhist monk, and a scholar of the world’s second earliest university at Nalanda (427 – 1192 CE). He taught Mahayana-Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet, and is highly revered as one of the patriarchs in the Himalayan Buddhist countries, and in the vast areas of Asia from Eastern Russia and Siberia to Mongolia, Korea, and western China.
Finally on this auspicious Buddha Day, I like to dedicate this piece to my parents by making dana of my punya. They are my East—the word Buddha used to refer to parents as the harbinger of light to life—like the Sun does rising in the East (sitting under the shade of a Bodhi Tree, the Buddha faced East, looking over a river during the Enlightenment posture). My father passed away in 2007 at 91; my mother is 88 years old in 2020. One can never repay back the unfailing parental care and sacrifice, and the loving values they imprint on children —the childhood bliss (see Happiness piece) one is blessed to have. Yet each child does care about parents to make them happy in his or her own way—like I and my siblings continue to do.
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- by Dr. Dilip K. Barua, 7 May 2020