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All knowing eyes from Nepal Buddha: Son of Lumbini and World Teacher

What are the jatakas?

tiger ready to eat the Bodhisattva Bodhisattva saves his mother
The Jatakas are the birth stories about the hundreds of past lives of the Buddha. What is useful about the Jatakas is how each story contains a moral lesson along with some karmic consequence that the Buddha eventually learned. Furthermore, Jatakas have that special place in Buddhist curriculum in that one may learn better the moral meaning and Buddhist precepts while also learning the Jatakas.

The tales were originally written in the language of the Theravada Buddhist scriptures and the stories comprise one of the largest and oldest collections of stories in the world. There are 547 stories that evolved from the one vow made by the Bodhisattva: the desire to postpone his own enlightenment and the Wheel of Life (samsara) and to hence teach others until he was ready to become a Buddha himself.

There are many titles for the Buddha which can be learned when studying the Jatakas. Listed below are some of the titles that one may find while studying these stories:
              1. The Buddha
              2. The Exalted One (Bhagava)
              3. The Fully Awakened One (Abhisambuddha)
              4. The Teacher (Sattha)
              5. The Ten-Powered One (Dasabala)
              6. The Thus-gone (Tathagata)

Names or titles for the Bodhisattva, who is the one bound for or on the way to enlightenment, and the hero of the tales as in the past, and who is preparing to become a Buddha in the final life: Bodhisattva or The Great Being (Mahasatta)

Accordingly, each story is attributed to a particular perfection or maybe even a moral lesson. Perfections are learned as one learns through the moral of a story except that these are about the Buddha's past lives. There are Ten Perfections (paramis) explained throughout the stories:

              1. Generosity (dana)
              2. Virtue (sila)
              3. Renunciation (nekkhamma)
              4. Wisdom (panna)
              5. Effort (viriya)
              6. Forbearance (khanti)
              7. Truth (sacca)
              8. Resolve (adhitthana)
              9. Loving Kindness (metta)
              10. Equanimity (upekkha)

            All the above information and explanations from the following resource.
            The Jatakas: Birth Stories of the Bodhisattva
            translated from the Pali by Sarah Shaw, 2006.

Listed below are suggested resources and lessons to teach and inspire with the Jatakas.

1. Resource: Jatakas PDF Several lesson ideas and web links are included here.
2. The images at the top right of this web page will take one to a useful source on Jatakas and Buddhism:Sakyamuni Sambuda Vihara
3. Textual resources used but not exclusively: The Jatakas: Birth Stories of the Bodhisattva by Sarah Shaw; I Once was a Monkey: Stories The Buddha Told by Jeanne M. Lee: Aesops' Fables (any edition); Panchatantra Stories for Children (any edition)

jataka tale with tiger
Bodhisattva and the starving tiger, another rendition of the Jataka
about renouncing the body for Enlightenment.


Monkey jataka in relief
Monkey Jataka in stone relief from Nepal.
Courtesy of
Prof. Dina Bangdel of
Virginia Commonwealth Universi

Lesson Idea:

The Monkey Bridge is a well known Jataka tale about how the Bodhisattva was able to save all the other monkeys in his group when he made his body a bridge. The story is dramatic and a teaching point about self-sacrifice and how the Bodhisattva was also able to teach the King about taking care of his own subjects. There is a "bad guy" in the story, Devadatta, who in the Buddha's life was his own cousin and antagonist.
A copy of the story may be accessed at the following link, Monkey Bridge Jataka PDF.

A suggested lesson for students would be to draw a key point of the story in either a circle or square shape, thereby depicting one of the many artistic relief styles employed in Buddhist art.

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This site was created by Diana T. Mackiewicz at the NEH Summer Institute "Literatures, Religions, and Arts of the Himalayan Region," held at the College of the Holy Cross, Summer 2011.