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Jataka Tales: Stories from Buddha’s Previous Lives

Join Demo Rinpoche and the Jataka Tales on Sundays at 11:00am ET, followed by a group discussion on the morning program. Sunday programs are free. All are welcome.

Dates: January 10, 17, 24, February 14, 21, April 18, 25, May 9, 16, 23

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References:

  • Jatakamala; A.N.D. Haskar; Harper/element
  • The Marvelous Campanion: Life Stories of the Buddha; Aryasura; Dharma Publishing

THE STARVING TIGER - January 10, 2021

Born in a past life as a brahmin in a wealthy family, the Buddha chose to renounce a life of privilege. He became beloved teacher, living a simple life in a forest retreat. One day, he was walking with a disciple up a mountain path to find a suitable place to practice.  As they passed a ravine, they heard the anguished roar of a tiger.

Far below, they saw a weak and starving mother tiger who had just given birth. Crazed with hunger, she was eyeing her tiny cubs as food. Her desperate hunger was about to overcome her natural love and care for her offspring. 

Quickly, the Buddha sent his student off in search of something to feed the tiger. The Wise One knew, however, that food was scarce and that feeding the flesh of one helpless animal to another would only prolong the cycle of suffering. Instead, he acknowledged the benefit of using his own body to prevent the tiger from devouring her young ones. With that thought, he cast himself off the cliff into the ravine below. 

“Two things alone cause people to ignore the suffering of others: attachment to pleasure and the inability to give aid. But if I cannot feel pleasure while another being suffers, and if I have the power to help, how can I ignore them?”


KING OF THE GODS - January 17, 2021

As a result of countless good deeds, the Buddha was once born as Shakara, King of the Gods. His splendor and goodness shone to the very edges of the universe. That same splendor gave rise to consuming jealousy in the hearts of demons everywhere.  Driven by spite, the demons amassed an army to overthrow the king.  

Foreseeing the suffering the demons could bring, the king had no choice but to defend helpless beings by leading an army of the gods against the demon horde. The thunderous battle shook the heavens.  The demons began to gain against the gods who seeing this, turned and fled the battlefield, leaving only King Shakara and his faithful charioteer. 

Fearing all was lost, the charioteer turned the chariot and began to retreat. Along its path lay a tree that held a nest of fledging eagles too young yet to fly.  

“Stop and turn back so I might save them,” Shakara commanded.  

“But my lord, turning back now we will surely be overrun by the demons,” the charioteer pleaded.

“Better to be struck down by demon blows than live in infamy by abandoning helpless beings.  Turn back,” the king once more commanded.

Seeing the king of the gods suddenly turn back and face them, the demons were filled with fear. In terror and confusion, they stumbled over each other as they turned and fled at the sight of such bravery. 

Shakara returned in victory to his capitol to the chagrin of the embarrassed gods.  

Dharma protects those who practice it.


A QUESTION OF ANGER - January 24, 2021

The Buddha was once born into a prosperous and noble brahmin family. As a Boddhisatva for numerous lifetimes, he had become accustomed to wisdom and renunciation. He therefore did not enjoy the life of a householder.

He decided to set such a life aside and become a renunciate in the forest. His wife, who loved him very much, was determined to accompany him on this path. He tried to dissuade her, telling her of the difficulties faced by a homeless ascetic.  But she could not be turned aside and so went with him as they wandered off into the lonely forest, like two geese that pair for life.

One day, a local king happened upon them in their forest abode. Struck by the wife’s radiant beauty, the king was determined to have her for his own.  But the king was fearful of the power of an ascetic’s curse.  He thought to test the Boddhisatva to see if his fears were grounded. If he were a true renunciate, he would show no sign of anger or attachment.  If he did show such signs, there would be no powers to fear. 

“What would you do if someone tried to carry off your wife from this lonely place?” the king asked.

The Boddhisatva replied, “If anyone were to act against me here, he will never escape me while I live.”

The king thought that if this ascetic shows such attachment and hostility, he surely cannot have the magic powers of a true renunciate.  And so the king ordered his men to carry off the wife. At this, the Boddhisatva showed not the slightest sign of distress. 

“You claimed to vanquish whoever acted against you, yet here you sit without lifting a finger,” said the king.

“The one who acted against me here has not escaped me,” replied the Boddhisatva. “Listen, great king.  There is as demon that causes untold harm wherever it finds refuge. Its name is anger. It is the enemy within who turns men to evil. Knowing this who would not vow to vanquish it. This I have done.  Can you say the same?” 

Hearing the words of the Boddhisatva, the king’s mind was pacified.  He fell at the great man’s feet and begged forgiveness. With a word, the wife was returned and the king became the Bodhisattva’s servant. 


THE BEGGAR WANTS AN EYE  - February 14, 2021

At this time, the Buddha was a wealthy and benevolent king.  His generosity knew no bounds. Likewise, his joy in giving was without limit. Day after day, supplicants would line up before him bearing requests.  None were denied.  Gold, silver, precious gems, all walked away with whatever they asked for.

One day, a poor blind beggar appeared in front of the king. 

“What do you wish for?” the king asked. 

“One of your eyes, sire,” the beggar replied.  

The king was overjoyed at being able to give something seen as far more precious than gold and jewels. To the beggar’s request he said, “I will give you both my eyes so that people may see and be amazed.”

The king’s ministers begged the king to reconsider. 

“My only concern is to be of help to people,” replied the king. “The trouble this poor man took to reach me should not go to waste.”

With that, the king instructed his doctors to remove his eyes and give them to the beggar. To the wonder of all, the beggar’s sight was restored through the king’s eyes. 

This beggar, of course, was no ordinary being, but one sent to test the limits of the king’s generosity. Having excelled beyond expectation, the king thereafter was bestowed with the divine power of limitless vision, to better see and attend to the needs of living beings.

“There is no better means for advancement than charity born of compassion for others. Therefore, make your wealth meaningful by using it for the benefit of others.”


THE BRAHMIN STUDENT - February 21, 2021

In one of his past lives, the Buddha was the diligent student of a pious and learned teacher.  At one point, the teacher wished to test the character of his students. He spoke to them about his hardships due to poverty. At first, they gathered more food for him.  But he told them that only wealth can truly relieve the pains of poverty. 

As brahmin students, they had no means of gathering wealth except through gifts.  But the people of their area were not that charitable.  Their teacher told them there were other ways of gathering wealth. One such method is theft. “But since you wish to preserve your reputations,” told them, “You must do it when no one can see.”

All agreed to become thieves out of respect for their teacher.  All except the diligent student.  

“Why do you stand aside,” the teacher asked.  “Is it for lack of devotion to me?”

“I am truly devoted,” the student replied.  “But what you ask is impossible. No one can act sinfully without being observed.  Even when no one else is there, I am always there to observe my own actions, whether right or wrong.  Thus, how can I preserve my own reputation knowing I have done wrong?”  

The teacher was delighted by the student’s words. “Well done.  Well done,” he said. “The foolish may forsake the path, telling themselves it is for need or duty. But the virtuous will not stray even in distress.” 


THE TWO SWANS - April 18, 2021

In one of his lifetimes, the Buddha was a king of the swans. The commander of the swan king’s army was the Buddha’s disciple Ananda in a former birth. Together, they were devoted to the betterment of their subjects. 

The fame of these two great swans reached the ear of King Brahmadatta in Varanasi. He ordered his ministers to find a way he could observe these noble birds. To that end, they constructed splendid lake in a beautiful wooded region and proclaimed it a sanctuary for all birds who chose to rest there.  

When the flock of swans learned of this, they urged their king to allow them to visit. But the king’s commander was wary. 

“Birds and beasts say what is in their hearts, my king,” said the commander.  “Man alone is capable of the opposite. The lake they created is but a pleasant entertainment. We have all we need here.  Why should we risk falling prey to deceit?”

But the other swans persisted and so the king agreed to lead his subjects to the new lake.

When the Varanasi king learned the two great swans were now at his lake, he ordered a clever fowler to catch them and bring them to his palace. And so the fowler sets his traps.  In no time, the king of swans was snared by the foot.  Seeing this, all the other swans flew off in fear.  All except the swan that was Ananda. 

“Why did you not leave?” the swan king asked him. 

“I will not die just because I stay here,” he answered. “Nor will I escape old age and death if I flee. If I were to leave you just to save my own life, how could I live with the shame of abandoning my true companion?” 

The fowler approached the two swans and was astonished to see one remain while the other was trapped. 

The swan that was Ananda spoke to the trapper. “Free my king and take me instead,” he said.

“You would willingly give yourself up for your friend even though you are free?” asked the fowler. With that, the hunter’s hardened heart was melted. “Noble birds, you are no ordinary beings.  Despite my king’s orders, I can no longer hold you captive.”

And so the fowler released the king of swans, who now spoke.

“Take us free and unbound to your king. No doubt he will be pleased and reward your new-found virtue.”

On seeing the noble swans, the Varanasi king realized at once that they were no ordinary beings and with reverence requested teachings before they departed for their home.  From time to time thereafter, the swan king and his commander returned to instruct the Varanasi king on the virtuous path.


JUST A BIT OF GRUEL  - April 25, 2021

While he was a Boddhisatva, the Buddha became a king of Koshala, known for his virtue and generosity.  

One day the king suddenly remembered his previous birth.  From that moment, his magnificent gifts of charity increased manyfold. His good conduct was ceaseless.  He tirelessly taught his people the power of good works.  While performing his virtuous deeds, the king would often times recite a verse that ended with:

All this glory is the fruit
of just a bit of gruel.

All his subjects were consumed with curiosity about the verse but were reluctant to ask. Finally, the queen herself begged the king for an explanation. 

With a gentle smile, the king replied, “In my former birth I was a poor laborer. Though subject to fatigue and insults from the wealthy I served, I persevered to support my family.  One day as I was setting out to work, four begging monks appeared at my door.  With a heart full of faith, I offered them a bit of gruel, which was all we had in our meager home. It is because of that simple gesture that I was reborn as a king. Having seen the immense results of even a simple act of heartfelt generosity, who would not dedicate himself to charity and good conduct?”


THE ENCHANTRESS - May 9, 2021

Once the Buddha in a previous life was a king of the Shibis who devoted himself to the welfare of his subjects like a parent to his children.

There was in his kingdom a young woman of enchanting beauty. All who saw her could not turn their gaze away. For that reason, they called her the Enchantress. 

Her father wished to have her marry the king.  So the king sent his ministers to determine if she was suitable to become his queen. 

The ministers were so struck with desire on seeing her that they feared their king would lose all interest in his royal duties once he fell under her spell.  They reported to the king that she was unsuitable and the king lost interest. The girl’s father married her to a royal minister named Abhiparaga instead. 

But the enchantress was angry at the king for thinking her unsuitable. She was determined to see if he could withstand her beauty. So during a festival, she managed to stand on a rooftop as the king’s procession passed.  The moment the king gazed on her, he was overwhelmed with desire. 

Back in his palace, the king could think of nothing but the woman he had seen.  On learning she was the wife of another man, he became despondent.  He lost interest in his responsibilities. He could no longer smile. Word of this soon reached the woman’s husband, Abhiparaga.

Abhiparaga was devoted to his king and could not bear his sadness.  He secretly went to the king and offered to give up his wife to him. 

Hearing this, the king hung his head in shame. 

“This cannot be,” the king said. “How can I expect to lead my people if I cannot even rule myself. It is foolish to indulge in evil deeds which have consequences in both this world and the next. Even if no one knew, to sin in secret is like drinking poison and expecting to stay healthy.”

“But all I wish for is your happiness, my lord,” said Abhiparaga.

“I agree that you want to help me,” the king replied. “But where is happiness if not in following the dharma?”


MAHABODHI THE RENUNCIANT - May 16, 2021

While still a Boddhisatva, the Buddha was a wandering renunciate named Mahabodhi. 

One day Mahabodhi arrived in the realm of a certain king.  The ruler requested teachings from Mahabodhi, having heard of his virtues. Every day, the king would listen to Mahabodhi’s words on wisdom and compassion. The king’s ministers grew jealous but they could not outshine Mahabodhi in debate.

So the ministers began to sow doubt in the king’s mind, saying that Mahabodhi could be a spy sent by a rival king to undermine his rule. Little by little, the king began to waver in his devotion to Mahabodhi.  

Mahabodhi saw this and decided to leave the kingdom.  As the king was challenging Mahabodhi’s decision, the king’s pet dog appeared and began to growl at Mahabodhi.  

“A dog reflects the feelings of its master,” Mahabodhi responded. “Once it was happy to see me. Now in growling, your dog betrays your feelings. Thus it is time for me to leave.”

Now that Mahabodhi was gone, the king’s ministers began to sway him with various false doctrines. 

One minister denied the reality of cause and effect.  Another claimed that the eternal lord Ishwara was the creator of all. A third claimed all that occurs is the unchangeable result of past actions.  A fourth claimed there were no past or future lives and one should simply devote oneself to pleasure. The fifth told the king that in ruling, the end justified the means, no matter how cruel or unjust. 

Through his clairvoyant powers, Mahabodhi saw that the king was being led astray from the dharma. Using his magical powers, Mahabodhi created a monkey-skin cloak and went to the king.  

The king and his ministers were shocked to see Mahabodhi wearing the skin of an animal.

“How did you come by this?” the king asked.

“A monkey entered my hermitage so I killed it and took this skin as my robe,” Mahabodhi answered.

The ministers at once began to mock Mahabodhi as a fake for preaching compassion yet proudly claiming he killed a monkey for the sake of a robe.

“Beware,” Mahabodhi told the ministers. “To criticize another in words that harm your own doctrine is like committing suicide to spite your enemy.”

One by one Mahabodhi challenged the ministers. 

To the minister who denied the reality of cause and effect, he said, “How can death of the monkey be my fault, if there is no cause and effect?”

To the one who claimed that the eternal lord Ishwara was the creator of all he said, “If you claim Ishwara is the cause of all, then how can I be to blame for his creations and destructions?”

To the third who denied karma and the fixed nature of past actions he said, “If all actions are fixed, then how can you say I am responsible for the monkey’s death, since his fate was fixed from the beginning?”

To the fourth who claimed there were no past or future lives and one should devote oneself to pleasure he said, “Why are you so anxious to blame me if there is no world after this one? Why should one bother to shun evil if there are no consequences to fear?”

For the fifth minister who told the king that the end justified the means, no matter how cruel or unjust, he said, “How can you blame me if you say anything can be done for the sake of material gain?”

Thus were the king’s ministers defeated and the king returned to the righteous path.


PRINCE SUTASOMA - May 23, 2021

When the Buddha was still a Boddhisatva, he was born as a prince named Sutasoma.  One day while strolling through a wooded park, he came upon a brahmin teacher of sacred verses.  The prince asked the teacher to recite some verses, for which he would honor him with gifts that would demonstrate his respect.

Before the brahmin could begin, a frightening roar shattered the peace of the park.  It was the man-eating monster known as Saudasa.

The compassionate Prince Sutasoma decided to cure Saudasa of his lust for blood.  Sutasoma calmly walked toward the source of the sound.  There he found the fierce Saudasa.

“What is the point of devouring poor humans?” Sutasoma asked.

Angered by this challenge, Saudasa picked up the prince and carried him off to his bone-littered cave.  Now trapped in the cave, the prince began to cry.

Saudasa laughed when he saw the prince’s tears.  

“So you are weak and fearful for your life just like all the rest,” Saudasa said.

“Not at all,” answered the prince.  “Death cannot be outrun forever, no matter the effort.  What is the use of fear in that case? I am sad because I was unable to honor the brahmin teacher and hear his verses before you carried me off.  Allow me to go back and honor him and receive his verses and I promise to return when you can do with me what you will.”

“Why would you keep such a promise?” Saudasa asked.

“You have been deluded to so long that you cannot recognize truth,” the prince replied. “For the virtuous, truth is the true wealth.  Knowing this, how could they abandon it for the poverty of lies and deceit?”

Saudasa was set back by this. He decided to see if the prince would live up to his words.

Prince Sutasoma returned to the palace and summoned the brahmin teacher. After listening to the teacher’s four verses, the prince rewarded him with gold.  Then, true to his word, he set out for Saudasa’s cave. 

When the prince returned, Saudasa was struck by his courage. “Let me hear those verses you seem to hold more dearly than your life,” Saudasa said.

“What good would it do in your present state?” the prince replied. “You have forsaken the noble path and devoted yourself to the way of demons.”

Saudasa was stung by these words. “Kings hunt deer in their royal parks for pleasure.  Why condemn me for my sport?”

“Both are wrong,” the prince said calmly. “You asked me for the verses that I hold more dearly than my life.  Such verses are suitable only if the listener himself is suitable. He must be humble and attentive.  His mind must be open and his heart full of desire for the truth.  He must listen with respect like someone who is ill listens to a doctor. How can you, who have been a powerless slave to your wickedness, achieve even the least of these unless you willingly seek the cure?”

The prince’s words at last touched Saudasa’s long-hardened heart. With that Saudasa vowed to give up his evil ways and entered the righteous path as follower of the dharma.