Jataka stories (stories about the previous births of the Buddha) are very popular in Theravada Buddhist countries, where they are found in both canonical texts and later compositions and collections, and are commonly used in sermons, children's books, plays, poetry, temple illustrations, rituals and festivals. Whilst at first glance many of the stories look like common fables or folktales, Buddhist tradition tells us that the stories illustrate the gradual path to perfection exemplified by the Buddha in his previous births, when he was a bodhisatta (buddha-to-be). Jataka stories have had a long and colourful history, closely intertwined with the development of doctrines about the Buddha, the path to buddhahood, and how Buddhists should behave now the Buddha is no more. This book explores the shifting role of the stories in Buddhist doctrine, practice, and creative expression, finally placing this integral Buddhist genre back in the centre of scholarly understandings of the religion.
Naomi Appleton is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Centre for the History of Religion in Asia, Cardiff University, Wales. She began her studies of Buddhist birth stories as an undergraduate, and has pursued this area of research since that time, producing two theses (M.Phil. Cardiff, 2004 and D.Phil. Oxford, 2008) as well as several articles. She is now beginning a new project funded by the British Academy into the uses of birth stories in Buddhist and Jain literature.
'Western biographies of the Buddha typically begin with his birth sometime in the 5th century B.C.E. However, Buddhist biographies of the Buddha, at least in South and Southeast Asia, traditionally start with accounts of his many previous lives (jÃ¥takas) when he was practicing the bodhisattva path on his way to full buddhahood. Western scholars have long been interested in these jÃ¥takas, but they have spent most of their energies on translating or retelling the stories, on treating them as folklore, or on picking themes out of them for topical studies. Comparatively few scholars have seriously examined jÃ¥taka literature itself as a particular genre, with its own religious preoccupations and implications. In this masterful work by a leading new voice in jÃ¥taka studies, Naomi Appleton does just that. Focusing on the major collections of Pali tales, she shows us what these stories can tell us about TheravÃ¥da understandings not only of the figure of the Buddha but of the bodhisattva path, and of the connection of the jÃ¥takas to contemporary religious practice.This is a pivotal book, which should serve not only to review past scholarship on the jÃ¥takas, but to push it in new directions.' John Strong, Bates College, USA 'Naomi Appleton examines the stories of the Buddha's previous lives, not as fables or folklore or for the sake of retelling these Pali tales, but to reconsider jatakas as a specifically Buddhist genre. By illustrating the ways in which these stories teach the bodhisattva's path, Appleton examines how they enable Buddhists to share in the experiences that led to the Buddha's enlightenment.' Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly ’[A] well-researched book. Naomi Appleton succeeds in drawing attention to the historical development and the ideology of a distinct and influential genre of Pali Buddhist literature. She gives with great care and clarity the long awaited attention that such popular and influential Buddhist texts so richly deserve.’