Jātaka Tales of the Buddha – Review

One of the very first texts that the newly formed Pali Text Society in England (PTS) set to work on was a complete publication of the Jātaka Commentary. The task was undertaken by V. Fausbøll and he devoted nearly 20 years to the work (1877-1896), which may give some idea of how important the Jātakas were considered by the early Buddhist scholars in the West.

Before those publications were even finished the great Sanskrit scholar E.B. Cowell at Oxford had already organised a team of workers to get the work translated into English. These included such luminaries as R. Chalmers, W.H.D. Rouse, H.T. Francis and Cowell himself. The work was carried out between 1895-1907, and was finally completed shortly after Cowell had passed away.

The work was such a vast undertaking, requiring so much work, that it has never been repeated or revised. But in both cases it is one of the most important works that needs doing. The texts were edited when scholarly Pāḷi studies in the West were in their infancy. The translations, which were made in a mixture of prose and verse, are variable to say the least, and the English is so old it is almost imcomprehensible to anyone having it as a second language, and it is stilted even to a native reader.

One of the most needed tasks today in Pāli studies is a new and properly established edition of those texts, and a good annotated translation. If there is any young Pāli scholar out there looking for work that is both useful and meaningful then I would recommend the work to him or her. I say young scholar because this is a work that will take many years indeed.

I have been requested a number of times to undertake that very work myself. I have recently undertaken a translation of 550 Wisdom Verses from the Pāli Canon, about two-thirds of which are Jātaka Stories, and I will be publishing these and some commentarial stories from the Jātaka I have been working on over the coming months, but life being short (and I being too long in the tooth) I do not think there is much chance I could make a complete edition and translation.

Jataka Tales of the BuddhaKen and Visakha Kawasaki have been using the Jātaka Stories in their English teaching activities amongst the Buddhist monastic and lay communities in S.E. Asia for more than 3 decades. During that time they have told and retold the stories hundreds, if not thousands, of times. They are ideal material for the teaching of English as the stories are familiar to every Buddhist in Asia almost from birth.

Indeed it wouldn’t be too much to say that for many here these stories have been what they have known and understood about their religion over many generations, and the stories of the Bodhisatta’s selfless actions and His wisdom-sayings permeate their very lives. Buddhist culture in Asia for a long time was built on the foundation of the Jātaka Stories.

Now the Kawasakis have taken the time – and like the scholars of old this took many years – to retell over 200 of the Jātaka Stories in simple English thereby making them accessible again to a wider Buddhist public. They have worked from the original translation of the stories, so this is not a new translation but a retelling of the best of them.

The selection has been ably made and the Stories having dubious morals have been omitted, which only serves to highlight those which are memorable and worth anybody’s time to read and learn from. The stories have been retold with adults in mind, but older children would also greatly benefit from them, and parents can use them to get an understanding of the story themselves in order to present them to younger children, and the book is of course a resource in any Dhamma School library.

The selection has been published in three volumes by the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy, Sri Lanka in a boxed edition. They have been very well illustrated by N.A.P.G. Dharmawardena, who has provided an drawing for each of the stories. There are also two glossaries for technical terms and for proper names, which helps orientate the reader.

The three volume set can be ordered from the authors’ Buddhist Relief Mission‘s website. I would recommend a visit to the latter, where you can learn more about the Kawasaki’s good works aiding the poor and needy in S.E. Asia; and their educational works amongst the monastic community.

Tomorrow to give a better idea of their work I will publish one of the stories, which they have kindly given permission to reprint.

Jataka Tales of the Buddha


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