The stories of the Buddha’s previous lives are told in a body of texts known as the Jataka or Births Tales. In the English translation, this texts occupy 6 enormous volumes. This expresses in quite an elaborate way the Buddhist vision of all that had to happen in previous lives before this young man could undertake the career to become a Buddha.
The Elephant, The Monkey and The Partridge
Many of these tales are quite simple and almost childlike. And they sound best to me when they can be told with the cadencies of a child’s voice. I probably can recreate the right kind of childlike voice myself. You should imagine that the story is told by your favorite seven-years-old.
Once upon a time there were three animals: a monkey, an elephant and a partridge. They began to discuss which one of them was the oldest of the bunch. The oldest was the one who will deserve special respect.
The elephant pointed to a giant fig tree. Fig trees are in India the biggest trees and the most impressive. He pointed to this gigantic fig tree and said that when he was young, he could walk over the top of it and its leaves would barely touch his belly.
The monkey said that when he was young he could stretch out his neck and eat from the top of the tree.
The partridge said that when he was young he ate a seed and passed through its body, and then grew up to become the tree.
The elephant and the monkey then bent down and paid him homage. The Jataka tale ends like all the others, with a common formula, the Buddha says: “And I, the Buddha, was that partridge”.
What he is saying is that he was born in that life in the form of a partridge to teach us a simple moral lesson, that would then become one of this formative moral tales around which the Buddhist tradition would revolve.
Technically, the being that appeared as the partridge was not actually the Buddha. In a technical sense, he didn’t become the Buddha until he was born as Siddharta Gautama. Buddhist refer to the partridge instead as a bodhisattva. This is a word that will be important for us in the course of these articles. In means something like a “Buddha-to-be”, or possibly, a future Buddha. Someone who is moving on the way to the Buddhahood, that will eventually define the character of Siddharte Gautama.
Buddhists, in one way or another, wether little children or the most sophisticated monk or nun, have to grasp what it means for themselves to be bodhisattvas.
The ideal of the bodhisattva is not in a sense something removed from ordinary experience, it is something that applies to ordinary experience.
The stories teach moral lessons for everybody, not just for the people who expect to be Buddhas in this life. When his career as a bodhisattva came almost to its end, the bodhisattva was born as the son of Suddhodana and Maya.
Here begins the story of Siddharta Gautama. We will cover it in the next article.
This article is part of the series about The Life of the Buddha.