I recollect riding late one night along the high-road from Galle to Colombo.
The road skirts the shore. On the left hand the long breakers of the Indian
Ocean broke in ripples on the rocks in the many little bays.
On the right an endless vista of tall cocoanut palms waved their top-knots
over a park-like expanse of grass, and the huts of the peasantry were visible
here and there beneath the trees. In the distance a crowd had gathered on the sward,
either seated on the grass or leaning against the palms. I turned asideno
road was wantedto see what brought them there that moonlight night.
The villagers had put an oval platform under the trees.
On it were seated yellow robed monks with palm-leaf books on their laps.
One was standing and addressing the folk, who were listening to Bana,
that is "The Word"discourses, dialogues, legends, or stories from the
Pali Canon. The stories were the well-known Birth-stories, that is the
ancient fables and fairy-tales common to the Aryan race which had been consecrated,
as it were, by the hero in each, whether man or animal, being identified
with the Buddha in a former birth. To these wonderful stories the simple peasantry,
men, women and children, clad in their best and brightest, listen the livelong
night with unaffected delight, chatting pleasantly now and again with their
neighbors; rising quietly and leaving for a time, and returning at their will,
and indulging all the while in the mild nareotic of the betel-leaf,
their stores of which afford a constant occasion for acts of polite
good-fellowship. Neither preachers nor hearers may have that deep sense of evil
in the world and in themselves, nor that high resolve to battle with and
overeome it, which animated some of the first disciples. They all think they
are earning "merit" by their easy service. But there is at least,
at these full-moon festivals, a genuine feeling of human kindness, in harmony alike
with the teachings of Gotama and with the gentle heauty of those moonlit scenes.
(Footnote: See Rhys Davids' Buddhism (S.P.C.K.), pp. 57, 58.)
It is not only under the palm groves of the South that these stories are a
perennial delight. Wherever Buddhism has gone they have gone with it.
They are known and loved on the plains of Central Asia, in the valleys of
Kashmir and Afghanistan, on the cold tablelands of Nepal, Tartary and Tibet,
through the vast regions Of India and China, in the islands of Japan and the
Malay archipelago, and throughout the jungles of Siam and Annam.
And not only so. Soldiers of Alexander who had settled in the East,
wandering merchants of many nations and climes, crusading knights and hermits
who had mixed with Eastern folk, brought the stories from East to West.
They were very popular in Europe in, the Middle Ages; and were used,
more especially by the clergy, as the subjects of numerous homilies,
romances, anecdotes, poems and edifying plays and mysteries. The character
of the hero of them in his last or former
births appealed so strongly to the sympathies, and especially to the religious
sympathies, of mediaeval Christians that the Buddha (under another name) was
included, and has ever sinee remained, in the list of canonized saints
both in the Roman and Greek Churches; and a collection of these and similar
storieswrongly but very naturally ascribed to a famous story-teller of
the ancient Greekshas become the common property, the household literature,
of all the nations of Europe; and, under the name of Aesop's Fables, has handed down,
as a first moral lesson-book for our children in the West, tales first invented
to please and to instruct our far-off cousins in the distant East.
So the story of the migration of the stories is the most marvelous story
of them all. (Footnote: For the detials of this story the introduction to my
Buddhist Birth Stories may be consulted; and for the history of the
Jatakas in India the chapter on that subject in my Buddhist India.)
And, strange to say, in spite of the enormous outpouring
of more modern tales, these old ones have not, even yet, lost their charm.
I used to tell them by the hour together, to mixed
audiences, and never found them fail. Out of the many hundred Birth-stories
there are only a small proportion that are suitable for children.
Miss Shedlock, so well known on both sides of the Atlantic for her skill
and judgment in this regard, has selected those she deems most suitable;
and, so far as I can judge, has succeeded very admirably in adapting them
for the use of children and of teachers alike. Much depends, no doubt,
upon the telling. Could Miss Shedlock herself be the teller,
there would be little doubt of the success. But 1 know from my own experience
that less able story-tellers have no cause at all to be discouraged.
The reason is, indeed, not far to seek. The stories are not ordinary ones.
It is not on sharpness of repartee, or on striking incidents, that their charm depends.
These they have sometimes. But their attraction lies rather in a unique mixture
of subtle humor, cunning make-belief, and earnestness; in the piquancy of
the contrast between the humorous incongruities and impossibilities of the details,
and the real serious earnestness, never absent but
always latent, of the ethical tone. They never raise a boisterous laugh:
only a quiet smile of delighted appreciation; and they leave a pleasant aroma
behind them. To the child-mind the impossibilities are no impossibilities at all,
they are merely delightful. And these quaint old-world stories will
continue to appeal to children, young and old, as they have done,
the world over, through the long centuries of the past.
T. W. Rhys Davids.
These stories of the Buddha-Rebirths are
not for one age or for one country, but for
all time, and for the whole world. Their philosophy might be
incorporated into the tenets
of faith of a League of Nations without destroying any national
forms of religious teaching. On the other hand those who prefer the
foundation of more orthodox views will be
astonished to find their ethics are identical with
many of those inculcated in the stories: here
we find condemnation of hypocrisy, cruelty,
selfishness, and vice of every kind and a constant appeal to Love,
Pity, Honesty, loftiness
of purpose and breadth of vision. And should
we rejeet such teachings beeause they were
given to the World more than 2,000 years ago?
Since it is wise to take into consideration the
claims and interests of the passing hour it is
well to re-introduee these stories at a moment
when, perhaps more than ever before, East and West are
struggling to arrive at a clearer understanding of one another.
In Tagore's essay on the relation of the Individual to the Universe,
he says: "In the West the prevalent feeling is that Nature belongs,
exclusively to inanimate things and to beasts; that there is a sudden
unaccountable break where human nature begins. According to it,
everything that is low in the scale of beings is merely nature,
and whatever has the stamp of perfection on it, intellectual or moral,
is human nature. It is like dividing the bud and the blossom into two
separate categories and putting their grace to the credit of two
different and antithetical principles. But the Indian mind never has
any hesitation in acknowledging its kinship with nature,
its unbroken relation with all."
This is perhaps the best summing up of the value of this collection.
Since the publication of the book in 1910, I have had many opportunities
of testing the value of the dramatic appeal in these stories both for
adults and boys and girls of adolescent age. When presented
at this impressionable period, the inner meaning will sink more deeply
into their minds than the same truths presented in a more direct and didactic fasbion.
I am greatly indebted to Professor Rhys
Davids, not only because he has placed the material of his translations
from the Pali at my disposal, but also because of his unfailing kindness
and help in directing my work. I am fortunate to have had the restraining
influence of so great a scholar so that I might not lose the Indian atmosphere
and line of thought which is of such value in these stories.
I most gratefully acknowledge my indebtedness to the Cambridge Press,
by whose courtesy I have been able to include several of the stories
published in their volumes.
I present here a selection from over 500
Marie L. Shedlock.