Before Buddha Was Buddha: Learning from the Jataka Tales, by Rafe Martin: Book Review

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Somewhat akin to the role played by the Parables in the Christian tradition, jataka tales exemplify the key values implicit in the Buddhist religion. However, unlike the former stories and analogies, these tales all center on the experiences of the Bodhisattva, with each focused on one of the various forms that Shakyamuni Buddha assumed in his various lives that he spent on Earth before becoming fully awakened to becoming the Buddha. Reaching the highest plane of existence known as Nirvana, where suffering, desire, and sense of self and subject all end, is the final goal of Buddhism. The jatakas show, each in their own small, yet significant, way, how to get there.

In Before Buddha Was Buddha: Learning from the Jataka Tales (Wisdom Publications; ISBN: 978-1-61429-354-5), Rafe Martin transforms some of the key tales, which are centuries old, by providing the text in a straightforward and highly accessible form that should make sense to even a total newcomer to such readings. Each of the eighteen tales that he recounts in a few short pages is then expounded upon by this professional storyteller and award-winning author of books for both adults and children. The form that the Buddha takes in these tales, which share the experience of one who is on the journey towards Enlightenment, varies from such animals as a monkey and parrot to such humans as a robber and a monk. The grasp of the jatakas, though arising in the East, has a contemporary relevance that is soul-stirring even to the most cynical of westerners.

Martin’s familiarity with writing for both old and young has stood him in good stead for his lifelong mission to provide up-to-date explications of the jataka tales. As an experienced Zen master, with many years of sound practice to his credit, his knowledge and understanding of the basic precepts embodied in these tales means that he is able to make them relevant to the everyday life of all readers who are struggling to cope with the stresses and anxieties of modern-day existence. This is especially so for those who might be searching for a way forward that is less conventional than the straitlaced one of conventional Christian (or other faith’s) practice and worship (although it is even possible, as a traditionalist, to embrace the principles and ethics of Buddhism).

What Buddhism holds out for the followers of other religions, and which is made manifest in the jataka tales, is a unique sense of compassion for all entities, and not purely for humankind. The sacrificial aspect of Buddhism, in terms of which the self is renounced in favor of the greater good, is presented as an essential part of the faith, with the essence of the religion being embodied in the first of the “Great Vows for All”:

The many beings are numberless;

I vow to free them all.

Greed, hatred, and ignorance rise endlessly;

I vow to abandon them all.

Dharma Gates are countless;

I vow to wake to them all.

Buddha’s Way is unattainable;

I vow to embody it all.

The insights that Martin provides into the wealth and depth of spiritual knowledge and healing that are presented in Before Buddha Was Buddha reveal his mastery of this age-old form of expression that has enabled him to become a lay teacher in the Harada-Yasutani koan line, as well as the founding teacher of Endless Path Zendo, Rochester, New York. His previous two books on the jataka tales, The Hungry Tigress: Buddhist Myths, Legends, and Jataka Tales and Endless Path: Awakening within the Buddhist Imagination: Jataka Tales, Zen Practice, and Daily Life, are also well worth consulting if you find that you, too, are seeking guidance on how to live your life to the full.


What do you think?

Written by Lois Henderson