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 I 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 stories.
Marie L. Shedlock.