Jataka Mind

Cross-species compassion from ancient India to Earth First! activists

Andrew Schelling

In a former life, many aeons ago, the Buddha took up residence in a forest hermitage, living the life of a recluse and studying with a resolute mind. Sauntering through the woods one day, admiring the springtime foliage, he rounded a bend near a mountain crevasse and saw a cave. There at the mouth of the cave, but a few feet from him, lay a starving tigress who had just given birth. This tigress was so overcome by her labors, so weak with hunger, that she could scarcely move. The future Buddha noticed her dark and hollowed eyes. He could see each rib distending her hide. Starved and confused, she was turning on her whelps, on her own tiger pups, seeing them only as meat to satisfy her belly. The pups, not comprehending the danger, were sidling up, pawing for her teats.

The Buddha was overcome by horror—for his own well—being he felt no fear, but seeing another sentient being in distress made him tremble and quake like the Himalaya. He thought to himself, "How futile this round of birth and death! Hopeless the world's vanity! Right in front of my eyes hunger forces this creature to transgress the laws of kinship and affection. She is about to feed on her own tiger cubs. I cannot permit this, I must get her some food."


But the next instant he thought, "Why search for meat from some other creature? That can only perpetuate the round of pain and suffering. Here is my own body, meat enough to feed this tigress. Frail, impure, an ungrateful thing—vehicle of suffering—I can make this body a source of nourishment for another! I'd be a fool not to grasp this opportunity. By doing so may I acquire the power to release all creatures from suffering!"


And climbing a high ridge, he cast himself down in front of the tigress. On the verge of slaughtering her pups, hearing the sound, she looked across—seeing the fresh corpse, she bounded over and ate it. Thus she and her cubs were saved.

The Jataka Tales, from which this story comes, gather some of the earliest and strangest writings preserved in the Buddhist heritage. Jataka means "birth." The old collection, inscribed in a vernacular language called Pali, preserves 550 legends which tell of the Buddha's miraculous births in the aeons before he became enlightened. The stories occur in a rough-hewn prose, studded with cryptic shards of a much older verse. It is in these broken oddments of poetry that you find something remarkably ancient—animal tales dating in all likelihood to Paleolithic times.

FOLKLORE AND ARCHAEOLOGY suggest that the Jataka's interest in wild animal personalities is not an isolated instance. The earliest pictorial art largely depicts animals—think of the Magdalenian cave paintings found in Spain and southern France, or comparable rock art that survives across the planet. There is every reason to believe that the earliest verbal art was concerned with similar themes. As written documents the Jataka Tales are ancient, but from any anthropological perspective they look comparatively recent—humans have been speaking for 40,000 years, perhaps longer. During that time-span the animal fable occurred many places, but survives into our day largely in cultures like India's, where the old spoken lore met on friendly terms with the scholar's pen.

I do believe, however, that the Jataka Tales register the first instance in written literature of what I'd call cross-species compassion, or jataka Mind, an immediate and unqualified empathy shown towards creatures not of one's own biological species. Perhaps the tales retain traces of a universal contract between living creatures, so long ago vanished that no one remembers its ancient imperatives. With a bow to the old stories, jataka Mind is that conscious human behavior which bears a whiff of that old way of thinking. Tales like the one just recounted were meant to waken a notion of kinship that sweeps across animal species. Animals in the Jatakas surely justify the storyteller's interest—they show themselves to be of an equal, often a higher, ethical order than humans.

A thousand, two thousand, maybe ten thousand years after these tales first began to circulate through the villages and pass along the trade routes of Asia, Buddhism cast the Jataka Tales into philosophical form. The Diamond Sutra, a central document in India, Tibet, China and japan, makes explicit what the old stories had gestured towards. It is here that the Buddha announces an unqualified brother and sisterhood of creatures:

One should produce a thought in this manner: 'As many beings as there are in the universe of beings, comprehended under the term beings—egg—born, born from a womb, moisture-born, or miraculously born; with or without form; with perception, without perception, and with neither perception nor non-perception—as far as any conceivable form of beings is conceived, all these I must lead out of misery.'

THIS FUNDAMENTAL VOW of the Buddhist practitioner, fashioned two thousand years ago in India, makes explicit the ethical stance. India however, has passed both metaphysics and ethics down the ages in a nearly hallucinogenic cloak of symbols. Myth, folklore, dance, sculpture, music, and painting have made sophisticated doctrine readily available to the popular mind. Thus the finest poem of Buddhist India, which cast its metaphysics into durable shape, was in fact a recasting of the ancient Jataka Tales. In about 400 AD, the poet Aryashura composed his Jataka-Mala.

Mala means garland, sometimes necklace or a string of prayer beads. A Jataka-mala is a garland of birth stories. In polished literary verse, Aryashura recounted thirty-three such tales. They are his versions which stand on the frescos in the Ajanta Caves near Bombay, his versions which adorn the stupa or reliquary at Sanchi. They are also Arya's versions which appear on the friezes at Borobudur, Java, the most extensive architectural monument the Buddhist world produced.

But Aryashura did not simply retell the old stories, setting them into elegant scholar's verse—he became possessed by their spirit. What is the Jataka spirit? I don't exactly know, it is so old. There was a Vedic goddess of forest and wilderness, Aranyani, to whom poets legendary even in Aryashura's day sang a mysterious hymn. She or one of her sort must have snared Aryashura in the netting of legend, because beyond simply recasting the old stories he invented some of his own, "gathered from the air a live tradition," in Ezra Pound's phrase—which is what makes a poet's work memorable.

SADLY, IT IS an inability to likewise gather from the air of history such live traditions that has characterized so much Western scholarship in its approach to the legends and lore of Asia. When the approach has not been one of outright condescension, it seems based on a profound mistrust. In London in 1920, the British Sanskritist, A.B. Keith, published a book which is still considered the standard account of Sanskrit literature. Summoning a common attitude towards the art of those cultures which Europe once pillaged and colonized, Keith says about Aryashura's stories:

Their chief defect to modern taste is the extravagance which refuses to recognize the Aristotelian mean. The very first tale . . . tells of the Bodhisattva who insists on sacrificing his life in order to feed a hungry tigress, whom he finds on the point of devouring the young whom she can no longer feed . . . the other narratives are no less inhuman in the disproportion between the worth of the object sacrificed and that for whose sake the sacrifice is made. But these defects were deemed rather merits by contemporary . . . taste.

Nothing in Keith's experience, nothing in two thousand years of Occidental scholarship or philosophy, had prepared him for an encounter with this kind of poetry—which is to say this kind of thinking. I can only wonder what he would have said of Mark Dubois, Earth First! activist, who in May 1979 chained himself to a boulder attempting to halt the damming of California's Stanislaus River. Or what he would have said of Paul Hoover, who in 1985 up in the Middle Santiam squatted on top of a tree he dubbed "Ygdrasil" after the world-tree of Celtic myth, and refused to come down, daring the timber company to fell it. Or what he would have said of Paul Watson who handcuffed himself to a pile of harbor seal pelts, was lifted by a ship's crane and dunked repeatedly in the Arctic Ocean until his friends rescued him. What would Keith have said, what do dozens of contemporary moralists say today, of the men, women, and children, who are risking their health, lives, bank accounts, and jobs in defense of forests, watersheds, valleys, endangered plant and animal species, every day this year and next?

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rajbodepudi's picture

An awesome narrative that looks ever more relevant-and urgent!