Jewels of the Doctrine: Stories of the Saddharma Ratnavaliya
By Dharmasena Thera, translated by Ranjini Obeyesekere.
SUNY Press: Albany, 1991,
259 pp. paper, $14.00.
From the earliest days of his ministry, the Buddha knew that his message was received with varying levels of comprehension. Advanced monks received an entirely different lesson than simple folks.
Skillfully, the Buddha adopted the ancient Indian technique of using stories to frame important religious teachings. This device appears in the Buddhist Canon preserved in Pali by the Buddhists of the Theravada tradition and among the most popular stories are the Jataka tales—stories of the Buddha's previous incarnations. Instructive in some ethical or religious principal, the Jatakas have had an enormous effect on the lay population, allowing them to benefit from the teachings. They demonstrated Buddhism's anti-elitism and contributed to its wide popular appeal, which further provided necessary support from the laity.
Retold many times over many generations, the Jatakas are still popular in the Theravada countries of Southeast Asia, giving rise to a lively tradition of Buddhist story-telling. A collection of similiar tales, the Saddharma Ratnavaliya or the Jewels of the Doctrine was recorded by the 13th-century monk, Dharmasena There, and has many points in common with the earlier Jatakas.
For centuries, the Jewels of the Doctrine has been a popular medium for the transmission of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Ranjini Obeyesekere recalls first hearing the stories read to her by her grandfather in Columbo. Many of the stories have become so popular that they are woven into the fabric of Sri Lankan folklore. The young learned Buddhism through these stories, and what better way to capture a child's imagination and interes~ than to tell a story about Cunda "running about mad, screaming like a pig and boiling in hell fires, " the evil Devidatta "being sucked into the earth," or the majestic elephant Paraliya, broken hearted, watching the Buddha depart." Obeyesekere observes that for generations these stories, along with the Jataka tales "have been central to the dissemination of Buddhist values and doctrines, and for this very reason were preserved and cherished, copied and recopied by monks, and passed on from generation to generation." Much to Obeyesekere's chagrin and disappointment children in modern Sri Lanka no longer learn their Buddhism from Dharmasena; they study Buddhist doctrinal treatises as a subject at school and at institutions similiar to the Western Sunday Schools.
Ranjini Obeyesekere transmits the spirit of this popular Buddhism through her exquisite translation of the first fifteen stories of Dharmasena's collection. As a Sri Lankan steeped in the tradition, she captures Dharmasena's subtle nuances which transform Indian Buddhism into Sri Lankan Buddhism. In addition to being charmed by delightful and amusing stories, the reader gradually begins to sense a distinctive cultural substratum underlying the stories. And Ms. Obeyesekere has successfully achieved the translator's goal of conveying the subtleties of the original in lucid language. The Jewels of the Doctrine contains many gems for the initiated and uninitiated, the specialist and scholar alike.
Kenneth G. Zysk, Assistant Professor at New York University, has recently published Asceticism and Healing In Ancient India: Medicine in the Buddhist Monastery, Oxford University Press.