Book Review: the Buddha's Multiple Lives

The Jatakas comprise 550 legends of the previous lives of the Buddha, which he is said to have remembered on the night of his Enlightenment in the 6th century BC. Taken together, they focus on the Mahayana ideal of a bodhisattva, or a human progressing towards enlightenment.

The India-born Alexandra Fic, a formidable scholar and academic who has travelled extensively throughout Asia, was most recently chief technical advisor with the United Nations International Labor Organization, administering a training program for women in the Asean region. In 2009, she was included in the Princeton Global Registry as one who has demonstrated a commitment to excellence in their careers and exemplary leadership within their communities.

In the book, she makes a serious contribution to western knowledge of Buddhist thought. The book examines the legends in which Gautama was born as a human being but assumed the shapes of a long variety of animal, tree spirits and other forms over thousands of years to accumulate infinite wisdom and the other attributes essential becoming a Buddha.

The prevailing theme of the Jatakas glorifies the enormous extent to which Gautama, as a Bodhisattva, practiced self-denial, sacrifice and generosity. In one tale, when he is reborn as a king, he gives his eyes away to a blind man. In another, doctors declare that the sick in the midst of a violent epidemic can only be made well by drinking the blood of a person who has never been angry. Guatama, as the king, gives up his blood to end the plague. In yet another, he comes upon a tigress who has just given birth and, having nothing to eat, is about to eat the newborn cubs. The Bodhisattva offers himself to the tigress, which tears him to pieces. Many tales relate his repeated giving away everything he owns.

To give some idea of the breadth the Buddha's vast experience, he is said in the legends to have appeared multiple times in the guises of ascetics, monarchs, tree spirits, teachers, courtiers, Brahmins, princes, noblemen, scholars, divinities, apes, merchants, wealthy men, deer, lions, amulets, snipes. elephants, fowl, slaves, golden eagles, horses, bulls, brahmas, peacocks, serpents, potters, outcastes, lizards, twice each as fish, elephant drivers, rats, jackals, crows, woodpeckers, thieves and pigs, and once each as a dog, a curer of snake bites; a gambler; a mason, a smith, a devil dancer, a scholar, a silversmith, a carpenter, a water fowl, a frog, a hare, a cock, a kite, a jungle fowl, and a kindura.

It isn't certain when these various stories were put together in a systematic form, Fic writes. It appears likely that they were handed down through the oral tradition and were written by numerous authors. "Their growing popularity and value among ordinary people, and because of their virtuous messages, ensured their preservation in their present form." In each, the Bodhisattva plays a central role in one of his former existences, whether it is as the hero of the story, as a secondary character or as only a spectator. Buddhists believe the Buddha told the stories as lessons of wisdom to his followers and disciples, about his experiences, during his previous births as a Bodhisattva.

Buddha and his main disciples appear in almost all the stories in many forms and character roles, Fic writes. It is believed that the wisdom which the Buddha acquired as Bodhisattva and deeds which he performed in his previous lives prepared him for and eventually led him to Enlightenment. Every Jataka concludes with an exhortation or an admonition that individuals should live a pious life and avoid all evil.

They "have an uncanny ability to appeal to the mainstream Buddhists because almost all the stories impart messages of good virtues of sacrifice, compassion, wisdom and charity to follow while conducting affairs of daily life," Fic writes, "and also if one is pursuing a spiritual path. They also admonish that bad conduct will reap negative karma."

The book also discusses the Theravada ideal of Arhats, Buddha's first disciples, which he converted by preaching the so-called Four Noble Truths – that suffering exists, that it arises from attachment to desires, that suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases, and that freedom is possible by practicing the eightfold path to peace and serenity, a long series of thoughts and actions to help break the habits of suffering. Fic also deals with the doctrine of Anatta, one of the central teachings of Buddhism in which the "self" doesn't exist in the sense of a permanent, autonomous being within individual existence. Personality and ego are temporary creations of the skandhas, a combination of five aggregates of existence including forms, sensation, perception, mental formations and consciousness.

Fic concludes the work with an in-depth study of the Doctrine of Karma and Re-birth from both Hindu and Buddhist perspectives. In all, it makes fascinating reading, providing new insights to one of the world's great religions.