The Viriya-puntiṃ-jātaka

During lockdown spring cleaning I found a jātaka story, and thought I’d share it just as a bit of light-hearted escapism from all the very serious world events.

It is one that I wrote, with my undergraduate Buddhist Studies buddy Hannah, on a trip to Oxford in spring 2003, where we attended the Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions for the first time. (I vividly recall this – we had to write our own name badges, and so “Naomi” and “Hannah” were deeply intimidated by “Gombrich” and “Cousins”, and were thrilled to meet “Dermot Killingley”, who wrote the Sanskrit textbook that had got us sucked in to begin with!)

Composed in Buddhist Hybrid English (inspired by Cowell et al.), this jātaka recounts a real-life adventure on the river, and is called the Viriya-puntiṃ-jātaka:

In the past, two scholars named Oscar and Nicky dwelled in a town called Oxford. At that time on that occasion, having received visitors, having acquired food, they took them punting. Oscar, having punted, having chosen the smaller potentially-stagnant way, encountered a fallen tree blocking the way. Having striven to remove the obstacle, having given up, having turned around, having seen another punt, they cried: “Turn back! The way is unsuitable!” The punter, named Competitive Dad, replied: “We will not turn back! We will find a way!” Laughing, mocking, abusing and reviling Competitive Dad, the scholars returned to the easier route.

Having arrived at the big river, the scholars were swept into deep water. Having regained control with much vigourous use of the Patronising Paddle, having punted against the current, Oscar for a short time left the boat for the shore. Re-entering the boat he almost fell in the water. Determined to re-encounter Competitive Dad on the impossible rivulet, having entered the rivulet from the other side, the water being shallow, having run aground, having climbed bushes, having dug mud from beneath the boat, calm and vigourous the scholars reached deeper water. Having reached the place of the falling of the tree, they saw that Competitive Dad had cleared the way. Rejoicing, praising, honouring and revering Competitive Dad, the scholars punted home.

He who mocks Competitive Dad, the clearer of the way,

Will run into deep water, and may be swept away.

He who strives through difficult waters, with unfailing strength,

Will, with the help of Competitive Dad, punt easily the length.

At this time on this occasion, O monks, the punting scholar named Oscar was Ānanda, his calm companion Nicky was Uppallavaṇṇā, and I myself was Competitive Dad. Following the punting adventure, all the company became stream enterers.

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Not normal

The weekend just gone would have been the Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions, held here in Edinburgh, the final one with me at the helm, and an opportunity to welcome a host of wonderful colleagues to this wonderful city. Today would have seen Oliver Freiberger stay on for a little extra panel discussion on comparative approaches to the study of religion. Last week, Maria Heim was due to be here, offering the Khyentse Buddhist Studies lecture.

Instead, I spent the weekend in the garden. Today, I spent the day at the dining table looking at the garden, tapping at my laptop, with coffee breaks in the garden. I like the garden, but still….

Things are not normal at the moment. In fact, to use a word that has had more airings in the last couple of months than it probably had in the previous decade, things are unprecedented. Or perhaps, we are told, we are all getting used to a new normal. We won’t be returning to normal normal for quite some time.

I can’t wait to get back to some aspects of normal: working in my office, hanging out in cafes, meeting up with friends….

But one of the last aspects to return to normal, I suspect, will be international travel for work. Not only will quarantining and other control measures likely persist for a long time, university budgets and the increased costs of flying will take a toll on academic gatherings in particular. And, perhaps, this might actually not be such a bad thing.

After all, even after this pandemic is over, there is still that small matter of a climate crisis. Perhaps this is our chance to reinvent how collegial academic networks are built and sustained, and how we relate our own research plans to the audiences we imagine across the world.

I have already taken a few tentative steps in the direction of virtual events – some peer review virtual exchanges, and an online comparative religions panel discussion to look forward to – and I know others are experimenting too. It is harder, admittedly, to form relationships virtually than to sustain them, but perhaps we just need to get more inventive in our formats. Just as online teaching is different to simply teaching online (as we are all discovering!) perhaps online conferences need a different format or framework.

And honestly, if I can attend an international symposium without leaving my garden, I’ll be pretty happy with that! So, invitations welcome….

Hope you are all keeping well.

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Launching the Jātaka Database

I’m delighted to announce that today we are launching phase 1 of the Jātaka database: you can now view the site at – there you can explore a range of stories and story-features, and also read our rationale for how the resource is set up.

So far it includes all the stories of the Buddha’s past-lives found in the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, Ārya Śūra’s and Haribhaṭṭa’s Jātakamālās, the Mahāvastu, Avadānaśataka and Divyāvadāna, and the Apadāna, Buddhavaṃsa and Cariyāpiṭaka. It also includes images of jātakas at Bharhut, Sanchi and Kanaganahalli.

There are, of course, many more texts and sites to include, even within the confines of the Indian literary and visual traditions, not to mention in other regions and literatures across Asia. This is very much a first step. Nonetheless we hope it will be an interesting resource for people. I have certainly enjoyed getting lost in it, following the endless series of links to yet more viewpoints!

The database could not have happened without the support of the Leverhulme Trust, and the hard work of Dr Chris Clark, who has been in Edinburgh for more than a year taking great care over its creation; I wish him every success as he now moves on to other projects. Many other acknowledgements are needed, and indeed listed on the site, and in general the resource depends upon people’s generosity in making texts and images and scholarship freely available for others to use.

On which note, I would love to hear from people willing to help expand the resource. I have vague plans to add to it myself in the coming years, with a particular priority being the stories found in Pāli sutta and vinaya texts, Indian Mahāyāna sūtras, and the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya. We have also already made some headway with Ajanta, using the now copyright-free images in Yazdani’s volumes, and hope to upload and annotate these in due course. Collaboration with the Gandharan birth-stories project is also on the horizon. But with a busy few years ahead, it will all take some time, and then there are the many sources beyond my capabilities, for example the jātaka stories in narrative collections in other languages, or the confusing (to me!) realm of Andhran visual culture. If colleagues have resources or expertise they are willing to share to help in this endeavour, that would be a huge benefit to the project.

So, if you like the database and think you can help improve or expand it, please let me know! Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy exploring the rich stories already there…

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Jātaka stories and boundary-making

This week I have been in Austin Texas, hanging out with lovely colleagues at the South Asia Institute and making a contribution to their Fall Seminar Series, which this year is themed on “Religious Boundary-Making in South Asia.”

This is, of course, a theme that relates closely to some of my research: one of my key interests is the ways in which narrative is used to explore and create boundaries between different religious groups. This is particularly intriguing when the different groups adopt common characters, motifs, or even whole stories in order to make their own case for who they are, in opposition to the “others” around them.

What I particularly enjoyed about this invitation, however, was that it came at a time when I was not working on that research area at all. Instead, I am knee-deep in jātakas, thinking through some of the different ways in which the genre is used and framed and understood across different Indian texts and visual depictions.

Rather than digging out some old research from my Shared Characters volume, I decided it would be interesting to think through how the theme of boundary-making – and my approach to shared narrative elements as part of this boundary-making – would apply to material I am working on now. In the end, much to my own surprise, I ended up talking about the famous jātaka story of Vessantara, who gives away his children and wife in the peak of his perfection, and how this story features in Buddhist articulations of how their values and aspirations differ from others around them.

Some of this happens through shared Indian narrative material: a narrative structure and occasional wording shared with the Rāmāyaṇa (as studied by Gombrich, Collins and Meiland, amongst others) allows for a particularly Buddhist presentation of a tragic hero, so dedicated to his supreme goal that he causes harm to those around him; and a shared motif of Śakra disguised as a brahmin allows us to appreciate that Vessantara gives regardless of the recipient.

On a more thematic level, the notion of generosity – with its intersections with the ideal of renunciation – offers a Buddhist revisioning of a common sacrificial cosmos, with Vessantara’s giving linked to bodily gift-giving stories as well, and hence framed as part of a self-sacrificial path to buddhahood. Meanwhile the physical sites of stūpas, which are often decorated with jātakas and celebrated as potent fields of merit in the related narrative genre of avadānas, place gift-giving at the heart of Buddhist visual and material identity from the earliest period.

In addition, the priority given to Vessantara over and above stories of bodily sacrifice in the Pāli tradition suggests that he may also be used to mark boundaries between Buddhist schools or bodies of literature. Although stories of Vessantara (or Viśvantara or Sudāna) are told across Buddhist languages and schools, and images of the story are prominent at early Indian stupa sites, stories of gifts of literal flesh-and-blood are far more common in Sanskrit jātaka literature than in Pāli (with the intriguing exception of the “extra-canonical” or “non-classical” Paññāsa Jātaka, as explored by Arthid Sheravanichkul). Why were Pāli scholastic compilers a bit squeamish about bodily sacrifice stories, despite acknowledging the necessity of flesh-gifts on the bodhisatta path in principle? I am still puzzling about that one, though perhaps the better question to ask is why northern Sanskritic traditions enjoyed a proliferation and increased celebration of bodily sacrifice stories. The answer to that question, if indeed it is the right question to ask (which it may not be!) may be to do with the emergence of Mahāyāna ideas of the bodhisattva path, as per Natalie Gummer’s fantastic work about sacrificial and performative frameworks in Mahāyāna sūtras.

So the theme of boundary-making has helped me to think a bit differently about the Vessantara story, especially in the light of some attempts to suggest that Vessantara (or his extraordinary – and for most of us offensive – giving) is not properly Buddhist. For me, the Vessantara story is not only Buddhist, but a key part of explorations and assertions of what it means to be Buddhist.

And I will try to keep these questions about identity formation and shared narrative heritage in my mind as I continue to explore how jātakas “work” in a variety of Indian textual and visual contexts. Being immersed exclusively in Buddhist narrative should not make me forget the wider landscape in which such narrative developed.

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Publication of Lance Cousins memorial volume

appleton9781781798928-webI am pleased to announce that a memorial volume dedicated to a valued teacher and colleague in the field, L.S. Cousins, has now been published by Equinox, under the title Buddhist Path, Buddhist Teachings, and edited by myself and Peter Harvey. Its contents are varied and – I hope and trust – a valuable and appropriate tribute to a great and much-missed scholar.

You can learn more about the book, or order it, here: 

BPBT contents


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Digitised manuscripts vs the real thing

I’m in Dublin this week, giving a lecture at the Chester Beatty Library, as part of a series accompanying their “Thai Buddhist Tales” exhibition. It’s my first time in Ireland, and my visit to the Chester Beatty in particular feels long overdue; I have wanted to visit since working on the Illuminating the Life of the Buddha book, since the holdings include many manuscripts similar to the one featured in that book. As well as viewing the exhibition, which is really fantastic, I was able to also look at some additional manuscripts in the reading room.

The visit has been magical, and well worth the short hop across the sea. Yet, in the spirit of my last post (on trying to cut down academic travel) it is interesting to note that the Chester Beatty are increasingly leading the way in digital resources. Not only do they have an excellent array of materials ready for you to view online, but they even have a virtual version of the exhibition, so you can visit from the comfort of your own home, however far away it might be. It’s not the first time I’ve visited an exhibition virtually: a few years ago I enjoyed touring an exhibition on Vessantara at the University of Zurich.  This time, I was able to compare the virtual tour with the in-person experience.

And this all got me thinking: Clearly it’s a great thing to have manuscript collections available online. The world-wide web democratises these treasures, making them available to all, around the world, which is particularly important when collections arise from colonial or military activity, as they so often do. Scholars looking for something in particular can check from afar, and zoom in to impressive detail such that they actually see more than they would in the reading room. Libraries can benefit from additional information from researchers far away. Yet, is there something lost? To see a manuscript in the flesh – to touch it and hold it and appreciate its overall presence – still holds a certain magic, as I was reminded in the reading room this morning.

It is not just manuscripts or exhibitions that are increasingly available online, of course: having immediate access to the mass of scanned out-of-print books that are now online has saved me a huge amount of time in recent years. Books that I used to have to visit Oxford or London to see are now accessible from my office computer. And so, as a result, reasons to visit Oxford or London are reduced, and whether I see that as a good or a bad thing depends somewhat on my mood. While I was a Masters student in Cardiff, researching the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra and producing a partial edition from manuscripts, my visits to the British Library, SOAS library, Cambridge University Library, and Indian Institute Library Oxford, formed some of the highlights of my year. They connected me in to a network of other scholars, and gave me the confidence to believe in myself as a proper researcher. Being amongst the rare books, and chuckling at the marginalia on the palm leaf pages of the text, conferred something that it is not quite possible to describe, and something that is certainly impossible to replicate in the digital world.

But perhaps, in the end, these musings are just like any other form of nostalgia. I miss mix-tapes and film cameras. I still determinedly use CDs. The physical form of these experiences is important to me. The magic of working with a physical book or manuscript will always be worth preserving, but we should also celebrate the growing opportunities of the online world.

And while we do that, I’m just going to pop in the Chester Beatty gift shop and get myself a few jātaka bookmarks…

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Conferences and Climate Change

We all know that we have to make changes, in order to try to manage the changes already happening to our climate. As such, I’ve been thinking a lot about academic travel, as the big glaring issue in my otherwise low-carbon lifestyle. We holiday in the UK, grow a good portion of our own vegetables, eat mostly vegetarian food, and generally shun the consumerist excesses of society. But I am aware that I can undo all this good with a single trip for work.

Yet I really don’t want to stop travelling for work. Conferences and trips are the highlight of the calendar: chances to hear about new work, catch up with colleagues, and get valuable ideas and feedback. A good conference enlivens the brain like nothing else. And I have lost count of the many unpredictable benefits that conversations with international colleagues have brought over the years.

How, then, to cut back responsibly, but without losing all this? I have been pondering this question and come up with three specific resolutions:

  1. Quality not quantity

My gushy praise of conferences above is entirely sincere, yet if I’m honest, I have also been to a fair number of bad conferences and symposia that have left me wondering why I bothered. So, if we need to make sure that less is more, we need to ensure that every conference or trip is really worthwhile. This can mean different things in different contexts. For example, I generally find longer papers more worthwhile, yet I also find the great breadth of the IABS Congress a wonderful opportunity to dance between snippets of research. Themed events tend to mean more coherence and scholarly exchange, and there are certain scholars I have come to value the company and contributions of above others. Practical constraints can also make an event more worthwhile: I tend to get more from an event if I am not horribly jet-lagged, and if I am there at a time of the year when I can put other work to the back of my mind. If an event can be reached without flying then that’s obviously another point in favour. So I am going to go full-nerd and make myself a little flowchart to help me decide on my priorities for future events, so I can reduce the overall number with minimal loss in benefit.

  1. Embrace the technology

One obvious move is to take more conferences and conversations online. This is still a fairly tricky idea in practice, however, with little agreement as to the best format or software, though personally I think the “nearly carbon neutral” model of pre-recorded papers and discussion boards put together by folks at UCSB is well worth a try:

The benefits are clear: in addition to the carbon footprint, the time commitment is lower; people with families or other caring responsibilities that might prevent them going in person can participate; so can people from parts of the world with little research funding and/or obstacles to travel such as lengthy/expensive/unpredictable visa processes. In other words, it is a more inclusive way to hold a conference. The downsides are clear too, most of all the loss of that face-to-face contact that so often ends up being the most valuable part of a symposium or trip, but supplementing less-regular face-to-face events with better virtual interactions has to be a piece of the solution.

  1. Sharing and combining

In addition to symposia and conferences, the other most common type of academic trip is to speak at a seminar series or give a visiting lecture. These are of course lovely invitations to receive, and I am doing two such trips this autumn. However, they also have the least benefit to the speaker, in the sense that we give a lecture but often do not hear any of the rest of the series, and only occasionally receive feedback on our own work. There is still value, of course, not least in those around-the-edges conversations with one’s hosts, and also in the fact that – in the UK context at least – such invitations are key markers for promotion. However, I have decided not to do such trips outside Europe in future, unless I can combine multiple visits so that the journey is not made for a single talk. And, as a host of visiting speakers, I am going to see if I can get better communication with folk arranging programmes in Oxford and London, so that speakers visiting the UK can also have the opportunity to speak to multiple audiences in one trip.

These are all small moves, but many small moves make a movement.

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Edinburgh is full of Buddhologists this week!

It is pleasing to think that there are lots of Buddhist Studies scholars in my delightful home town this week! Three events are bringing them here: The Joint East Asian Studies Conference, a little symposium I am hosting on images and imagery in Indian Buddhist narratives (on which more in a later post), and the launch of the Edinburgh Buddhist Studies network at the National Museum of Scotland on Friday evening.

EBS2The latter marks an exciting moment for those of us based in Edinburgh full time. We have grouped together and reached out to colleagues across the region, to try to strengthen collaborations and improve both Buddhist Studies scholarship and public outreach activities. You can learn more about us on our website.

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Is a buddha a human?

I have been pondering this question for a very specific reason: When entering a “character” in our jātaka database, we assign to it certain “character descriptors” such as male, monkey, merchant, and so on. This is partly to differentiate several characters with the same name but different characteristics, and partly to enable users to search not only for named characters but also for specific types of character.

However, as I was entering the stories from Avadānaśataka chapter 2 last week, I found myself in a muddle. The stories involve the Bodhisattva encountering various named buddhas of the past, each of whom therefore required a “character” entry. But after about the fourth or fifth buddha – tagging them “human”, “male”, “buddha” – I started feeling uncomfortable. Are they really “human”? Is that the right descriptor for a character who works miracles, teaches the gods, and inspires faith that can transform one’s karmic outcomes?

This is of course partly a question about the Avadānaśataka in particular. As I have written elsewhere (actually in a forthcoming book for Equinox, which also includes translations of stories 1-40), the text is clearly devotional, and inspires real awe in its audience. Repeated accounts, for example, of how, when a buddha smiles, rays of light enter the heavens and shout “impermanence!” to remind the gods they are mortal, and enter the hells projecting images of the Buddha that inspire such potent faith that the hell-beings are immediately reborn elsewhere, are hardly accounts of a “human” protagonist.

But the question also has a wider resonance, playing into long-standing debates about the ways in which scholarship has tended toward humanising the Buddha, portraying him as perfected but still “just a man”. Such portrayals seem far removed from many Buddhist sources, even those from Pāli scriptures, which arguably adopt the most human vision of what it is to be a buddha. What worried me, as I worked on putting these stories in the database, was that perhaps I too have internalised this idea of a buddha being essentially (bad word in Buddhism!) human, even though consciously I reject it. A buddha, especially but not only in the Avadānaśataka, is more than a human.

So, today I went back through, and took “human” out of the descriptors for all of the buddhas so far featuring in our list of jātaka characters!

They are all still tagged “male”, however, but that’s a different story of course…

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Labels and cultural imperialism

Allow me a small complaint on the way we talk about (or fail to talk about) the great civilisations of Ancient India.

I attended a lecture on comparative philosophy a few months ago, in which the speaker compared the views of three specific named medieval philosophers on a particular subject with “Indian” views on the same subject. While I was delighted at the speaker’s enthusiasm for bringing Indian thought into the study of “mainstream” philosophy, this wasn’t the most convincing demonstration of what we might gain from taking Indian philosophy seriously, in all its complexity and variety. There is no single “Indian” philosophical position on anything, anymore than there is any “Greek” one.

But at least that speaker was keen to point out that not all philosophy originates in Ancient Greece and Rome. A little while later I attended some of the Gifford lectures of Professor Mary Beard, a fabulous Classicist whose work I much admire. Her lecture series was entitled “The Ancient World and Us: From Fear and Loathing to Enlightenment and Ethics”. It was a lovely series, but I had to ask: Why do Classicists think it’s okay to use “The Ancient World” as shorthand for Ancient Greece and Rome? Surely this sort of shorthand – using temporal designators such as “Ancient” (“Late Antique” is another of my bugbears) when a geographical limitation is also meant – is a form of cultural imperialism? It implies that there is no Ancient World other than the one that underpins our own European culture. But there is.

The problem becomes even worse when the geographical designators are explicit rather than implicit, as in the keywords we are asked to choose when applying for funding from the national research councils. Listing the “Time Period” relevant to an AHRC application is a struggle for me. Do I go with “Hellenistic&Roman: 300BC-700AD”? That sort of covers my time period, but with a glaringly obvious problem. Perhaps the “Later Roman Empire: AD250-450” might cover my sources? There is simply no historical designator that I can use that comes without a geographical label too, even though geographical reach is a separate set of keywords in itself. What is implied by this is that the study of Ancient history outside of Europe simply doesn’t exist. (And, incidentally, is it still only Religious Studies that seeks to use the more neutral scholarly options BCE and CE for dates?)

There is a welcome campaign across many fields at the moment to diversify curricula, and bring new voices (from different genders, ethnicities, cultures and classes, to name a few) into our scholarly purview. As we embrace “global history” or the study of “world literatures” I would suggest that we must also begin to adjust how we speak of the subjects overall. Ancient philosophy is more than Aristotle. Classical civilisations were present outside Europe. Literature comes in many different languages and forms. Please, let’s start labelling things with a bit more care.

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