Last week I was in Vienna for the Congress of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. It was a great location – right in the centre of the city, surrounded by beautiful buildings and tempting coffeehouses – and we were very well looked after (apart from the vegans). Parallel panels offered an array of possible papers, though the real conferencing happened, as always, over coffee and lunch.
My own contribution to this gathering was a panel co-convened with Dr Karen Muldoon-Hules, on the subject of Buddhist narrative genres. I opened with a paper on the jātaka stories that are found in two decades of the Avadānaśataka, which raise questions about what it is to be both a jātaka and an avadāna. Timothy Lenz followed this with an entertaining reflection on the avadānas found in Gandhari manuscripts, which tend to put a spanner in all attempts to define that genre. Karen Muldoon-Hules then treated us to an exploration of how a single Avadānaśataka story’s travels into China and Tibet help us to understand the different possible routes of transmission for the text as a whole. After a coffee break we had two papers that stepped outside India, to examine how jātaka and avadāna were understood in other Buddhist contexts: Rachel Pang explored their use in a 19th century Tibetan scripture, while Arthid Sheravanichkul used stories of self-sacrifice to illuminate the ways in which jātakas are used in Thai Paññāsa Jātaka collections. As the repondent James Hegarty then pointed out, all these papers spoke to shared themes and questions, though leaving some of the bigger questions unanswered. Since he plans to summarise his reflections on the panel on our Story of Story project blog shortly, I will not try to reproduce them here.
My choice of paper for this panel was influenced by my interest in how the jātaka genre – the Pāli understanding of which I have studied in some detail – is interpreted in different ways in different texts. The Avadānaśataka contains twenty jātaka stories, divided into two decades with quite different preoccupations. One contains stories of the Bodhisattva’s offerings to buddhas of the past and subsequent enjoyment of karmic benefits; the other shows the Bodhisattva in a time of no buddhas, performing extreme acts of virtue that seem directed at inspiring his followers to emulate him. These two decades suggest that several key features affect the division of stories: the presence or absence of past buddhas, the sort of actions undertaken by the Bodhisattva (devotional offerings vs sometimes-extreme acts of self sacrifice or other extraordinary demonstrations of virtue), the ways in which karma plays a part in the connection between past and present, and the frame-story’s presentation of why the story is told and what can be learnt from it. Thus the jātaka stories of the Avadānaśataka offer a useful case study in exploring Indian Buddhist narrative genres more generally.
I thoroughly enjoyed the narrative genres panel, as well as the conference as a whole, and I look forward to working more on the Avadānaśataka stories in due course. [You can find my translation of the second decade in the open access e-journal Asian Literature and Translation – and my translation of the fourth decade will appear in the same place shortly.]