The Jataka tales (chah-dok in Thai) recount stories from some of the past lives of the being who would eventually reach enlightenment as the Buddha. Often compared with Aesop’s fables (Aesop’s and the Jataka tales even share some plots), the Buddha-to-be is often born as an animal and he frequently overcomes difficult situations or solves problems in creative and comical ways. Even though they’re a part of the Pali Canon (the Buddhist equivalent of the Bible) and contain words attributed to the Buddha himself, they’re far more folktale than religious text and their popularity stems more from their entertainment value than their messages.
While I knew the last ten Jataka because they appear frequently in Thai temple murals, I hadn’t dived very deep into the rest of the 547 stories. But when I saw the Culla-Paduma Jataka (where the Bodhisatta eats his six sisters-in-law and is later rescued by a talking iguana after his wife tried to kill him because she fell in love with a thief who had no hands and feet) in the historic ubosot of Ubon Ratchathani’s Wat Thung Si Meuang I decided to read all the others.
I was surprised and disappointed to find the only complete collection of the Jataka tales in English was an academic book, The Jataka or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Birth, from the late 19th century with stodgy English (“and she besought him to forbear”) and muddled rhyming couplets. And the translation isn’t the only reason they’re a chore to read, many of the stories are rambling and repetitive – even the original scholars translating the Jataka tales omitted certain sections for this reason. There are readable versions of some of the stories, both complete and condensed, but none of these collections even come close to having all 547 stories.
As I read them, I was frequently wishing there were Cliffs Notes-style versions in modern English. Eventually I decided to do it myself. I had enough of a background in Buddhism and Buddhist folklore, and it was something I was sure many people would enjoy. So, over the last two years I wrote the first-ever complete abridged collection in English and they’re now online at www.thejatakatales.com. They’re much easier and more enjoyable to read than the originals.