Buddhist Narrative Genres

Wed., Aug. 20th, 14:00-17:30

Discussant: James Hegarty


The “Jātaka-Avadānas” of the Avadānaśataka – An Exploration of Indian Buddhist Narrative Genres

Appleton, Naomi (University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, GBR)

While the definition of “jātaka” as a story of a past life of the Buddha is fairly widely accepted, finding an equally acceptable definition of “avadāna” is somewhat harder. Scholars have talked of avadānas as stories of heroic deeds, stories of arhats, of anybody except the Buddha, or of karmicly significant deeds and their fruits. Some of these definitions deliberately oppose jātaka and avadāna while others allow the possibility of a story belonging to both genres. It would seem that any understanding of these two generic terms must include an understanding of the relationship between them.
In this paper I will use the second decade of the Avadānaśataka, which contains ten stories of episodes in the Buddha’s past lives, to explore the definitions of these two genres. The stories are jātakas (that is to say, stories of the past lives of the Buddha) and they exhibit certain features of that genre familiar from, for example, the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā and Mahāvastu. However, other features, such as their focus upon karmic fruition, mark them out from these jātakas, and their presence in an avadāna collection forces us to reflect upon what it might mean to be both a jātaka and an avadāna.
During my paper I will ask which features of the “jātaka-avadānas” of the Avadānaśataka can be viewed as “jātaka-like” and which as “avadāna-like”, and what this might tell us about the text and its wider context. By exploring such aspects as chronology, progression, the presence/absence of buddhas, the perfections, the role of karma and the identity of the protagonist, I will attempt to construct meaningful definitions of the genres that might work beyond the boundaries of this particular text and its school. At the same time I will argue that it is in the very process of questioning and challenging definitions of genre that generic categories can become most useful as scholarly tools.


Avadānas and the Kitchen Sink in My Suitcase

Lenz, Timothy (University of Washington, Seattle, USA)

The slippery term avadāna at times seems to whirl in its own corner of saṃsāra, stuck in a perpetual dance with karma and rebirth. But as pointed out recently, the avadāna view derived from previous studies of published and unpublished avadāna and jātaka collections, including the Pali Jātakāṭṭhavaṇṇanā and Apadāna, and the Sanskrit Avadānaśataka and Divyāvadāna is not readily applicable to the small corpus of Gandhāran avadānas represented in the British Library Collection of Kharoṣṭhī manuscripts. In ancient Gandhāra, at least in the region around present-day Haḍḍa, the proposed find spot of the British Library documents, the meaning of the term avadāna must have been far more inclusive than ones generally attributed to it by modern-day scholars. By considering a fairly diverse selection of texts, including the Nīya documents, it is possible to zero in on the meaning of avadāna as it pertains to 1st or 2nd century avadānas in a specific location (Haḍḍa) and in a specific linguistic milieu (Gāndhārī).


The Vicissitudes of Long-Distance Travel: An avadāna Takes to the Road

Muldoon-Hules, Karen (UCLA Extension/UCLA, Los Angeles, USA)

How elastic can a genre be? This paper examines variant versions of the Virūpā avadāna found in India, Central Asia and China. Starting with the Sanskrit version in the Avadānaśataka (Avś 80), the paper compares it to a set of seven Central Asian fragments of this avadāna first identified by Else Lüders (SHT 1186). These were later re-examined by Waldschmidt, who provided an important corrective to Lüders’ interpretation.

In addition, two Chinese versions of the Virūpā avadāna are known. One appears in the Chinese Avś, Zhuanji baiyuan jing (撰集百縁経,T. 200) as avadāna 79 instead of 80, this change in position being just one of a number of striking differences between the Sanskrit and Chinese versions of the Avś that were noticed by Bagchi and a series of Japanese scholars, leading to a fuller comparison by Demoto. A second Chinese version of Virūpā’s tale appears in the late 5th century compendium, the Za bao zang jing (雜寶藏經, T. 203), which shows yet more variations.

The shifts in content as this tale reappears in each new environment demonstrate just how flexible the avadāna genre can be. The shifting content of the Virūpā avadāna in microcosm set alongside the considerable differences between the Sanskrit and Chinese versions of the Avś in macrocosm and the Gandhāran evidence suggest another possible mode of trans-Asian transmission.


Adapting Jātaka and Avadāna in Nineteenth-Century Tibet: Shabkar’s Marvelous Emanated Scripture

Pang, Rachel (University of Toronto, Toronto, CAN)

Shabkar Tsokdruk Rangdrol (1781-1851) was one of the most celebrated poet-saints in Tibetan Buddhist history. A prolific author, his Collected Works total fourteen volumes. One of the most interesting but understudied aspects of Shabkar’s writings is a series of nine “emanated scriptures.” Inspired by the legend of a series of emanated scriptures transmitted to Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) by the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī in a dream-vision, Shabkar essentially invents a new Tibetan Buddhist literary genre in the nineteenth century by composing “emanated scriptures” of his own. In these nine works, Shabkar takes classic Buddhist ideas and presents them in a way that is eloquent, easy to understand, and applicable to the everyday lives of his audience. In the highly conservative culture of Tibetan Buddhism, Shabkar's works demonstrate a remarkable freedom and flexibility in its use and deployment of literary genre. 

In his Marvelous Emanated Scripture (Tib. ngo mtshar sprul pa’i glegs bam), Shabkar recounts both jātaka and avadāna in order to explain classic Mahāyāna Buddhist concepts (such as renunciation, compassion, loving-kindness, bodhicitta, and the six pāramitās) and to demonstrate how his audience can and should incorporate Buddhist teachings into their quotidian lives. This essay will examine: (1) the ways in which the jātaka and avadāna in Shabkar's text are similar to and different from their original forms in South Asia, and (2) the ways in which he adapted these classic Buddhist genres to suit the needs of his nineteenth-century Tibetan audience in his Marvelous Emanated Scripture.    


Stories of Self-Sacrifice in the Pannasa Jataka: Jatakas or Avadanas?

Sheravanichkul, Arthid (Department of Thai, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, THA)

This paper studies the stories of self-sacrifice in the Pannasa Jataka, a collection of non-classical jatakas that has been widespread in the mainland Southeast Asian Buddhist tradition since the fifteenth century CE. Many stories seem to have an Indian origin. Some are considered avadanas and others jatakasin their Indian context, but they are all perceived as ‘jataka’ in Thai Theravada Buddhist context and can function as other local genres, e.g. anisamsa, a genre of Thai Buddhist literature in which the benefit of meritorious acts, especially giving is explained.

The paper also reconsiders the categories used by some scholars to identify the Indian gift-of-the-body stories as jatakas or avadanas, such as the presence/absence of Buddhism in the stories, the bodhisatta’s moral/ devotional acts, and the definition of Dana-paramita (the Perfection of Giving) as conveyed in the stories. The stories of self-sacrifice in the Pannasa Jataka from Southeast Asia will be taken into consideration with the hope that this might give us a wider view in understanding the ‘genre’ of these stories.

This study is therefore an attempt to open up questions about how South Asian generic categories of narratives were reinterpreted in different regions.


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