Author: Rafe Martin

Publisher: Wisdom Publications

ISBN: 978-1-61429-354-5

Bodhisattva stories

This is a very interesting and easily read book that explores the horizons beyond our earthly limitations to provide a fleeting glimpse of the particular soul journey of Bodhisattva who goes by the name of Prince Siddhartha Gautama who later on became the Buddha. The author makes a very interesting study by enumerating a number of his incarnations and how they affected his soul journey.                 

Each of these experiences documented are parables selected by the author from the Jataka Buddhist tradition. They are followed by a detailed discussion in which the author draws his own conclusions, albeit from a human perspective, about how this particular story imprinted the Buddha’s soul journey. As the author puts it,

This book focuses on a selection of particular Jataka tales in which the Buddha, in past lives, faces temptations and even struggles with self-doubt as well as other issues and shortcomings. In these tales, he is not beyond life’s messes- its challenges and disasters- but is down in the mix, trudging through the mud with the rest of us.”

In addition,

The stories make it clear that any issue you and I are working on today, the Buddha also, in some past life, worked on as well.”

In the first story, Prince Siddhartha  Gautama leaves the protection of his palace to head for the city. There he gets to see the four signs, the first being a sick man, the second, an old man, the third, a dead person and the fourth, a wandering hermit. These were sights that he had not seen earlier, in his extremely sheltered existence. The author likens this experience to “the painful stripping of childish certainties” and emphasizes how the Buddha dealt with the same without denying it or using anger to defend his emotional anguish at the sordid state of life that existed outside the palace walls. The author’s contention is that this experience is given to all.

At some point, our palace walls too crumble, and like Siddhartha, we head out into the darkness where nothing can be known in its’ old, limited self-centered way”.

In the next story, the Buddha is seen as a non-human animal, a deer king, who offers his own flesh to a group of hunters in order that a pregnant female deer and her unborn offspring might live. The effect of this offer leads the hunter king to give up animal flesh, while also inspiring his subjects to do the same. Therefore, by his stand, the deer king acted to save all the animal lives in that area including the birds and the fishes.

In this story, the Bodhisattva who is the Buddha in his earlier lives, while facing the first sign of impermanence (death), stands his ground steadily, before taking a step forward. This story, according to the author, tests our conventional belief of separateness from all of Nature’s living organisms. Yet, the author points out that there are limitations to our identification with all of Nature, as the impermanent animal life in neighboring kingdoms still remained unsafe.

In a third story, the Bodhisattva is born as  a wealthy serpent king. Confronted with the choice between his wealth and the pains of his all too impermanent human lives, he had the realization that only in a human form, could he be enlightened. Therefore, he chose the latter. The author points out the connection between similar challenges faced by humans.

There are eighteen stories in all from the Jataka collection. In all of them, the Bodhisattva faces challenges where he was made to grapple with uncertainty and was compelled to make a decision as to how to make a choice. Some of the stories involve human lives, others do not. All of them aim at presenting the goal of self- realization as a process of disconnecting from the shadow self and opening up to a more transcendental one.

Some of the Bodhisattva’s human incarnations mentioned in this book, involve a master musician, a gardener sage, a king of kings, a prince, a monk, a robber and an ogre child among others. Some of the non-human incarnations include a parrot, a quail and a monkey. The last story in this collection deals with the ex Prince, Siddhartha, who, after a period of immense austerity, accepts a simple offering of milk rice. This is presumably to complete the experience of returning to earth after attaining the heights of self mastery.                               

There are many books describing past lives and the effect of those incarnations on the present life, e.g. books by Dolores Cannon and Brian Weiss. This book is more well-knit than most and discusses more advanced soul lessons aimed at re-establishing the outmoded natural concern for Nature that pervades and protects all of Life, even while remaining solidly anchored in the present.

This is a profound work, despite its playful exterior and would acquire a a pride of place on any bookshelf anywhere in the world. The subtleties are extremely original, as well as educative and evocative. All in all a great read, to be read and re-read.

Highly recommended.