What is the first teaching most of us receive when we begin a meditation practice? “Drop the stories!” Why? Because the endless stories we keep telling ourselves from morning till night cut us off from our actual experience and are a primary source of our misery. Release from the bondage of belief in our stories is often the first taste of liberation. And yet, the Dharma is full of stories, overflowing with stories like a water barrel brimful with rain. The Buddha was a consummate storyteller. So are our favorite Dharma teachers—try counting the number of stories in an average Dharma talk and you’ll see what I mean.
This paradox brings up interesting questions. Are stories distractions, or do they play a role on the path of the Dharma? Is there a place for imagination in our practice? How does one recognize the difference between a liberating story and “the same old story”? Two recently published books explore these questions, while sharing Dharma stories from classic sources: the Jataka tales and the Lotus Sutra.
Rafe Martin’s book, Endless Path: Awakening Within the Buddhist Imagination: Jataka Tales, Zen Practice and Daily Life, is a continuation of Martin’s decades-long immersion in storytelling and the Jataka tales. The Jataka tales are a Pali collection of more than 500 stories about the Buddha’s previous lives, collected and written down in about the fourth century BCE. As the Buddha progresses on his path toward awakening, he is sometimes a monkey, sometimes a bear, sometimes a god, sometimes a prince, sometimes an ordinary person, but in each life he manifests kindness and wisdom.
Martin’s Jataka-based books for children can be seen on the bookshelves of Buddhist families all over the world, but this collection of Jataka stories is intended for an adult audience of Dharma practitioners. Each of the ten stories, one for each of the paramitas (perfections), is accompanied by an illustration and an engaging commentary on both the story and the paramita. For instance, in the story of the Wise Crow, a wise crow king finds a way to save his people from the bigotry and vengefulness of a human king’s chaplain, who is determined to kill all the crows in the kingdom. This story is an illustration of prajña paramita, the perfection of wisdom. Martin has a grand time illuminating many of the facets of prajña paramita in the story: how the blackness of the crows’ feathers symbolizes emptiness or how “wrong view,” when taken to an extreme, can potentially lead to genocide. He closes the commentary with a lovely and mysterious story of a personal encounter with the wisdom of crows, one of my favorite tales in the book.
Gene Reeves’s new book, The Stories of the Lotus Sutra, also arises from many decades of study of, and devotion to, the text on which it is based. Reeves is a professor emeritus of religion who taught at the University of Chicago Divinity School and universities in Japan and China. He is also a minister for the International Buddhist Congregation, a Japanese lay Buddhist sect whose primary text is the Lotus Sutra.
The Lotus Sutra is one of the most important Mahayana texts, written in about the first century A.D. and revered throughout Asia. The sutra itself can be daunting to a first-time reader, but in this book, Reeves focuses on its many stories and parables. Some of the parables may be known to practitioners who have never read the sutra, such as the parable of the poor man, whose friend sews a jewel into his cloak while he is asleep. The poor man never finds the jewel, and so he wanders in poverty. Years later, he encounters his friend again and learns of the hidden treasure he’s been carrying all along. Reeves’s multifaceted perspectives as a scholar, translator and teacher provide many layers of meaning to what may seem on the surface like simple stories or lovely images. For instance, in his commentary on the parable of the poor man and the jewel, he explores the ways in which our Buddhanature, the Dharma and the earth itself are jewels, gifts that we may not recognize and appreciate.
Martin and Reeves are not just sharing stories to entertain the reader; they want the reader to know that the stories are relevant to his or her own life and practice, even if the protagonist in the story is a giant blue bear or a cosmic Buddha. Although the Jataka tales and the Lotus Sutra are very different texts, both of them are fundamentally about the life and practice of bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas are beings on the path toward awakening, and since we are also on the path of awakening (whether we know it or not), these are our stories too. If we engage with them imaginatively, if we take up the challenge of what Reeves calls an “invitation to creative wisdom,” they can transform us. As Martin writes in his introduction, “It is out of imagination that we create our real lives. . . . Tales of courage make us braver. Tales of kindness make us kinder. . . . Tales of the Buddha Way help us to rediscover the endless path unfolding even now beneath our feet.”
There is a world of difference between the stories we tell ourselves and these stories of the Buddha Way. The stories that we learn to drop in meditation are habitual. They arise spontaneously from our pain and confusion and are, more often than not, stories of unworthiness, bondage, fear, hatred and unrequited desire. When we tell ourselves these stories it’s like being trapped in a movie theater where the worst B movies are shown over and over again.
The stories of the Jataka tales and the Lotus Sutra are invitations to a radically different way of being in the world—one based on kindness, courage and compassion. As invitations, they are chosen freely. A reader can see them as Buddhist fairy tales to be enjoyed, forgotten or dismissed, but she also has the option of truly rising to their challenge. The Buddha is no longer on the earth, but we are, and we have the potential to enact the heart and life of bodhisattvas, just as much as the joyful ox or the monkey king. As Reeves writes, “What readers do with their own potential to be buddhas makes a cosmic difference, that is, what we do determines to what degree the work of Shakyamuni Buddha gets done in the world.”
I’ve spent enough time with Buddhist philosophy to appreciate its depth and importance, but I am pleased with the thought that stories are also pathways to wisdom, if I engage them with full heart and imagination. The stories in these books are like returning to the enchantment of childhood, where anything and everything is possible, except that here we see the possibility of mature wisdom and kindness, in the world and in ourselves.