The Concept of Karma in the Jataka Tales of the Buddha

(from Dharma Notes, first edition, as presented to the Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies)


The Jataka, or “Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births” (lit. ‘belonging to, connected with what has happened’), constitutes, in the six-volume translation of Professor Cowell,[1] 547 accounts of former lives of Siddhatta Gotama, the historical Buddha (fl. ca. 435 B.C.E.?).[2] The Jataka is the tenth part of the Khuddakanikaya (lit. ‘collection of short [books]’), itself the fifth and final part of the Suttapitaka (lit. ‘basket of threads,’ meaning a traditional collection of discourses), which is the second part of the Pali Canon of the Theravada Buddhists. The Jataka is preceded by an introduction, called the Nidanakatha (lit. ‘causal discourse’),[3] which summarizes the lives of twenty-seven former Buddhas over many eons, as well as the biography of Gotama himself. The oldest stratum of former birth stories of the Buddha is preserved in the Cariyapitaka (lit. ‘basket of [proper] conduct’), which is the fifteenth part of the Khuddakanikaya.[4] All of the stories in the Cariyapitaka are repeated in the Jataka.

The great interest of the Jataka lies in its antiquity. Rhys Davids describes it as “a large number of old stories, fables, and fairy-tales.”[5] Their inception lies with the Buddha himself, who recollected all his past lives after his enlightenment experience (ca. 455 B.C.E.?). A number of Jataka tales are alluded to elsewhere in the canonical Buddhist scriptures. According to the general mode of presentation of the Jataka, the Buddha would refer to various past-life experiences of his in order to elucidate events in the present involving him and others, which he would explain in detail. Which and how many of these tales actually originated with the Buddha is an open question. However, it is certainly true that the Jataka tales preserve the beliefs and attitudes of early Indian Buddhists in the first centuries of the Buddhist era concerning how karma works itself out in the lives of individuals in general and how it worked itself out in the lives of the Buddha and some members of his community in particular.

Concerning the age of the Jataka, the collection belongs to the third or even the fourth century B.C.E.[6] Moreover, a significant number of the tales are borrowed from Indian folklore. Thus, the Jataka tales of the Buddha express the attitude of the first Buddhists towards the pan-Indian belief in karma as the main mechanism of samsara, a belief that the Buddha himself certainly shared.

The World View of the Nidanakatha

The Distant Epoch

As previously stated, the Jataka tales enumerate 547 accounts of the Buddha’s previous births as a bodhisattva, or ‘enlightenment warrior.’[7] However, this number only refers to the number of tales told by the Buddha, or perhaps remembered and collected by his disciples. According to the Nidanakatha, the number of such births—and therefore, perhaps, the average number of births required in order to achieve Buddhahood—must be counted in the tens of billions (thousands of kotis, in which a koti equals ten million). Since the longevity of our physical universe (according to the Buddhist worldview) lies between one and three billion years (equivalent to three eons of time) and the Buddha lived at least ten billion lives, the average length of each of the Buddha’s lives cannot exceed four months (or, according to an alternative interpretation, one year; see n. 12, below).

The Nidanakatha is an optimistic work, dedicated to the theme of “the infinite efficacy of the actions [karmas] of great men [mahapurushas].” One thinks of Rahula’s definition of karma as the primum mobile of the universe:[8]

Will, volition, desire, thirst to exist, to continue, to become more and more is a tremendous force that moves whole lives, whole existences, which even moves the whole world. This is the greatest force, the greatest energy in the world.

The exposition of ten billion or more births is of course impractical, so the Nidanakatha begins with the Buddha Dipankara, in response to whose example our Siddattha Gotama first resolved to attain Buddhahood. The time of Dipankara himself is uncertain; our text states that it was “four asankheyyas and a hundred thousand cycles [kalpas] ago.” However, an asankheyya is literally an incalculable period, glossed by the translator as “a period of vast duration,” and therefore unknowable, although (presumably) finite. The interval from the time of Dipankara to our own time is divided into three epochs: the Distant Epoch, from the time of Dipankara to the time that the Bodhisattva left his life as Vessantara and was reborn in the Tusita world; the Intermediate Epoch, from the time that the Bodhisattva left the Tusita world to the enlightenment of the historical Buddha circa 455 B.C.E. (?); and the Proximate Epoch, being the period of forty-five years during which the historical Buddha lived and taught (ca. 455 B.C.E.?—ca. 410 B.C.E.?).

The earliest birth of the Bodhisattva, i.e., the birth during which, as previously stated, he resolved to attain Buddhahood, was as an Indian of the Brahman caste (“Studious, knowing the Mantras, versed in the three Vedas, / Master of the science of divination and of the traditions and observances of his caste”), named Sumedha, a man of good family going back seven generations, who lived in the city of Amaravati (Amara). Sumedha’s parents died young and, rather than inherit the vast fortune of his patrimony, he gave it to the people and became an Himalayan rishi,[9] retiring to a mountain called Dhammaka, where he meditated wearing nothing but bark. This is the Story of Sumedha recounted in the Buddhavamsa. Sumedha’s renunciation parallels the Buddha’s, but what is of particular interest in the account of the Nidanakatha is the intellectual process by which Sumedha came to realize the necessity of nirvana:

For as in this world there is pleasure as the correlative of pain, so where there is becoming there must be its opposite, the cessation of becoming; and as where there is heat there is also cold which neutralizes it, so there must be a Nirvana that extinguishes (the fires of) lust and the other passions; and as in opposition to a bad and evil condition there is a good and blameless one, so where there is evil birth there must also be a Nirvana, called the birthless, because it puts an end to all that is called rebirth.

That is to say, Sumedha realized the necessity of nirvana by reasoning from the interdependence of opposites, very like Laozi in the Tao Te Ching, both of whom anticipate Hegel’s dialectical logic by 2,500 years:[10]

Being and non-being interdepend in growth;
Difficult and easy interdepend in completion;
Long and short interdepend in contrast;
High and low interdepend in position;
Tones and voice interdepend in harmony;
Front and behind interdepend in company.

At first Sumedha lived in a hut but soon even this galled him, and he retired to the foot of a tree, where he ate nothing but wild fruits. Soon after, “he attained the might of supernormal knowledge.”

Concurrent with the life of Sumedha the Buddha Dipankara attained Supreme Enlightenment. Subsequently he wandered to the city of Ramma, where he resided in the monastery of Sudassana with many Arhats. One day Sumedha came upon a throng in the road and, asking the reason for the crowd of people, learned that a Buddha had appeared in the world. Sumedha, being already spiritually far advanced, realized that he could attain the fruit of nirvana in his very lifetime, but at the same time, moved by the same compassion for the multitude that had caused him to become a hermit, he rejected that course as being selfish. Instead, Dipankara’s example caused him to renounce immediate enlightenment and pursue the path of a Buddha, to save others. This fundamental choice of paths is what led Sumedha to become a bodhisattva (“a Buddha-seed, a Buddha-shoot”), and committed him to a vast series of subsequent rebirths during which he acquired the paramitas (lit. ‘transcendental perfections’) of a Buddha. Recognizing his future destiny, the Buddha Dipankara offered Sumedha eight handfuls of flowers as he passed, after which Sumedha returned to his mountain retreat.

The foregoing description makes it clear that even in early Buddhism a definite distinction was drawn between the Arhat and the bodhisattva, the Arhat being one who escapes the cycle of transmigration for himself alone, whereas the bodhisattva resolves to attain complete Buddhahood for the sake of others. In order to do so he must undergo a much more rigorous course of training in the ten perfections, viz., giving, morality, self-abnegation, wisdom, exertion, patience, truth, resolution, good-will, and equanimity (symbolized by a water-jar, yak, prisoner, monk, lion, the earth, Venus, a mountain, water, and the earth [bis], respectively). He must also meet the eight qualifications: humanity, maleness, capability of attaining Arhatship, association with teachers, renunciation of the world, perfection in virtue, acts of self-sacrifice, and earnest determination.  The birth stories recited in the Cariyapitaka document the Buddha’s efforts to achieve the ten perfections over many births. This constitutes the complete course of training of a Buddha (or perhaps the complete course of training beyond becoming an Arhat).

The Buddha Dipankara lived for 100,000 years, followed by twenty-three subsequent Buddhas, whose names we need not repeat here. It is not quite clear whether these subsequent Buddhas represent all the Buddhas that have been, or only the Buddhas with whom Sumedha, in his subsequent births, was associated. In any case, Sumedha was associated with each of these subsequent Buddhas, during which he experienced twenty-three subsequent births as a universal monarch, a Brahman, naga king, two consecutive births as a Brahman, a Yakka chief, lion, sage, Mahratta, Brahman, a universal monarch, a Brahman, an ascetic, a deva king, an ascetic, two consecutive births as a warrior, a snake king, four consecutive births as a king, a Brahman, and, finally, as Siddhatta the son of King Suddhodana and Queen Mahamaya.[11]

The Nidanakatha is very specific about the lineage of the Buddhas summarized above, including the longevity of all of the Buddhas with whom the bodhisattva was associated. Thus, it is possible to reconstruct a sort of history. As stated above, the interval from Dipankara to the present is given as four asankheyyas and 100,000 kalpas, translated as ‘cycles,’ ‘world cycles,’ or ‘ages.’ In fact, three asankheyyas and 104,000 kalpas are mentioned explicitly in the lineage. This does not matter a great deal, however, since the length of an asankheyya is not given in the text. As an asankheyya is of uncertain extent, so is a kappa of variable duration.[12] The Nidanakatha identifies seven kalpas, during which four, three, two, three, one, two, and two Buddhas appeared, in addition to our own (still ongoing) during which four Buddhas have appeared (and a fifth expected sometime in the future). The duration of the seven known kalpas add up to 330,000; 290,000; 180,000; 290,000; 100,000; 190,000; and 97,000 years respectively. Our own kappa has been ongoing now for about 92,500 years. Thus, by adding up the longevity of all of the Buddhas it is only possible to arrive at a minimum figure; the intended interval must, of course, be much longer. The list below gives the longevity of the twenty-four Buddhas, beginning with Dipankara, together with the intervening intervals during which no Buddha appeared (in square brackets; note the distinction between intervening kalpas and numbers of kalpas ago, i.e., before the present. Kalpas of which the duration is known, indicated by a list of longevities of the respective Buddhas, are separated by a line space. As one can see by adding them up, there are also kalpas unaccounted for.):

100,000 years

[1 asankheyya]

100,000 years

[1 asankheyya]

90,000 years

90,000    “

60,000    “

90,000    “

[1 asankheyya]

100,000 years

100,000 years

90,000       “

100,000 years [100,000 kalpas ago]

[30,000 kalpas]

90,000 years

90,000    “

[1,800 kalpas]

90,000 years

100,000  “

100,000  “

100,000 years [94 kalpas ago]

100,000 years [92 kalpas ago]

90,000      “

100,000 years [90 kalpas ago]

37,000 years [31 kalpas ago]

60,000    “

40,000    “

30,000    “

20,000    “

As one can see by adding up the numbers, the interval from Dipankara to the Buddha is at least 1,967,000 years, but is certainly much longer. During this time, the human life expectancy dropped from 100,000 years to 20,000 years and finally to 100 years during the current kappa. Applying the rate, discussed above (see n. 12), of one year per century to the latter decline in longevity of 99,900 years, produces an interval from the time of Dipankara to the beginning of our own kappa of 9,999,000 years.

The Intermediate Epoch

The Nidanakatha further identifies a class of devas called “World-arrangers.” Devas (lit. ‘shining’ or ‘celestial’), commonly mistranslated as ‘gods,’ are actually spiritually advanced human beings who inhabit higher, more energetic planes of reality close to our own level, many of whom assist less developed human beings in their spiritual development.[13] These devas proclaim the advent of ages, Buddhas, and universal monarchs, 100,000, 1,000, and 100 years in the future, respectively. It is not quite clear whether the text means to imply that the ages, Buddhas, and universal monarchs referred to succeed each other at these intervals (if this is the case, then six Buddhas have appeared in historical times, viz., circa 3490 B.C.E., 2490 B.C.E., 1490 B.C.E., 490 B.C.E., 510 C.E., and 1510 C.E.; then the next Buddha will manifest in about four hundred years from the present).[14] In any case, each age is characterized by the destruction of the “world-system” by fire every 100,000 years. The proclamation of the Buddha would have occurred during historical times, viz., about 1490 B.C.E. According to the Nidanakatha, the future Buddha is elected by an assembly of devas, including the World-arrangers aforementioned and the four great kings (maharajas), who govern the four worlds of Buddhist cosmogony (see Appendix I). Since even a Buddha cannot manifest in the world in the absence of the right conditions, five preconditions are needed: the time, the country, the family, the mother, and the mother’s age-limit. With respect to the time, the longevity of human beings cannot be too long or too short. If the longevity of human beings is too long, human beings are too self-satisfied to appreciate the First Noble Truth, viz., the ubiquity of suffering and pain, whereas, if it is too short, human beings are too sensual to perceive any possibility of escape and too short-lived to achieve it. Therefore, a Buddha must manifest when the longevity of human beings lies between 100 and 100,000 years. In fact, the genetic maximum longevity of a human being is now about 120 years, though most human beings die before they reach even half this limit.

With respect to the country, the culture of the country must be suitable to support the development of dharma. Vedic India met this requirement.

With respect to the family, the manifestation of a Buddha only occurs in a family of noble rank, viz., the Kshatriya caste, which was the dominant caste in northeast India at that time, the ascendancy of the Brahmans being more established in the west.

With respect to the mother, a Buddha is only conceived in the body of a woman of great personal purity and perfection. These five conditions being met, the Buddha was traditionally conceived at the end of the Midsummer festival (July-August?), gestated, and born in mid spring (April-May).  The Buddha’s conception was accompanied by a dream vision, in which Queen Mahamaya dreamt that a he-elephant bearing a lotus blossom in his trunk entered her womb. At his birth, the Buddha’s body being inspected, and found to be perfect, the ascetic sage Kala Devala, a confidant of the Buddha’s father, King Suddhodana, predicted that the child would become a Buddha. A young Brahman of the Kondanya family subsequently confirmed this. Seven other Brahmans, “skilled in the signs,” predicted that the child would become either a Buddha or a universal monarch. Seven days later, Queen Mahamaya died.

The World View of the Jataka

The Structure of the Jataka Tales

One or more stanzas of verse organize each of the 547 stories that make up the Jataka, arranged in order according to the number of stanzas quoted in each story, from least to greatest number. Strictly speaking, the stanza of verse alone constitutes the canonical part of the Jataka, the stories themselves being extra-canonical explanations, without which, however, the stanzas themselves are generally unintelligible. The Jataka tales are constructed in the same basic way, consisting of the number in sequence; title; opening words of the first verse stanza; the geographical place where the Buddha is reputed to have told the story; the subject matter of the story; a “tale of the present,” explaining the circumstances in the present which prompted the Buddha to tell the story; the “tale of the past,” or the Jataka tale proper, i.e., a previous birth of the Buddha and his associates; the link, connection, or lesson revealing the karmic pattern linking the two stories together; and a conclusion in which the Buddha reveals the identity of himself and his associates with the characters recounted in the tale of the past.

The Cosmology of the Jataka Tales

The cosmology of the Jataka tales depicts a hierarchy or continuum of worlds vertically divided into three levels: hells, earth, and heavens. As one descends the hierarchy pain and suffering increase and longevity decreases, whereas as one ascends the hierarchy bliss and happiness increase and longevity increases, but no world of the Buddhist cosmos is entirely free from suffering and no beings in it are immortal. Thus, all beings are essentially similar in that they suffer and are mortal, though to differing degrees. Cheetham provides a complete summary of the fundamental Buddhist cosmological system, divided into four or five arupadhatu, ‘formless worlds’; seventeen rupadhatu, ‘worlds of form’; and twenty-two kamadhatu, ‘worlds of desire,’ consisting of five higher worlds or “heavens,” the four terrestrial continents ruled by the four great kings (see Appendix I), and eight hot and eight cold hells.[15] The “Valahassa-Jataka” refers explicitly to four hells, six heavens of sense, and twenty worlds of Brahma: thirty worlds in total.[16] In the “Lohakumbhi-Jataka” four adulterers are reborn in Four Iron Cauldrons—probably the name of a hell (not attested in Cheetham). The “Kutidusaka-Jataka” refers to “the Great Hell of Avici,” and “the hell Roruva” is referred to in the “Mayhaka-Jataka.”[17] Avici (lit. ‘uninterrupted’) is the eighth of the hot hells in Cheetham, whereas Roruva is probably the same as Raurava (lit. ‘howling’), the fourth hot hell in Cheetham. The “Baka-Brahma-Jataka” refers to three heavens (or higher worlds) by name, viz., Vehapphuda, Subhakinna, and Abhassava, as well as “higher Brahmaloka heavens.”[18] These names are not found in Cheetham, but the latter does refer to the Subhakrtsna (lit. ‘universal beauty’; = Subhakinna?) and the Abhasvara (lit. ‘universal light’; = Abhassava?), the ninth and twelfth rupadhatus respectively. The “Takkariya-Jataka” refers to “the Lotus Hell,” which must be Padma (lit. ‘lotus’) in Cheetham, the seventh cold hell.[19] The “Sarabha-Miga-Jataka” refers to “the Heaven of the Thirty-three,” which is Trayastrimsa (lit. ‘thirty-three’) in Cheetham, the world next above our own world ruled by the four kings. In the same place, we learn the name of an inhabitant of one of these worlds: Tudu Brahma. It is apparent that the cosmological scheme of the Jataka tales is pretty close to the system summarized in Cheetham, perhaps in an earlier stage of formation.

The Chronology of the Jataka Tales

The chronology of the Jataka tales is consistent with that discussed above in connection with the Nidanakatha, though less extensive and detailed. In the “Lomahamsa-Jataka” the Buddha alludes to his life as a Bodhisattva “[n]inety-one eons ago.” In the “Susima-Jataka” the Buddha refers to himself “who have for many hundred thousand ages exercised perfection,” i.e., pursued the paramitas as a Bodhisattva (elsewhere stated to be 100,000 ages or eons).[20]

The Mechanism of Karma

In Pali kamma is derived from the Indian Vedic karman, ‘work,’ referring especially to the sacrifice, which sense is still retained in Pali in the specialized meaning of ceremony or formal observance; whence, ‘doing, deed, work, building, weaving, plaiting, acting, action.’ In its applied (pregnant) sense, karma is simply causality, i.e., action and reaction, or cause and effect. In Buddhism, everything in samsara obeys the law of karma, which is to say that every action necessarily and inevitably produces a complementary reaction that returns upon the active agent, for good or ill.[21] Like the quotation from Rahula, above, The Pali Text Society’s Pali-English Dictionary refers to kamma as “the driving power of the world.”[22]

The Jataka tales show how the mechanism of karma works itself out in the lives of actual sentient beings, specifically, the Buddha and his disciples. Situations in the past involving individuals tend to recur over the course of subsequent rebirths. A common phrase found in the Jataka is “to fare according to his deserts.” The preeminent example is the Buddha himself, who in his previous births as a Bodhisattva was recurrently reborn in the time of twenty-three subsequent Buddhas, of each of whom he became a disciple. One may be the active agent or the passive recipient of karma. Personal spiritual realizations may also continue from birth to birth. Thus, the concreteness or physicality of a “situation” is not what determines its continuity. Paradoxically, although the Buddha taught that there is no ultimate or fundamental entity corresponding to the idea of a “self,” the karmas produced by individuals are so intricately interwoven that subsequent rebirths produce the illusion of individuality. Thus, the Buddha was able to identify his and his disciples’ identities in past births, and the individuals in question are reborn into similar relationships, including ties of blood, friendship, and enmity. Although karma thus tends to form recurrent “parallel” patterns of mutual experience that reproduce themselves from birth to birth, these karmic patterns are not necessarily explicitly identical to the original patterns in respect of the conditions. Thus, although there is an abstract continuity of similarity, there is also a concrete discontinuity of details produced by differing explicit circumstances. It is as though the karmic pattern waits for a set of contingencies, sufficiently similar to the past pattern to manifest but not necessarily identical, just as a seed requires certain conditions to grow but can nevertheless grow in a variety of soils and conditions, with varying degrees of fruition. In this way, karma can reproduce itself over a prolonged period, recurrently, until the energy potential that motivates it is exhausted. The body of rebirth itself is an example of the operation of karma.[23] Thus, physical appearance and health problems can be the result of the operation of karma.[24]

Just as individual actions may be relatively pleasurable, painful, or neither, so their consequences may be relatively pleasurable, painful, or neither (although all actions are ultimately painful, as proved by the First Noble Truth).[25] Pleasurable actions yield pleasurable results, painful actions yield painful results, and neutral actions yield neutral results. Similarly, there are actions conducive to liberation and there are actions conducive to bondage.[26] Actions conducive to liberation produce results that are conducive to liberation, whereas actions conducive to bondage produce results that are conducive to bondage. Thus, the law of karma, once it is understood, in and by itself produces a strong incentive to engage in positive actions and to refrain from negative actions, without any need to invoke Fraser’s fickle and wayward deity.[27] The law of karma also implies a significant degree of control over one’s future destiny, since the energy of the karmic patterns, once fully manifested in the conditions proper to them, is exhausted; therefore the possibility arises of the arising of new and different karmic patterns, as a function of the reflexivity of the volitional process with which karma itself is intimately intervolved. It appears, therefore, that volitions themselves are not merely automatic reflex reactions to prior actions, although they can be.

The experiential or karmic pattern is the link or “connection” that joins the two stories together. From this is derived a moral lesson.

Beings closer to the enlightened state (but still unenlightened) are more subtly aware and remember more than their present births. Beings at a higher level of development are more aware of the higher worlds than beings at a lower level of development, since according to Buddhism sentient beings do not evolve, they devolve, and all beings have devolved from a higher state.[28] The process by which lower beings become unaware of their previous births in higher worlds is likened to a process of forgetfulness or confusion, and is associated with the rebirth process itself. Human beings, remembering as they do a single birth, must occupy a very low level, although not as low as beings that are incapable of volition, and therefore completely bound by karma, i.e., by automatic instinctual impulses. The Buddha himself, having achieved the epitome of consciousness, remembered his past births and existed in a state of complete and perfect self-consciousness (to the degree of realizing his own non-self-existence!). Thus, the slightest incident might trigger a past-life memory in the Buddha, who would allude to incidents in his previous births as casually as his present birth. Not only the Buddha, but sometimes others as well are represented as remembering their former births, and responding to him on this basis.[29]

Types of Karmic Consequences

Specific examples of karmic consequences include the Buddha’s speech, the beauty of which is said to be a result of many lives of truth-telling; a goldsmith’s purity, which is said to be a result of many lives spent purifying gold; a monk’s insignificance, which is said to be a result of previous sins, despite devotion to prayer, high aspiration, and true discipleship in this life. Perhaps most interesting in this category is an elder who “[w]hile still alive became a preta in the world of men,”[30] presumably referring to some kind of wasting disease.

Kinds of Rebirths

The kinds of rebirths described in the Jataka tales are very diverse. The following table gives the number of births of the Bodhisattva of each kind, which are also representative of the generality (although the Bodhisattva is usually presented as a wise, righteous, and compassionate leader), based on the table produced by Spence Hardy’s pandit and reproduced in Buddhist Birth-Stories.[31]

King 85 Potter 3
Ascetic 83 Outcast 3
Tree god 43 Iguana 3
Teacher 26 Fish 2
Courtier 24 Elephant driver 2
Brahman 24 Rat 2
King’s son 24 Jackal 2
Nobleman 23 Crow 2
Learned  man 22 Woodpecker 2
Sakka 20 Thief 2
Monkey 18 Pig 2
Merchant 13 Dog 1
Man of property 12 Curer of snake bites 1
Deer 11 Gambler 1
Lion 10 Mason 1
Wild duck 8 Smith 1
Snipe 6 Devil dancer 1
Elephant 6 Student 1
Cock 5 Silversmith 1
Slave 5 Carpenter 1
Eagle 5 Water-fowl 1
Horse 4 Frog 1
Bull 4 Hare 1
Brahma 4 Kite 1
Peacock 3 Jungle cock 1
Serpent 3 Fairy 1

The following table categorizes the rebirths in the previous table, giving the gross percentage in each category (cf. n. 11, above).

Animal 30%
Human 28%
Worldly 24%
Noble 7%
Superhuman 5%
Religious 4%
Military 1%

The Six Modes of Existence

The Jataka tales clearly portray the Buddha and his disciples moving through six distinct modes of rebirth: in suffering states as hell beings, hungry ghosts, and animals; in intermediate or mixed states as human beings and ‘anti-gods’ (asuras); and in blissful states as devas. Of these, human beings are the rarest mode of existence but with the greatest potential for supreme enlightenment. However, human beings also move freely between rebirths as hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, and devas. The Buddha himself in one of his Bodhisattva births was reborn as a hell being who suffered for eighty thousand years in recompense for a previous birth in which he spent twenty years as a king. Sages and the Buddha himself are represented as taking rebirth in animal forms, even birds. Thus, there is little distinction in Buddhism between the spiritual state of animals and humans; most humans are only slightly more evolved than animals, and may easily be reborn as animals, and vice versa, whereas the Buddha is never represented as having been born as a female.

The Act of Truth         

A particularly interesting category of karma that recurs throughout the Jataka tales is the Act of Truth (satyagraha) so-called. In pan-Indian thought, truth itself is believed to possess its own intrinsic power by virtue of its ontological status as an expression of the creative power of reality (maya). Similarly, traditional philosophy always ascribes power to the magical word, which creates reality. Thus, the “Vattaka-Jataka” tells of a jungle fire that went out as soon as it approached the Buddha. The Buddha says, “It is no present power of mine, Brethren, that makes this fire go out on reaching this spot of ground. It is the power of a former ‘Act of Truth’ of mine. For in this spot no fire will burn throughout the whole of this aeon,—the miracle being one which endures for an aeon.”[32] The tale of the past elaborates on this as follows:[33]

In this world there exists what is termed the Efficacy of Goodness, and what is termed the Efficacy of Truth. There are those who, through their having realized the Perfections in past ages, have attained beneath the Bo-tree to be All-Enlightened; who, having won Release by goodness, tranquility and wisdom, possess also discernment of the knowledge of such Release; who are filled with truth, compassion, mercy, and patience; whose love embraces all creatures alike; whom men call omniscient Buddhas. There is an efficacy in the attributes they have won. And I too grasp one truth; I hold and believe in a single principle in Nature. Therefore, it behoves me to call to mind the Buddhas of the past, and the Efficacy they have won, and to lay hold of the true belief that is in me touching the principle of Nature; and by an Act of Truth to make the flames go back, to the saving both of myself and of the rest of the birds [in this tale the Buddha was reborn as a quail chick].

Therefore it has been said: —

There’s saving grace in Goodness in this world;
There’s truth, compassion, purity of life.
Thereby, I’ll work a matchless Act of Truth.
Remembering Faith’s might, and taking thought
On those who triumphed in the days gone by,
Strong in the truth, an Act of Truth I wrought.

Accordingly, the Bodhisatta, calling to mind the efficacy of the Buddhas long since past away, performed an Act of Truth in the name of the true faith that was in him, repeating this stanza:—

With wings that fly not, feet that walk not yet,
Forsaken by my parents, here I lie!
Wherefore I conjure three, dread Lord of Fire,
Primaeval Jataveda, turn! go back!

Even as he performed his Act of Truth, Jataveda went back a space of sixteen lengths; and in going back the flames did not pass away to the forest devouring everything in their path. No; they went out there and then, like a torch plunged in water. Therefore it has been said:—

I wrought my Act of Truth, and therewithal
The sheet of blazing fire left sixteen lengths
Unscathed,—like flames by water met and quenched.

And as that spot escaped being wasted by fire throughout a whole aeon, the miracle is called an “aeon-miracle.”

“Thus, Brethren, said the Master, “it is not my present power but the efficacy of an Act of Truth performed by me when a young quail, that has made the flames pass over this spot in the jungle.”

Similarly, elsewhere a woman who has no witness as to the father of her child appeals to an Act of Truth to prove his paternity; an ascetic and the parents of a boy bitten by a snake, having no antidote, appeal to an Act of Truth to heal the boy; a master mariner saves seven hundred souls from shipwreck by an Act of Truth; a paccekabuddha sets free all enslaved creatures by an Act of Truth; a king restores both his eyes by means of an Act of Truth; a king saves his son from an ogre by an Act of Truth; a snake-king causes the head of a false ascetic to burst asunder; a woman heals a leper by means of an Act of Truth; an elder saves the life of a woman in childbirth by means of an Act of Truth; and a king heals a man-eater by an Act of Truth.[34]

The magical character of the Act of Truth is readily apparent, but the core idea is that the effective power of the karma of merit or virtue can be consciously harnessed and intentionally directed by an act of will of a sufficiently powerful person. The Buddhist Act of Truth is a variant on the traditional motif of a sacred substance produced by spiritual practice, which inheres in the body and in nature, in people, objects, and places.  A spiritually developed being can utilize this substance, in sufficient concentration, to produce physical phenomena including healings. The Act of Truth is clearly associated with a method, preeminently a solemn pronouncement, recited in verse, analogous to a magical incantation or “spell,” and sometimes with a ritual action including the use of a special object, such as a bowl or a pitcher of water. The assumption underlying the Act of Truth is the same as the doctrine of karma: thoughts and words, i.e., consciousness, are not essentially different from so-called “physical objects.” All phenomena are equally real, mutually co-determining, and inhere in the same ground, viz., emptiness. Thus, mental thoughts and words are as real and efficacious as physical objects.


The original Buddhists believed that the world is essentially illusory, governed by a causal law that makes no distinction between thoughts, words, and deeds, and in which no cause fails to produce a precisely appropriate effect that returns to the agent in the form of experience. This law of karma is fundamental, ubiquitous, automatic, and determinative but as ultimately illusory as the world that it governs. Thus, there is the possibility of escape. The Buddha is the first human being in this historical dispensation to have made good his escape from the world of samsara. Thus, he is the highest teacher and his teaching the highest teaching. His experiences in his pursuit of supreme enlightenment constitute the subject matter of the Jataka. By attaining to the attainment of an Arhant and perfecting the ten perfections of a Buddha, the Bodhisattva pursued the goal of Buddhahood after billions of births over millions or billions of years in many different sentient forms, including men, superhuman beings, animals, and even hell beings. Once he resolved to attain Buddhahood, it took him twenty-four subsequent rebirths to attain enlightenment, not always as a human being. The attainment of enlightenment is by definition the perfection of consciousness. Thus, the Buddha remembered all of his former lives, which he discussed freely in the course of his teaching work, when prompted to do so by the recurrence of a set of circumstances similar to those that occurred in a previous birth. During his rebirths as a Bodhisattva the Buddha was reborn in the company of a series of Buddhas, whose disciple he became. Similarly, many of the Buddha’s disciples had themselves shared many previous births with him, and many of these disciples in this historical dispensation attained Arhatship under the Buddha’s tutelage. The practice of virtue and meditation are profoundly karmically efficacious. Thus, an enlightened being is not merely a man of knowledge; he is also a man of power. Even ordinary but virtuous people can consciously call upon the power of karma to change karma. The power of karma is the primum mobile of the universe and the secret spring of phenomenality.

Appendix I

The objective existence of the four terrestrial continents of Buddhist belief, with Jamvudvipa (India) in the middle, far from being imaginary, has been confirmed by modern science. The theory that all of the continents of the earth are the result of a progressive separation of one original proto-supercontinent, called Pangaea, originated with Afred Wegener in 1915.  The “continental shift,” as it is called, began about two hundred million years ago. As one can see from the illustration, below, about 130 million years ago India is surrounded by—and separated from—three large landmasses. These landmasses correspond to what are now North America, Asia, and Europe to the north (corresponding to Buddhist Uttarakuru); South America and Africa to the west (Godaniya); and Antarctica and Australia to the south and east (Purvavideha), just as described in the Buddhist scriptures.  The Buddhist description also refers to eight “subcontinents.” As one can see, the four primary continents illustrated below are exactly subdivided into eight subcontinents.[35]


[1] E.B. Cowell, ed., The Jataka or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births (1895, 1897, 1901, 1905, 1907; rpt. London: Pali Text Society—Luzac, 1957), 6 vols. in 3.

[2] “The shorter period of 150 years between Asoka and the Great Decease agrees much better with what we know of the literary history of Buddhism during that interval. And it agrees with the tradition of the northern Buddhists as preserved by Hiouen Thsang, and in Kashmir and Tibet. In the ‘Questions of Milinda’ also—a work of unknown date, preserved only in its Pali form, but possibly derived from a northern Buddhist Sanscrit work—the date of the Buddha’s death is fixed at five hundred years before the time of Milinda, who certainly reigned about a century after Christ. I am, therefore, of opinion that the hitherto accepted date of the Buddha’s death should be modified accordingly.

“This would make the date of the Great Decease about 420—400 B.C. (very possibly a year or two later)” (T.W. Rhys Davids, trans., Buddhist Suttas, ed. F. Max Muller, Sacred Books of the East, Vol. XI (Oxford, 1881; rpt. New York: Dover, 1969), pp. xlvii, xlviii). The trend in serious Western scholarship since Rhys Davids penned these prophetic words in 1881 has been towards a later date of 400 B.C.E. or even a little more recent.

[3] The Nidanakatha is translated in its entirety as “The Story of the Lineage” in T.W. Rhys Davids, Buddhist Birth-Stories (Jataka Tales): The Commentarial Introduction Entitled Nidana-Katha, the Story of the Lineage, rev. ed. (London: Geo. Routledge, ca. 1913?), pp. 81—232. According to M.S. Bhat the Nidanakatha dates from the 2nd century B.C.E. (ed., The Genealogy of the Buddhas, trans. M.V. Talim, Devanagari-Pali Text Series No. 15 (Bombay: University of Bombay, 1969),  p. xiv).

[4] Trans. I.B. Horner, The Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon, Part
III (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975). For the literal etymologies of the Pali words and phrases cited see T.W. Rhys Davids and Wm. Stede, eds., The Pali Text Society’s Pali-English Dictionary (1921—1925; rpt. London: Pali Text Society, 1947—1949), 7 vols. in 1, esp. (for the words cited above, respectively) Pt. IV, p. 114; Pt. III, p. 66; Pt. IV, p. 188; Pt. VIII, p. 177; Pt. V, p. 79; Pt. IV, p. 194; and Pt. III, pp. 12, 94.

[5] Buddhist Birth-Stories, p. i.

[6] “In the Ceylon R.A.S.J. 1884, p. 127, it is argued from the indefinite use of uttara-patha for all countries north of Benares that the date of writing must be before the 3rd century B.C., when Buddhistic embassies were sent to Mysore and North Canara and when the Dakshinapatha was familiar” (Cowell,  p. 22 n. 1). Uttara-patha is translated by Cowell  as ‘north country.’ Patha literally signifies ‘path, road, way.’ See Rhys Davids and Stede, Pt. V, p. 30.

[7] “[B]odhisattva, a Sanskrit word that roughly translates as ‘enlightenment warrior’” (Glenn H. Mullin, trans., Mystical Verses of a Mad Dalai Lama (Wheaton, IL: Quest—Theosophical Publishing House, 1994),  p. 29).

[8] Walpola Sri Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, 2nd ed. (New York: Grove Press, 1974), p. 33. Cf. the Hindu concept of maya: “the force (shakti) of Brahman” (Stephan Schuhmacher and Gert Woerner, eds., The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion: Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Zen (Boston: Shambhala, 1989), s.v. Maya, p. 223).

[9] A Vedic seer, saint, or inspired poet (Schuhmacher and Woerner, s.v. Rishi,  p. 291).

[10] “The Rise of Relative Opposites,” in Lin Yutang, trans., The Wisdom of Laotse, Cap. ii  (New York: Modern Library—Random House, 1948), p. 47.

[11] A statistical analysis of these births is interesting. Leaving aside the birth as a Mahratta, 78% are human births; 77% are noble births; 45% are religious births; 41% are worldly births; 14% are births as superhuman beings; 9% are animal births; and 9% may be specifically designated as military births (not counting births as a universal monarch, king, or chief, or 57%, counting these births). None of these births is overtly female. Perhaps most surprising of all is that the Buddha was born as an animal twice in his last twenty-four births. This suggests that the karmic state of an animal and the state of a human are not that different in the Buddhist world view, perhaps even less significant than the difference between male and female.

[12] According to what appears to be the final Theravada Buddhist system, not yet completely explicit in the Nidanakatha, the basic unit of measurement is the atarakappa (lit. ‘intermediate cycle’), which corresponds to one complete human evolutionary cycle, during which time the longevity of human beings increases from 10 to 84,000 years and then declines again to 10 years at the rate of 1 year per century: a period of 16,798,000 years is implied. Twenty or, alternatively, 64 atarakappas equal 1 asankheyyakappa (lit. ‘incalculable cycle’): a period, depending on which figure one accepts, of 335,960,000 or 1,075,072,000 years. Four asankheyyakappas equal 1 mahakappa (lit. ‘great cycle’): 1,343,840,000 or 4,300,288,000 years.  It is interesting to note that 4.3 billion years is also the duration of a day or a night (i.e., one-half of an astronomical or solar day) in the life of Brahma according to orthodox Hindu reckoning. A complete astronomical or solar day in the life of Brahma (itself equal to 100 years) is equivalent to 8.6 billion years (in the Hindu system, a day in the life of Brahma corresponds to a period of universal evolution, and a night to an equal period of universal involution). According to The Pali Text Society’s Pali-English Dictionary, “When kappa stands by itself, a Maha-kappa is understood” (Rhys Davids and Stede, Pt. I, p. 15).  According to Eric Cheetham (Fundamentals of Mainstream Buddhism (Boston: Charles E. Tuttle, 1994), p. 17), “The whole world-system [lokadhatu] is said to last for three kalpas, which is the equivalent of  960 million years [actually 1,007,880,000 years; Cheetham is using a rounded off figure of 16 million years for the atarakappa, which he calls a kalpa].” Cheetham’s kalpa appears to be equal to our short atarakappa. Three long atarakappas are equal to 3,225,216,000 years.  However, Cheetham’s use of the word kalpa instead of atarakalpa causes one to wonder if in fact he has misinterpreted his source and that the duration of the lokadhatu is actually equal to 3 mahakappas. If this is the case, then the duration of the lokadhatu  is 4,031,520,000 or 12,900,864,000 years. More research is needed to resolve this question. According to a similar but slightly different scheme, the mahakappa is divided into 4 phases, and each phase equals 20 (or 64) atarakappas (in this scheme an asankheyyakappa is an indefinite number of mahakappas). Therefore a mahakappa is equal to 80 or 256 periods of 16,798,000 years: a period of  1,343,840,000 or 4,300,288,000 years is again implied as above (see Stephan Schuhmacher and Gert Woerner, s.v. Kalpa, p. 171; “Dhamma Questions” (23 November 2001); “Process-Freed Section,” Cap. v of Abhidhammattha-Sangaha <; (23 November 2001);  “Arupavacara-Bhumi (The Plane of the Formless)” <; (23 November 2001).  Cf. Eric Cheetham, pp. 16ff.). According to Sayagyi U Ba Khin, “The Real Values of True Buddhist Meditation” (23 November 2001); Sayagyi U Chit Tin, “The Story of Pacceka Buddha Matanga” <; (23 November 2001); Sayagyi U Ba Khin, “What Buddhism Is” (23 November 2001); and Saya U Chit Tin, “The Perfection of Generosity (Dana-parami)”  <; (23 November 2001), an asankheyya is equal to 10140 years (“Buddhism A to Z”  <; (23 November 2001) says 1059 years). Western science does not know the longevity of the physical universe, although its age is about twelve billion years (“Astronomers Calculate Age of the Universe” <; [14 December 2001]).

[13] “Always implying also a kinship and continuity of life with humanity and other beings; all devas have been man and may again become men…, hence ‘gods’ is not a coincident term” (Rhys Davids and Stede, Pt. IV, p. 164). Cf.: “No disciples, male or female, who seek refuge in the Three Gems that are endowed with such peerless excellences, are ever reborn into hell and the like states; but, released from all rebirth into states of suffering, they pass to the Realm of Devas and there receive great glory” (Cowell, “Apannaka-Jataka,” in No. 1, Vol. I, p. 2).

[14] Circa 2510 C.E. This interpretation is suggested by the periodicity of the numbers, 100, 1,000, and 100,000, corresponding to increasing significance. Additional research needs to be done to determine whether similar cycles are mentioned elsewhere in the literature. Cf. the Kalachakra date for the Buddhist Armageddon, which will culminate in the terrestrial manifestation of Shambhala in 2425 C.E. (“Kalachakra: Shambhala” <; [23 November 2001]) .

[15] Cheetham, pp. 33ff.

[16] Cowell, No. 196, Vol. II, p. 91.

[17] Cowell, No. 321, Vol. III, p. 48 and No. 390, Vol. III, p. 187. Avici is also referred to in the “Samuddha-Vanija-Jataka,” No. 466, Vol. IV, p. 99 and again in the “Amba-Jataka,” No. 474, Vol. IV, p. 124.

[18] Cowell, No. 405, Vol. III, pp. 219f.

[19] Cowell, No. 481, Vol. IV, p. 153.

[20] Cowell, No. 94, Vol. I, p. 229 and No. 411, Vol. IV, p. 237.

[21] It may be objected that if karma is ubiquitous and self-reproducing at all levels then escape from karma, and, hence, enlightenment, is impossible. This refers to the problem of intention (cetana), which we will not discuss here.

[22] Rhys Davids and Stede, Pt. III, p. 19.

[23] “This bodily frame is the repository of the workings of Karma” (Cowell, “Nigrodhamiga-Jataka,” in No. 12, Vol. I, p. 37).

[24] E.g., see the “Ekapanna-Jataka” in Cowell, No. 149, Vol. I, pp. 316f.

[25] “[T]he sinful man regards sin as excellent before it ripens to its fruit. But when it has ripened, then he sees sin to be sin” (Cowell, “Khadirangara-Jataka,” in No. 40, Vol. I, p. 102).

[26] By definition the non-contingent, i.e., nirvana, cannot be produced by the contingent. Therefore, contingent means merely prepare the phenomenon for the possibility of transcendence, but do not produce the transcendence. Since the non-contingent is the ground of the contingent, such means produce a translucency of the contingent phenomenon that reveals its own ground, thus producing the appearance of causation.

[27] This is in striking contrast to the Western scientific view of causality, which tends to produce the nihilism of postmodern society.

[28] The “Mahasupina-Jataka,” in which the Buddha interprets sixteen “great dreams” of the King of Kosala, describes in detail the traditional doctrine of historical devolution or degeneration, referred to as “the reign of unrighteous kings.” Thus the Buddha interprets the dreams as auguries of the future age, characterized by poverty, unrighteousness, perversion, evil, drought, famine, mortality, lust, premature pubescence, disrespect toward the elderly, political incompetence and corruption, the reversal of social roles, the reversal of sexual roles, oppressive taxation, despotism, deurbanization, dry wind storms, corruption of the sangha, and decline of the aristocracy (Cowell, No. 77, Vol. I, pp. 187–192).

[29] E.g., see Cowell, “Saketa-Jataka,” No. 68, Vol. I, pp. 166f.

[30] “Kutidusaka-Jataka,” in Cowell, No. 321, Vol. III, p. 48.

[31] Rhys Davids, Table VII, p. 246.

[32] Cowell, No. 35, Vol. I, p. 89.

[33] Cowell, No. 35, Vol. I, pp. 89f.

[34] Cowell, Vol. I, pp. 55, 89, 90, 155, 183, 184; Vol. IV, pp. 19, 90, 215, 255; Vol. V, pp. 15, 16, 47, 52, 246, 275; Vol. VI, pp. 1, 19, 47, 51, 78.

[35]j Graphic compliments of  “Pangaea” <; (23 November 2001). See Cheetham, pp. 14, 35. That the Buddhist world description conforms to an epoch 130 million years ago should not surprise one, in light of the previous discussion. However, further investigation into this line of inquiry in the light of the literature is required.