On “Heavenly Exploits (Buddhist Biographies from the Dívyavadána).” Joel Tatelman

I was one of those kids who always had to be called five times to come to dinner because I always had my nose in a novel, a book of short stories, or an anthology of myths or legends. Much later, at university, when I emigrated from the study of English literature to that of Buddhism, I was delighted to encounter a rich and varied body of narrative literature. Story-telling, it seemed, was as universal and necessary as breathing. At the same time, it was apparent that the importance that Asian Buddhists had accorded this literature over two millennia – demonstrated, for example, by the contents of monastic libraries from first-century Afghanistan to twentieth-century Laos – had not elicited a corresponding interest on the part of most Western scholars and practitioners of Buddhism.

This is not surprising, given the attraction of Buddhism as a ‘rational’ religion, a system of spiritual psychology, the value of which lies precisely in its independence from the kind of myth, legend and superstition that many of us have rejected in our own religious traditions. Buddhism is the religion that welcomes the skeptical, experimental attitude so prized among us moderns, that invites all interested parties to apply the traditional methods of mental training and intellectual analysis and ‘see for themselves’. No faith, no suspension of disbelief required.

Indeed, why should we in the twenty-first century take an interest in ‘karma’ stories about super-powered monks, autocratic kings, jealous queens, manipulative politicians, crafty merchants, ancient family conflicts, or worse, ghosts, godlings and heavens and hells? What have these to do with the teachings of the Buddha, with the Great Physician’s prescription for clarifying awareness in order to overcome suffering? Is the enormous narrative and biographical literature not merely dispensable cultural pulp that we must clear away to get to the precious kernels of truth it overlays and obscures?

For the most part, as one with a lifelong passion for good tales well told, I have not troubled myself about these matters. For me, there is something essential, something immediate and embodied about stories – something holistic – that the most sophisticated doctrinal and philosophical expositions lack. Stories get closer to our lived experience and that’s why they are as indispensable to the human spirit as food and water are to the human body. As the novelist and playwright Carol Shields has put it, “Narrative hunger is part of our human essence.”

Accordingly, my selections from Heavenly Exploits, an anthology of thirty-eight religious biographies compiled in the early centuries C.E., offers glimpses of that special place where religious ideals and narrative imagination meet the rough-and-tumble of everyday life. While it may well be that some of these stories contain elements of, or are inspired by, the lives of actual men and women in ancient India, it is not something for which I can offer proof one way or another. In any case, that’s not what makes them valuable, informative or a pleasure to read: there’s just nothing like a good story to immerse us in the spirit of a time and place.

Buddhist avadānas – biographical narratives – populate that space where individual spirituality, institutional religion, doctrinal principles, literary imagination and lived human experience meet and jostle each other about. These stories are, to be sure, a sort of propaganda, as is every political and religious document, but they are also the beating heart of a tradition that, at least in the modern West, we have tended to ignore in favour of the rational head. We need both to form a real picture.

The stories of Heavenly Exploits are also a reminder that the spirit of our own age is expressed as much in movies, novels and television dramas as it is in scientific discoveries, medical technology and the programs of governments and politicans.

They also show us, with intriguing concreteness, that the ancient Buddhists lived in the social world and that, as such, their concerns went considerably beyond the doctrines and techniques involved in spiritual training. What happens, for example, in “The Story of Makándika”, when a Brahman priest seeks to marry his nubile daughter to the Buddha himself? 

Meanwhile, the Buddha, travelling through the countryside among the Kurus, arrived at Kalmásha·damya and stopped in that town of the Kurus. Then, after passing the night, in the morning he dressed himself, took up his outer robe and bowl and went into Kalmásha·damya for alms. He completed his alms-round in Kalmásha·damya, ate his meal and put away his alms-bowl. Having put away his robe and bowl, he washed his feet, then seated himself at the foot of a tree and assumed a cross-legged posture, limbs arranged like the piled-up coils of  a sleeping serpent-king.

Just then the wanderer Makándika came along, looking for flowers and firewood. From quite a distance the wanderer Makándika caught sight of the Lord, seated in a cross-legged posture at the foot of the tree, limbs arranged like the piled-up coils of a sleeping serpent-king, handsome, exceedingly good looking, senses quiescent, thought quiescent, possessed of perfect mental tranquillity, and shining brightly like a golden sacrificial pillar. Makándika look at him once more, and joy and delight arose in his mind. He reflected, “O! How handsome and good-looking is this ascetic! His beauty would captivate anyone! A suitable husband is hard to find for any woman, how much more so for Anúpama. I’ve found a son-in-law!”

Then he returned home and, having returned, declared to his wife, “Allow me to inform you, dear, that I have found a husband for our daughter! Dress her in her finery. I am going to give Anúpama in marriage!”

His wife said, “To whom will you give her?”

He replied, “To the monk Gáutama.”

And how, in “The Story of Súdhana and Mano·hara”, does a celibate monastic tradition celebrate passionate romantic love, complete with happy ending, that it attributes ultimately to its founder?

... Prince Súdhana was out hunting. The hunter Phálaka caught sight of Prince Súdhana, who was well-formed, good-looking and handsome, and on seeing him, it occurred to Phálaka, ‘Now that one is the son of king and this one is a beautiful woman with an exquisite figure. If he sees her, he’ll take her by force. Suppose instead that, of my own free will, I offer her as a gift.’ So the hunter, leading Mano·hara as if she were still bound by the noose, approached Prince Súdhana. Having approached, he fell at his feet, saying, ‘May his lordship accept as a gift this jewel of a woman I have brought.’

Prince Súdhana looked upon the kínnari Mano·hara. She was exquisitely formed, lovely to look at, beautiful, with a perfect complexion. Endowed with all good qualities and adorned with all eighteen physical characteristics of the ideal woman, she was the loveliest in the land. Like golden calabashes or tortoises were her full, upstanding, firm, closely placed, large, prominent, round breasts. Dark, with tiny red veins and elongated, her eyes resembled new lotuses. Well-shaped were her eyebrows, high-bridged and prominent her nose. Like coral, rubies or bimba-fruit were her lips. Her cheeks, full and round, were distinguished by exceedingly lovely freckles. Her perfectly symmetrical eyebrows joined, in form like a blooming lotus or a spotless full moon. Long were her arms, rounded her belly with three deep folds. Her upper body bent forward from the weight of her breasts; her shapely hips and bottom were round like a discus. Delicate as the pith of a plantain tree were her hands. Her well-formed thighs resembled a pair of elephant’s trunks close together. On each well-made limb, the delicate veins were scarcely visible. She wore the jewel on her forehead and the palms of her hands were reddened with henna. The delightful sounds of her anklets, bracelets and pearl necklaces of sixty-four and one-hundred-and-eight strings accompanied her rhythmic gait. Long, black and fine was her hair, like that of Shachi, Indra’s consort. From her ornamented belt hung more strings of pearls and the anklets covered her feet. Looking upon that slender-waisted woman, with her pearl necklaces in disarray and her lovely complexion like burnished gold, the prince succumbed straight away, caught firmly in passion’s snare.

At that moment, Súdhana was shot through the heart by the arrow of desire, that passionate desire which is like a moth in a flame; which, having the nature of a spotless, luminous moon trembling in water, is exceedingly difficult to grasp; which, like a sea-monster among the billows in a torrent, is hard to catch; which moves with the wind’s or a Gáruda’s speed; which, being exceedingly light, whirls about like a cotton-tuft; which leaps about, always in motion, like a monkey; which ever seeks the flavour of passion’s happiness, which feeds the impurities; which, entirely absorbing all thought, is careless of that rough and dangerous precipice that leads to all those impurities – which, with the supremely mysterious sound that is the yearning for union, is loosed from the bow of false understanding. And so it is said,

‘As when, in the rainy season, lightning issues forth from a cloud, When he beheld her whose face was as lovely as the moon, Súdhana, With affection, love and amorous feelings toward her springing up,  At once was pierced through the heart by passion’s arrow.’

Súdhana took the ravishingly beautiful Mano·hara and returned to Hástina·pura. And he rewarded the hunter with the gift of a village. Then, accompanied by Mano·hara, Prince Súdhana ensconced himself on the flat roof of his palace, where he frolicked, dallied, and took his pleasure with her. And with Mano·hara’s qualities of youth and beauty and her constant attentiveness to him, Prince Súdhana, utterly captivated, did not leave her side even for a moment.

These brief excerpts can only hint at the range, character and complexity of these stories, but in so doing, I hope they will spark the interest of potential readers.