Buddhist Scriptures, by E.J. Thomas, , at sacred-texts.com
The Jātaka consists of about five hundred stories of the previous lives of Buddha. Each story is introduced by some incident occurring in the Master's life as Buddha, such as the backsliding of a brother, or some act of merit among the faithful. Buddha then tells a story of the past, in which the actors in the previous life are usually the same as those whom he is exhorting, and in which Buddha himself as the Bodhisatta always occurs. It is one of the ten powers of a Buddha (see note, p. 90) that he remembers all his former existences. The stories of the past are often folk-tales and beast-fables, much older in origin than Buddhism itself; and consequently the connection between the individuals in the past and in the present may be very slight. The Bodhisatta is sometimes a tree-god or other divinity, who merely witnesses the events, and recites the verses. The stories are not parables, but they hold the same place in the Buddhist moral teaching as do the parables of the New Testament in the Gospels. A birth-story always concludes with one or more verses. It is these verses, the utterances of Buddha, which are the sacred text, the stories themselves being the commentary, explaining how the verses came to be spoken.
The transference of merit which is recorded in the following birth-story is a feature that is not prominent in early Buddhism, but which becomes very important in the teaching as to Bodhisattas in Mahāyānism. The doctrine rests
upon a truth, for no one who thinks of what he owes to the devotion of parents, or to the example of others, can call himself morally a self-made man.
This story the Master told while living at Jetavana about a faithful lay-disciple. Now this faithful, joyful, noble disciple, going one day to Jetavana, came in the evening to the bank of the river Aciravati. As the boatman had drawn up his boat on shore and had gone to listen to the doctrine, the disciple saw no boat at the ferry, and, taking joy in meditating on the Buddha, he walked across the river. His feet did not sink in the water. 1 As though on dry ground he went until he had reached half-way, when he saw waves. Then his ecstasy in meditating on the Buddha became less, and his feet began to sink, but he again strengthened his ecstasy in meditating on the Buddha, and, passing over the surface of the water, entered Jetavana, saluted the Master, and sat on one side. The Master exchanged friendly greetings with him, and asked, "Disciple, as you came on the road did you come with little fatigue?" He replied, "Master, I took joy in meditation on the Buddha, and, receiving support on the surface of the water, I have arrived as though walking on dry ground." The Master said, "Layman, not you only, on remembering the virtues of the Buddha, received support, but long before, when a ship was wrecked in mid-ocean,
laymen remembered the virtues of the Buddha, and received support." On being asked by the disciple, he told a story of the past.
"Long ago, in the time of the perfectly enlightened Buddha Kassapa, a brother who had entered the First Path embarked in a ship with a barber who was a householder. The barber's wife said, 'Sir, let his welfare and ill be your care,' and put the barber in the hands of the disciple. Now on the seventh day afterwards the ship was wrecked in mid-ocean. The two men alighted on one plank and reached an island. There the barber killed birds, cooked and ate them, and offered them to the lay-disciple. The disciple said, 'Enough for me,' and would not eat. He thought, 'In this place there is no support for us except in the three refuges,' and fixed his mind on the virtues of the three jewels. 1 Now as he was thinking, a nāga 2 king who had been born on that island changed his body into the form of a great ship. An ocean god was the pilot. The ship was filled with the seven kinds of precious stones. There were three masts of sapphire, the anchor was of gold, the ropes of silver, the planks golden. The ocean god stood in the ship, and called, 'Does any one want to go to Jambudīpa?'
[paragraph continues] The lay-disciple said, 'We wish to go.' 'Then come and embark.' He embarked and called the barber. The ocean god said, 'It is going for you, not for him.' 'Why?' he asked. 'He does not practise the virtues of the commandments, that is the reason. I have brought it for you and not for him.' 'Very well, I give him a share in my almsgiving, in my keeping of the commandments, and in the powers I have developed.' The barber said, 'Sir, I accept with joy.' 'Now I will take him,' said the god, and, putting him on board, brought both men over the ocean and came to the river at Benares. By his supernatural power he produced wealth in the house of both of them, and said, 'You should keep company with the wise, for if this barber had not kept company with this lay-brother he would have perished in mid-ocean'; and, telling the virtue of keeping company with the wise, he spoke these verses:
Then with the good keep company,
And with the good associate,
For through his friendship with the good
The barber comes in safety home.
"Thus the ocean god standing in the air declared the doctrine and admonished them, and, taking the nāga king, went to his own abode."
The Master, after reciting this declaration of the doctrine, made known the truths, and showed the connection of the birth. At the conclusion of the truths the lay-disciple was established in the path of those who are re-born once again. "At that time the layman who had entered the First Path 1 attained Nirvana, Sāriputta was the nāga king, and I was the ocean god." (Jat. No. 190.)
76:1 Cf. St. Peter walking on the sea, Matt. xiv. 28.
77:1 See the Jewel Discourse below.
77:2 Nāgas were superhuman beings represented in Indian sculptures as hooded snakes with several heads. They were capable of assuming any form.
79:1 The First Path, or first stage of the Noble Eightfold Path, is "entering the stream," conversion. The second stage is that of those who will only be re-born once in this world; the third, that of those who will not be re-born in this world, but only in a higher existence; the fourth, that of the Arahat, the fruit or second degree of which is Nirvana.