[xix] This volume contains upwards of two hundred similes, allegories, parables, fables, and other illustrative stories and anecdotes, found in the Pāli Buddhist texts, and said to have been employed, either by the Buddha himself or by his followers, for the purpose of conveying religious and ethical lessons and the lessons of common sense. Much of the material has never before been translated into English.

Chapters I-III contain parables drawn, with a single exception, from the Book of the Buddha’s Previous Existences, or Jātaka Book. This remarkable work relates in mixed prose and verse the experiences of the Future Buddha, either as an animal or as a human being, in each of 550 states of existence previous to his rebirth as Gotama. The textus receptus of this work represents a recension made in Ceylon early in the fifth century A. D., but much of the material is demonstrably many centuries older. For example, the stanzas rank as Canonical Scripture, and many of the stories (including Parables 4 and 14 and 27) are illustrated by Bharahat sculptures of the middle of the third century B. C. Parable 6 is taken from the Book of Discipline or Vinaya, and was very possibly related by the Buddha himself.

With Parable 1, The grateful elephant, compare the story of Androclus and the lion, and Gesta Romanorum 104. With Parable 2, Grateful animals and ungrateful man, compare E. Chavannes, Cinq Cents Contes 25; A. Schiefner, Tibetan Tales 26; Gesta Romanorum 119; and the following stories in Grimm, Kinderund Hausmarchen: 17 Die weisse Schlange, 60 Die zwei Brüder, 62 Die Bienenkönigin, 85 Die Goldkinder, 107 Die beiden Wanderer, 126 Ferenand getrü un Ferenand ungetrü, 191 Das Meerhäschen. For additional parallels, see J. Bolte und G. Polivka, Anmerkungen zu den Kinderund Hausmärchen der Brüder Grimm, Märchen 17, 62, 191.

Parable 9, Vedabbha and the thieves, is the original of Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale. With Parable 10, A Buddhist Tar-baby, compare [xx] E. Chavannes, Cinq Cents Contes 89 and 410; also the well-known story in Joel Chandler Harris, Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings. With Parable 13, Part 1, Gem, hatchet, drum, and bowl, compare Grimm, Kinderund Hausmärchen: 36 Tischchen deck dich, Goldesel, und Knüppel aus dem Sack; 54 Der Ranzen, das Hütlein, und das Hörnlein. For additional parallels, see Bolte-Polivka. A more primitive form of Parable 15, A Buddhist Henny-Penny, will be found in A. Schiefner, Tibetan Tales 22. Compare the well-known children’s story of the same name. Parables 5 and 14 are the oldest known prototypes of Panchatantra, Book 2, Frame-story. Chapter IV contains four specimens of Jātaka parables in early and late forms. Compare also Chapter II, Parables 6 and 7; and Chapter VIII, Parables 45 and 47, with Chapter III, Parables 8 and 11, respectively. The reader will observe that in the earlier (Canonical) versions, the Future Buddha has not yet become identified with any of the dramatis personae. This material is offered as a contribution to the history of the evolution of the Buddhist Parable.

Chapter V contains four remarkably fine old parables which may well have been related by the Buddha himself.

Chapter VI contains several typical specimens of a variety of parable which will undoubtedly be new to many students of religious literature – the Humorous Parable.

Chapter VII contains several specimens of Parables on Death. With Parable 30, Kisā Gotamī, compare E. Chavannes, Cinq Cents Contes 224; Budge, Ethiopic Pseudo-Callisthenes, pp. 306-308, 374-376; Sir Edwin Arnold, Light of Asia, Book 5; John Hay, Poems, The Law of Death. A modern Burmese version of Parables 30 and 31 combined will be found in H. Fielding Hall, Soul of a People, pp. 272-278. For a Tibetan version of Parable 31, Pāṭācāra, see Tibetan Tales, pp. 222-226. Parable 31 is one of the three principal sources of the legend of St. Eustace, the other two being Jātaka s 12 and 547. For a recent treatment of the history of this legend, see H. Delehaye, La légende de saint Eustache, Bull, de l’Acad. roy. de Belgique (Classe des lettres), 1919, pp. 175-210. Compare the history of Faustus, Faustinus, and Faustianus, in the Clementine Recognitiones, 200 A. D. (outline in Diet. Chr. Biog., i. 569-570); Gesta Romanorum 110; Golden [xxi] Legend, St. Eustace; Early English metrical romance of Sir Ysumbras; and the story of Abu Sabir in the Arabian Nights (Burton, Supplemental Nights, i. 81-88).

Chapter VIII contains, in the form of an imaginary dialogue between an unbeliever and the Buddhist sage Kumāra Kassapa, a lengthy discussion of the subject: “Is there a life after death?” In order to refute objections advanced by the unbeliever, the sage relates thirteen remarkably fine parables, finally vanquishing his antagonist. The arguments pro and con are the same that have been used ever since men began to discuss this important subject. The dialogue forms one of the chapters of the Long Discourses, one of the oldest of the Buddhist books, but is quite modern in its freshness.

Chapter IX contains several parables from a commentary on the Aṅguttara Nikāya composed by Buddhaghosa in the early part of the fifth century A. D. The first two parables in Chapter VII are from the same source. Parallels from a commentary on the Dhammapada composed by a contemporary of Buddhaghosa will be found in the author’s Buddhist Legends.

Parable 49, Ghosaka, has traveled all over the world. For the principal Oriental versions, see J. Schick, Corpus Hamleticum, Berlin, 1912. For an interesting Chinese Buddhist version, see E. Chavannes, Cinq Cents Contes 45. This story appears to be the source of the ninth century apocryphal legend of the seven marvels attending the birth of Zoroaster; see the author’s paper in Studies in Honor of Maurice Bloomfield, pp. 105-116. For some interesting European derivatives, see Gesta Romanorum 20 and 283; Golden Legend, Pope St. Pelagius; William Morris, Old French Romances, King Coustans the Emperor (thirteenth century); Schiller’s ballad Fridolin; Grimm, Kinder und Hausmärchen, 29 Der Teufel mit den drei goldenen Haaren. For additional derivatives, see Bolte-Polivka, i. 286-288. The story of Amleth in the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus contains two derivatives, of which one is utilized by Shakespeare in Hamlet.

Chapter X is a miscellaneous collection of parables from early sources. These parables are all much older than the beginning of the Christian era, and it is altogether probable that some of them, more particularly Parables 57, 58, 59, 60, 63, and 65, enshrine the very words of the Buddha himself. [xxii]

Chapter XI contains numerous selections from a collection of imaginary dialogues between Menander, Greek king of Bactria, 125-95 B. C, and the Buddhist sage Nāgasena. §§ 1-7 are probably as old as the beginning of the Christian era; §§ 8-13 are probably not older than the beginning of the fifth century A. D. The illustrative material is wonderfully vivid and beautiful, and the expositions of Buddhist teaching on the non-existence of the soul and on Nibbāna (Nirvāṇa) are of prime importance to all students of the History of Religions.

Chapters XII-XV contain selections from the Long and Medium-length Discourses of the Buddha, two of the oldest of the Buddhist books. References to the Buddhist Scriptures in the Bhabra edict of Asoka, and other considerations, amply justify the statement that the Pāli originals of these four chapters, and of Chapters V, VIII, and X as well, are, in their present form, at least three centuries anterior to the Christian era. Chapters XII and XIII elucidate fully the Practice of Meditation enjoined by the Buddha on his followers as the Way of Salvation. Chapters XIV and XV deal with the problem of conduct and its future rewards and punishments. These chapters should be of particular interest to students of the History of Religions.

Chapter XVI is a miscellaneous collection of parables turning on the Sacrifice of the Body and Blood and on the closely related Sacrifice of the Eyes, – favorite motifs in Buddhist fiction. These parables illustrate in a very striking manner the beginnings and early development of Mahāyāna doctrines. Parables 204-206 are adaptations of translations by the author from the Dhammapada Commentary, published in Buddhist Legends. Parables 207, 210, and 212 are English translations of French translations of Chinese translations of Sanskrit originals dating from about the beginning of the Christian era. Parables 208 and 209 are adaptations of C. H. Tawney’s translations from the Kathāsaritsāgara, corrected with reference to the original text. As a collection, the Kathāsaritsāgara is a late work, but most of the material is very old. Parable 215 is a literal translation from this work. Parables 211 and 216 are translations from the Buddhist Sanskrit work Divyāvadāna, a collection of legends compiled in the second or third century A. D.

Parables 213 and 214, the finest of the Buddhist parables turning [xxiii] on the Sacrifice of the Eyes, are from the Pāli, and are very old. Parable 214, Subhā of Jīvaka’s Mango Grove, – a veritable Indian Comus, – is taken from the Stanzas of the Nuns, a canonical work, and is at least as old as the third century B. C. From Parable 214 are derived the four Buddhist-Christian parables with which the chapter closes. The oldest of these, Parable 219, was composed in Greek at Rome by John Moschus in 615 A. D. The author expressly says that he heard the story in Alexandria. Parable 220 occurs in the Exempla of Jacques de Vitry, a manual of illustrative stories for the use of preachers compiled early in the thirteenth century. It is the original of innumerable Medieval versions. Parables 217 and 218 date from the fourteenth or fifteenth century.

The book is thus a collection of specimens of an unusually interesting type of literary composition; a text-book of the teachings of the Buddha, presented just as the Buddha and his followers presented them, by discourse and example; and a collection of good stories, – all in one. It contains much that will interest children; it also contains much that will puzzle the profoundest philosopher.


Just as the thought of preparing a translation of the legends embodied in the Dhammapada Commentary was first suggested to my mind by a query of Professor T. W. Rhys Davids in his American Lectures on Buddhism (page 69), so also the thought of publishing a volume of selections of Buddhist parables and illustrative stories was first suggested to my mind by Mrs. C. A. F. Rhys Davids’s articles on Buddhist Parables and Similes in the Open Court for 1908, and on Similes in the Nikāyas in the Journal of the Pāli Text Society for 1906-1908. I need hardly say that in common with other students of the Pāli texts I am deeply indebted to the enthusiastic and persevering labors of these two distinguished scholars.

But it is chiefly to three distinguished American scholars that I owe the inspiration of the series of volumes of which this book [xxiv] is one, – Professor Charles Rockwell Lanman of Harvard University, Professor Maurice Bloomfield of the Johns Hopkins University, and the late Professor Morris Jastrow of the University of Pennsylvania. Through his exercises in the Fables of Bidpai, the late Professor Jastrow first opened my eyes to the immense possibilities of this body of literature. In innumerable ways, such as will readily suggest themselves to those who knew him well, he assisted me in my work, and through his untimely death I have suffered a profound personal loss. Under Professor Bloomfield I studied for many years, and through his exercises in the Vedas, in the fiction-collections of India, and in Comparative Grammar, laid the foundations of a sound philological method. Professor Lanman first opened the Pāli texts to me, and did more than any other to assist me to interpret them. It is not only a duty but a pleasure to record my indebtedness to these three distinguished scholars.

I wish also to thank Professor E. Washburn Hopkins of Yale University for a careful review of the manuscript of the present work, and for many helpful suggestions.

I am greatly indebted to Mr. Andrew Keogh, Librarian of Yale University, and to Mr. James I. Wyer, Director of the New York State Library, for generous facilities accorded me in the loan of books. I am also under obligations to Professor Lanman for the loan of a rare copy of Buddhaghosa’s Aṅguttara Commentary, Colombo, 1904. It is from this text that the translations of Buddhaghosa’s Legends of the Saints have been made.

I have to thank Mr. Langdon Warner, Director of the Pennsylvania Museum, Philadelphia, for permission to reproduce the beautiful Graeco-Buddhist head which forms the frontispiece to the present volume.

Last, but by no means least, my most hearty thanks are due to Mr. George Parmly Day, President of the Yale University Press, for invaluable assistance rendered in connection with the execution and publication of this book.

E. W. B.
Yale University,
New Haven, Connecticut,
June 1, 1918. [Revised to September 1, 1922.]

Introductory Note

[xxv] Gotama Buddha was born nearly twenty-five centuries ago in the city of Kapila, in North-East India. Kapila was the principal city of the Sakya tribe, and his father was king of the tribe. Gotama was his family name. Buddha means Awakened or Enlightened, that is to say, awakened or enlightened to the cause and the cure of human suffering.

The Buddhist Scriptures tell us that when Gotama was born, the angels rejoiced and sang. An aged wise man inquired: “Why doth the company of angels rejoice?” They replied: “He that shall become Buddha is born in the village of the Sakyas for the welfare and happiness of mankind; therefore are we joyful and exceeding glad.”

The wise man hastened to the king’s house, and said: “Where is the child? I, too, wish to see him.” They showed him the child. When he saw the child, he rejoiced and was exceeding glad. And he took him in his arms, and said: “Without an equal is he! foremost among men!” Then, because he was an old man, and knew that he was soon to die, he became sorrowful and wept tears.

Said the Sakyas: “Will any harm come to the child?” “No,” replied the wise man, “this child shall one day become Buddha; out of love and pity for mankind he shall set in motion the Wheel of Religion; far and wide shall his religion be spread. But as for me, I have not long to live; before these things shall come to pass, death will be upon me. Therefore am I stricken with woe, overwhelmed with sorrow, afflicted with grief.”

Seven days after Gotama was born, his mother died, and he was brought up by his aunt and stepmother. When he was nineteen years old, he married his own cousin. For ten years he lived a life of ease, in the enjoyment of all the comforts and luxuries which riches and high position could give him. When he was twenty-nine years old, a change came over him. [xxvi]

For many centuries, it has been a common belief in India that when a human being dies, he is at once born again. If he has lived a good life, he will be born again on earth as the child of a king or of a rich man, or in one of the heavens as a god. If he has lived an evil life, he will be born again as a ghost, or as an animal, or in some place of torment.

According to this belief, every person has been born and has lived and died so many times that it would be impossible to count the number. Indeed, so far back into the past does this series of lives extend that it is impossible even to imagine a beginning of the series. What is more to the point, in each of these lives every person has endured much suffering and misery.

Said the Buddha: “In weeping over the death of sons and daughters and other dear ones, every person, in the course of his past lives, has shed tears more abundant than all the water contained in the four great oceans.”

And again: “The bones left by a single person in the course of his past lives would form a pile so huge that were all the mountains to be gathered up and piled in a heap, that heap of mountains would appear as nothing beside it.”

And again: “The head of every person has been cut off so many times in the course of his past lives, either as a human being or as an animal, as to cause him to shed blood more abundant than all the water contained in the four great oceans.”

Nothing more terrible than this can be imagined. Yet for many centuries it has been a common belief in India. Wise men taught that there was a way of escape, a way of salvation. If a person wished to avoid repeated lives of suffering and misery, he must leave home and family and friends, become a monk, and devote himself to fasting, bodily torture, and meditation.

The Buddhist Scriptures tell us that when Gotama was twenty-nine years old, he saw for the first time an Old Man, a Sick Man, a Dead Man, and a Monk. The thought that in the course of his past lives he had endured old age, sickness, and death, times without number, terrified him, and he resolved to become a monk.

Leaving home and wife and son, he devoted himself for six years to fasting, bodily torture, and meditation. Finally he became convinced that fasting and bodily torture were not the way [xxvii] of salvation, and abandoned the struggle. One night he had a wonderful experience. First he saw the entire course of his past lives. Next he saw the fate after death of all living beings. Finally he came to understand the cause of human suffering and the cure for it.

Thus it was that he became Buddha, the Awakened, the Enlightened. He saw that the cause of rebirth and suffering was craving for worldly pleasures and life and riches. He saw that if this craving were uprooted, rebirth and suffering would come to an end. He saw that this craving could be uprooted by right belief, right living, and meditation.

For forty-five years the Buddha journeyed from place to place, preaching and teaching. He founded an order of monks and nuns, and won many converts. He lived to be eighty years old. Missionaries carried his teachings from India to Ceylon and Burma and China and Tibet and Japan. In a few hundred years the religion of the Buddha had spread over the whole of Asia. Hundreds of millions of human beings have accepted his teachings.

In at least two respects, the teachings of the Buddha were quite remarkable. In the first place, he insisted on the virtue of moderation. He urged upon his hearers to avoid the two extremes of a life devoted to fasting and self-torture and a life of self-indulgence. In the second place, he taught that a man must love his neighbor as himself, returning good for evil and love for hatred. But this was not all. He taught men to love all living creatures without respect of kind or person. He taught men not to injure or kill any living creature, whether a human being or an animal, even in self-defense. All war, according to the teaching of the Buddha, is unholy.

In the course of time it came to be believed that Gotama had become Buddha as the fruit of good deeds performed in countless previous states of existence, especially deeds of generosity. At any time, had he so desired, he might have uprooted craving for worldly pleasures and life and riches by meditation, and thus have escaped the sufferings of repeated states of existence. But this he deemed an unworthy course. Out of pity and compassion and [xxviii] friendliness for living creatures, he preferred to be reborn again and again, to suffer and to die again and again, in order that, by the accumulated merit of good works, he might himself become enlightened and thus be able to enlighten others.

In comparison with the career of the Future Buddha, devoted to the performance of good works, unselfish, generous to the point of sacrificing his own body and blood, the career of the monk, isolated from the world, selfish, seeking by meditation to uproot craving for worldly pleasures and life and riches, seemed low and mean. The disciple began to imitate his Master. Thus began the Higher Career or Vehicle of Mahāyāna or Catholic Buddhism, as distinguished from the Lower Career or Vehicle of the more primitive Hīnayāna Buddhism of the Pāli texts. Thus did the quest of Buddhahood supplant the quest of Nibbāna. This development took place long before the beginning of the Christian era.

Note on Pronunciation of Pāli Names

With certain exceptions, both vowels and consonants are pronounced as in Latin and Greek, – the vowels in the so-called Continental manner. Exceptions: short a is pronounced like u in but; e and o are short in closed syllables, otherwise long; c is pronounced like ch in church, j as in judge ; kh, gh, ch, jh, th, dh, ṭh, ḍh, ph, and bh are true aspirates, th, for example, being pronounced like th in hothouse, dh like dh in madhouse ; ṭ, ṭh, ḍ, ḍh, ṇ, and are modified dentals, being pronounced with the tip of the tongue turned up and drawn back; indicates nasalization of the preceding vowel. Accent as in Latin.

Bibliographical Note

For an account of the Buddha’s life and teachings, see T. W. Rhys Davids’s articles Buddha and Buddhism in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition. See also Hermann Beckh, Buddhismus ( Buddha und seine Lehre ), Sammlung Göschen, Berlin und Leipzig, 1919-1920. On Buddhism as a world-religion, see H. Hackmann, Buddhism as a Religion, London, 1910. On the history of Buddhist doctrine, see Louis de la Vallée Poussin’s article Mahāyāna in Hastings’s Encyclopaedia of Religion and [xxix] Ethics ; also the same author’s Bouddhisme: Opinions sur l’Histoirc de la Dogmatique, Paris, 1909. For admirable brief treatments of the subject of New Testament parables, with full bibliographies, see E. E. Nourse’s article Parable ( Introductory and Biblical ) in Hastings’s Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, and A. Jülicher’s article Parables in Encyclopaedia Biblica. For a scholarly treatment of the problem presented by Mark iv. 11, 12, see A. Loisy, L’évangile selon Marc, pp. 128-133.