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Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 6.1 (2023): 145–170;
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Buddhist Narrative Literature)

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Framing the Path to Awakening: Tibetan Adaptations of the Jātaka Genre

University of Oxford

Abstract: Jātaka and avadāna stories belong to the staples of Buddhist narrative literature. While most jātakas follow a relatively stable narrative template, they also allow for some variation depending on their time and place of composition and the audiences they are meant to address. Jātaka stories have been told and preserved in a variety of languages and literary forms, from simple prose narratives to complex poems or visual representations. This article focuses on Tibetan adaptations of the jātaka genre. It begins with a brief survey of jātaka stories translated from Sanskrit or Chinese and contained in the Tibetan Buddhist canon, and then moves on to investigate one specific jātaka cycle composed in Tibet within the Bka’ gdams pa school of Tibetan Buddhism. The frame story is of particular interest, as this is where the Tibetan narrators are perhaps at their most innovative. In these Bka’ gdams pa jātakas, the narrative frame is shifted from India to Tibet, and the main characters of the frame story are newly converted Tibetan Buddhists and their Indian teacher. This highly original appropriation of the jātaka genre demonstrates the important role of narrative literature in the Tibetan adoption and adaptation of Buddhism.

Keywords: Jātaka, Avadāna, Tibetan Buddhism, Atiśa Dīpaṃkaraśrījñāna


About the Author: Ulrike Roesler is Professor of Tibetan and Himalayan Studies at the University of Oxford, where she has been teaching since 2010. After a Ph.D. in Indian Studies from the University of Münster (Germany), she obtained the Habilitation in Tibetan Studies from the University of Munich (Germany). At Oxford, she founded the Tibetan and Himalayan Studies Centre at Wolfson College in 2012. Her research interests include religious and cultural interactions between India and Tibet, the period of the ‘later diffusion’ of Buddhism in Tibet (late tenth to thirteenth centuries), and Tibetan historical, biographical, and narrative literature. Among her book publications are Lives Lived, Lives Imagined: Biography in the Buddhist Traditions (2010), Frühe Quellen zum buddhistischen Stufenweg in Tibet [Early Sources on the Graded Path to Awakening in Tibet] (2011), and Tibetan and Himalayan Healing (2015). At present, she is working on a monograph on the emergence of monasticism on the Tibetan plateau and the formation of the Kadampa school of Tibetan Buddhism.


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