Generous wisdom is a set of four commentaries on the Jatakamala: Garland of birth stories of
Buddha given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama during the annual great prayer festival that follows
Tibetan New Year, in Dharamsala keeping alive the tradition started by Tsongkhapa in 1409. This
work is probably the first of its kind for it is not just a story-telling but brings new meaning
to life when one reads through the book.
Though the theme of this work is the perfection of generosity of the bodhisattvas, His Holiness
speaks comprehensively on other perfections such as ethics and patience. He also speaks at length
on such concepts as karmic action, dependent-arising and the four classes of reason applied in
Buddhism to study phenomena, which correlate with modern scientific methodology.
"It is Buddhism which represents the Tibetan identity." This is the conviction central to what
His Holiness the Dalai Lama XIV has taught in his recent "Commentaries" on The Jatakamala Garland
of birth stories. A representative four "Commentaries"-here translated for the first time- have
been included in this collection.
Generosity and reason
All of them have for their theme, as do the stories upon which they are based, the practice of
generosity, first of the Buddhist six perfections. Perhaps the most important lesson to be
learned by Tibetans from these "Commentaries," then, is to rediscover their true identity by
being generous. That this lesson might well apply to other people regardless of nationality goes
Generosity is not all of Buddhist practice, nor of any valid human endeavor, of course. His
Holiness "Commentaries" counsel a whole range of behaviors in a wide array of life situations.
Thus a second major emphasis becomes clear; any action must derive from a right understanding of
one's faith. In order to understand Buddhism, he repeatedly notes, we must study it, testing both
our powers of rational analysis and the rationality of the Buddha's teachings. In remarks pointed
at those in his audience returning home soon to Tibet, he emphasizes the indispensability of such
study, as a practice more important than preserving icons of the Buddha in their homes, or even
than the rebuilding of temples and monasteries. In this respect he emphasizes as well the need
generally to fully develop our human potential by looking inward, not just continuing to strive
for improved material, outward circumstances. It is by training our minds that we regain
"courage;" this quality has traditionally defined Tibetan identity as especially "civilized."
In the "Commentaries," His Holiness practices what he preaches. He asks us too specifically
understand- in addition to the Six perfections- the concepts of dependent arising, view and
conduct, the ten negativities and the ten positive actions, the three poisonous delusions, the
Four noble Truths, and much more. The end sought through this study is summed up in his repeated
admonition to "completely subdue one's mind." If you think that's easy, try it. Or try another,
apparently simple practice insisted upon by His Holiness: "Do your best" and do it according to
your own inner standard (call it conscience), not just according to society's knowledge and
judgment of your deeds.
Although every idea which His Holiness expresses eventually finds itself tied to the Buddha's
sometimes philosophically abstruse teachings, he does not hesitate to stress the practicality
rather than the piety or profundity of certain ideas. Often he startles his audience into the
present moment, as when he says, "This is not just religious talk. It has application to our
secular lives." Included in such advice on everyday living, for example, are the following
admonitions which are, while simply true, too easily forgotten: "Money and power facilitate our
happiness and the solving of our problems, but it is clear that they are not the primary cause of
happiness and solving our problems."
"When a day seems to be long, it [idle gossip] makes our day seem shorter. But it is one of the
worst ways in which we waste our time…In short, [it] prevents us from doing any kind of work."
Methods of presentation in the "Commentaries" and this edition :
Certain portions of the "Commentaries" stand in extreme contrast to such proverbial wisdom,
however. The "kind of work" demanded in order to understand them can elicit frustration and doubt
rather than recognition. This is true, I think, for a couple of reason, first because even most
well educated readers are alien to the intensely logical mind set acquired by monks of the
Gelugpa order through many years of training in dialectics and debate. Second, these ideas,
before fully comprehended, are nevertheless driven home repeatedly, as if for purposes of
memorization in monastic training. The tendency of most modern translators and editors,
continuing a long-standing Tibetan teaching method, to render in full such marathons of analysis,
is maintained here with respect to two of the "Commentaries." At the same time, we have sought to
avoid possible negative responses from "lay readers" by placing the most difficult passage found
in these two "Commentaries" into "Appendix A." Indomitable scholars can open the cupboard door to
it if they so choose. They may find there the marrow of His Holiness' teachings.
Although I am by no means deeply versed in the subtleties of the Tibetan language, translator
Tenzin Dorjee is, and some further liberties have been taken with the text. The "Commentary"
given in 1985, on "TV, The head of a Guild," has been treated selectively, thus to serve as a
concise yet conclusive statement of the moral imperative which the "Commentaries" place upon our
practice of generosity. That imperative requires of us, by the example of the protagonist's
courage in giving even at the risk of his life, comparable giving in our "relatively better, more
comfortable situations." It should be noted too that the protagonist displays not only unswerving
courage but also clear minded skill in disputing a personified force of evil which threatens to
dissuade him from his typical acts of generosity. In sum, his capacity to think on his feet
allows him to implement his firm resolve. We should emulate to the best of our ability this
Bodhisattva- for that is what each protagonist is, as well as the Buddha in an incarnation before
his birth as Shakyamuni-be motivated by him, His Holiness tells us.
In 1988, the "Commentary" on "IX, The story of Visvantara" to a large extent mirrored that given
on the same story in 1987. Only the main ideas of the 1988 "Commentary" have been included. We
have been sure to retain and emphasize its conclusion, which re-states one of His Holiness' main
themes, that "we should study the teaching to the best of our individual capacity and
The two other "Commentaries" in this collection have, however, bee reproduced in their entirety.
They are on "VII, The story of Agastya" (1986) and on "IX, The story of Visantara" (1987). They
exemplify the two characteristic directions which these four "Commentaries" take, as mentioned
above. On the one hand, His Holiness will forcefully instruct his audience on the moral
imperatives of everyday life, as he does in the former. On the other hand, he will explore
Buddhist philosophy in depth, as he does in the latter. Of course, a bit of both is included in
each; things are rarely just black and white.
In either case, his procedure is consistent: he provides introductory comments; reads a Tibetan
text of the story (re-telling and commenting on it as he reads); and then provides concluding
comments further applying the story to our lives. This is not to say that the procedure shows a
"fidelity" to the text characteristic of literary criticism. The text often becomes the occasion
for observations that circle far from the narrative action. One thing leads to another by a
process of thought association, then the observations return to his central concern- talking to
Tibetans candidly about matters of belief and consequent social and civic obligation. In fact,
what have been termed "Introductory Comments" in the text are less introductions to what is in
the stories than they are an expression of what is on His Holiness' mind. Moreover, there is no
analysis of the characters. A western reader of the Jatakamala is tempted to find contrary
motives in the characters' actions, especially when reading the stories as secular art. (Why did
Prince Visvantara "really" give away his wife and children? Could there have been unresolved
conflict- the heart of neurosis- between his householder's obligations and his religious
aspirations?) But this is not the Tibetan way. The concern is not psychological but strictly
moral- and to an extent poetical, as will be considered below. The motivation of each Bodhisattva
is, without question, understood as absolute altruism. He is solely a moral exemplar in what he
Such an approach is consistent with the tradition underlying: Commentaries" on the Jatakamala.
The procedure has traditionally been to read from one of the six "Kadampa Books," usually the
Jatakamala. The reader/commentator has been a Dalai Lama only when he has reached hid maturity;
otherwise, it has been done by the Ganden Tripa. The first of the commentators was Tsong Khapa.
This tradition, begun in the world's most remote place, the "land of snows," has continued for a
long, long time.
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