Before Buddha Was Buddha

Learning from the Jataka Tales

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Rafe Martin
  • Sommerville, MA: 
    Wisdom Publications
    , March
     184 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Nagas, monkeys, and deer—oh my! In his book Before Buddha Was Buddha: Learning from the Jataka Tales, Rafe Martin introduces various stories of the Buddha’s past lives, in which he experienced the social spectrum, from his life as a prince to his life in the forest as “a little gray parrot” (101).

Martin systemically works through seventeen Buddhist jatakas, or birth stories, which focus on the lives of the Buddha. Each chapter encompasses a jataka—which Martin narrates in a way that is both accessible and charming—followed by a commentary. Martin’s commentaries on the jatakas call his readers attention to an important realization: the Buddha was a human just like you and me!

This is one of the most well-done aspects of Martin’s commentary—he deftly illustrates that the Buddha, or Bodhisattva, fully experienced the trials and tribulations of life as we know it. Whether he was struggling with self-doubt surrounding his gifts (29), or trying to resist temptation (67), the Buddha was not exempt from the human experience. In fact, the way in which the Bodhisattva arrived at enlightenment was by working his way through the experiences of everyday life.

Martin phenomenally communicates that the Buddha was a product of his experiences during his lifetimes as the Bodhisattva. He did not magically become “the serene guy on the altar” that one may envision when thinking of the Buddha (xi). Rather, he experienced, worked through, and learned from his human and earthly desires, anxieties, anger, sadness, and passions. The Bodhisattva did not separate himself from the world; he was in-and-of-the-world, working through the challenges he faced whether as a prince or a monkey.

Martin’s commentaries call his readers to recognize that the Buddha’s past lives may not be so different from our own human lives. Each and every human is faced with death, sickness, aging, and mortality—just like the Bodhisattva in his life as Prince Siddhartha Gautama (1, 141). Rather than fearing or avoiding humanity, individuals are called to live intentionally and responsibly. As Martin puts it, “[b]eing born human gives us the opportunity to practice the art of being authentic human beings.” We bring our full attention to life when we actively live through all of life’s joys and challenges (34).

Practically, Martin provides readers with a book that is both understandable for the novice Buddhist or Zen student, and useful for the seasoned Buddhist practitioner or scholar. Before Buddha Was Buddha includes a preface in which Martin explains the meaning of the Buddhist jatakas; he also works through the linguistic idiosyncrasies of “Shakyamuni Buddha” vs. “the Bodhisattva,” which is helpful for those not yet familiar with Buddhist terminology (xi).

Martin’s writing is enlightening and delightful—and it is especially enhanced by his clear passion for Buddhist and Zen teachings. His retelling and commentaries upon the jatakas are, I believe, illuminating for anyone—those who practice a faith tradition as well as those who may feel unconnected to any sort of spiritual or meditative practice. Additionally, Martin successfully intertwines classic Buddhist teachings with the prose of William Blake, and other classic examples from Western contemporary culture—such as Hamlet and Star Wars. This adds another layer of accessibility for Western readers and practitioners.

Martin’s writing compels his readers to understand that every moment “is fleeting and precious. Each is your life” (57). Life presents all of its beings with a myriad of situations: love, death, nightmares, and lessons to be learned. It is by handling these circumstances with responsibility and loving action that one emulates the Buddha’s actions.





About the Reviewer(s): 

Hannah D. Olson is an Independent Scholar. 

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rafe Martin is the recipient of the Empire State Award, three American Library Association Notable Book awards, four Parents’ Choice Gold Awards, two Anne Izard Storytellers’ Choice Awards, an American Folklore Society Aesop Accolade, several American Bookseller Pick of the Lists, an International Reading Association Teachers’ Choice, and many other awards of distinction.


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