If I had to pick an idea or piece of knowledge that has had a significant impact on my spiritual path over the last year, it would be learning about the existence of the avadāna (Pāli, apadāna; Tibetan, rtogs par brjod pa’s sde) genre within the corpus of Buddhist literature, both through my studies at RYI as well as my research for the Lumbini Museum.
Avadānas are basically stories of spiritual development. They span a tremendous range – from very simple tales that depict karma at work and which emphasise the importance of faith and devotion, to tales of adventure, to works that border on poetry. Like modern literature, there’s something for everybody among the avadānas. In order to compose avadānas, Indian Buddhists drew from a wide range of sources – the biographies of the Buddha as well as the jātakas (stories of Shakyamuni Buddha’s prior lives), biographies of the first disciples as well as other Buddhist exemplars and secular Indian literature – from about the 2nd century BCE to the 13th century CE. When Buddhism subsequently faded from India, Buddhists in other parts of Asia continued the tradition.
From a scholar-practitioner’s viewpoint, the avadānas are fascinating because they represent a literary transitional phase that links the Fundamental Vehicle with the Mahāyāna. They seem to have been popular among the schools of early Buddhism shortly before the rise of the Mahāyāna, but then continued to be popular within Mahāyāna traditions, including Newar Buddhism. In this sense avadānas seem very promising as a way as a bridge for contemporary Buddhist traditions to explore their own histories and to encounter each other. They offer windows into the faith lives of Buddhist communities and traditions of the past – through them we can learn what these communities viewed as important, and thereby clarify our own values and sense of what it means to be Buddhist today in the 21st century.
Discussing the avadānas, Andy Rotman comments that: “Avadānas are much more than formulaic accounts of good and bad deeds and their repercussions. They also contain and embody rules and practices integral to a Buddhist identity; in fact, they are amalgams of rules, etiological accounts, and foretellings that function as a complex and interlinking moral code.” He hastens to add, however, that, “This is not a moral code, however, that can easily be distilled into pithy maxims, such as the Buddha’s observation above about the laws of karma. The moral universe embodied in these stories far exceeds such confines.”
For him, many of the avadānas may have a didactic purpose, but “along the way to their ultimate lessons they create diverse moral worlds, showing different ways of thinking and being, and portray characters interacting and commenting on their engagements with these worlds.” As narratives, the avadānas constitute a mode of knowing distinct from, but in no way inferior to, philosophical discourse. Put another way, what makes them so precious is that we encounter “a different way of learning about the Buddha’s teachings —not through philosophical analysis or through poetry, but through really good stories.”
I would like to end by sharing with you one of my favourite avadānas, the Śukapotaka-avadāna (The Story of the Two Parrot Chicks), excerpted from Andy Rotman’s translation of the set of avadānas known as the Divyāvadāna (Divine Stories). It has been a powerful encouragement for me to maintain my practice – what I glean from it is the conviction that even sentient beings with no material wealth or possessions can benefit tremendously from coming into contact with the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. It’s my hope that this short story – and other avadānas – will call forth a similar but even stronger conviction in you.
THIS INCIDENT occurred in Śrāvastī. One day the householder Anāthapiṇḍada (‘Almsgiver to the Poor’; Pali, Anāthapiṇḍika) acquired two parrot chicks. He brought them home, then taught them to speak, reared and nourished them, and instructed them in the language of humans. The venerable Ānanda frequently visited these two parrot chicks and gave them a discourse on the dharma that penetrated the four noble truths—namely, this is suffering, this is the origin of suffering, this is the cessation of suffering, and this is the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. The most senior monks would also approach the householder Anāthapiṇḍada’s home, such as Śāriputra, Maudgalyāyana, Kāśyapa, Ānanda, and Raivata. As those senior monks approached time and again, those parrot chicks learned their names.
One time the venerable Śāriputra arrived at the householder Anāthapiṇḍada’s home. The two parrot chicks saw the venerable Śāriputra, and at the sight of him, they addressed the members of the household: “Friends, the elder Śāriputra is coming! Prepare a seat for him.” They also did the same when they saw the venerable Mahāmaudgalyāyana, Kāśyapa, and Raivata. And when they saw the venerable Ānanda, they said, “Our teacher Ānanda is coming! Prepare a seat for him.”
One time the Blessed One arrived at the householder Anāthapiṇḍada’s home. The two parrot chicks saw the Blessed One coming from a distance. He instilled faith and was worthy of faith, he was restrained at heart and in his senses, his mind was possessed of extreme tranquility, and he blazed with splendor like a golden pillar. At the sight of him, they quickly addressed the members of the household. “Friends,” they cooed in a sweet and pleasing voice, “the Blessed One is coming! Prepare a seat for him.”
Then, to do a good deed for the two parrot chicks, the Blessed One entered that house and sat down in the seat specially prepared for him. After sitting down, the Blessed One gave a discourse on the Dharma that penetrated the four noble truths and established those two parrot chicks in the taking of the refuges as well as in the precepts. Then the Blessed One, having instructed, incited, inspired, and delighted the two parrot chicks and the members of the household with this discourse on the Dharma, got up from his seat and went out.
Afterward, as the members of the household were wandering about, the two parrot chicks were acting carelessly and were seized by a cat. With looks of pain on their faces as their vital points were pierced and their joints were broken, they said, “Praise to the Buddha! Praise to the dharma! Praise to the community!” And with that said, they died and were reborn among the gods of Cāturmahārājika (Four Groups of the Great Kings).
Meanwhile, in a certain place, the Blessed One smiled. The venerable Ānanda saw the Blessed One manifesting his smile, and at the sight of the Blessed One, he said this to him: “Perfectly awakened tathāgata arhats do not manifest a smile, Bhadanta, without proper cause and reason. Bhadanta, what is the proper cause and reason for your manifesting a smile?”
“It is like this, Ānanda. It is like this. Perfectly awakened tathāgata arhats do not manifest a smile without proper cause and reason. Ānanda, did you see those two parrot chicks?”
“Yes, Bhadanta. I saw them.”
“As soon as I left, Ānanda, those two parrot chicks were killed by a cat. With their awareness focused on the Buddha, the dharma, and the community, they died and were reborn among the Cāturmahārājika gods.”
That same morning many monks got dressed, took their bowls and robes, and entered Śrāvastī for alms. As those many monks were wandering in Śrāvastī for alms, they heard those two parrot chicks in the householder Anāthapiṇḍada’s home saying “Praise to the Buddha! Praise to the dharma! Praise to the community!” as they were killed by a cat. Having heard this, after wandering in Śrāvastī for alms and after finishing their meals and returning from their almsrounds, they put away their bowls and robes, washed their feet, and then approached the Blessed One. Having approached, they venerated with their heads the feet of the Blessed One and then sat down at a respectful distance. Sitting down at a respectful distance, those many monks said this to the Blessed One: “Bhadanta, all of us here [were wandering in Śrāvastī for alms, when we heard those two parrot chicks in the householder Anāthapiṇḍada’s home saying ‘Praise to the Buddha! Praise to the dharma! Praise to the community!’ as they were killed by a cat. Bhadanta, what is their destiny? What kind of rebirth will they have? What will be their future?”
“Monks,” the Blessed One said, “those two parrots, as a result of taking refuge, will be reborn thirty-six times among the Cāturmahārājika gods, and they will be reborn thirty-six times among the gods of Trāyastriṃśa (Thirty-Three), Yāma (Free from Conflict), Tuṣita (Content), Nirmāṇarati (Delighting in Creation), and Paranirmitavaśavartin (Masters of Others’ Creations). After being reborn again and again as beings among the gods in the six spheres of desire, in their last life, their last existence, their last incarnation, they will take human form. Then they will attain awakening as solitary buddhas and become the solitary buddhas Dharma and Sudharma (Good Dharma). In just this way, monks, listening to the dharma has great results and great benefits, what to say of discoursing on the dharma or clearly understanding the dharma? So then, monks, this is to be learned: ‘We shall be devoted to listening to the dharma.’ It is this, monks, that you should learn to do.”
This was said by the Blessed One. With their minds uplifted, the monks welcomed the words of the This was said by the Blessed One. With their minds uplifted, the monks welcomed the words of the Blessed One.
 Andy Rotman, Divine Stories:Divyāvadāna Part 1, trans. Andy Rotman(Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008).