The Garland of Past Lives is a collection of thirty four stories depicting the miraculous deeds performed by the Buddha in his previous rebirths. Composed in the fourth century C.E. by the Buddhist monk Aryashura, the text’s accomplished artistry led Indian aesthetic theorists to praise its elegant mixture of verse and prose. The twenty stories in this first volume deal primarily with the virtues of giving and morality. Ascetics sacrifice their lives for hungry tigers, kings open their veins for demons to drink their blood, helmsmen steer their crew through perilous seas, and quail chicks quench forest fires by proclaiming words of truth. The experience is intended to arouse astonishment in the audience, inspiring devotion, through the future Buddha’s transcendence of conventional norms in his quest to acquire enlightenment and save the world from suffering. The importance of such stories of past lives in traditional Buddhist culture, throughout Asia and up to today, cannot be overestimated.
“If the theological concepts can be complicated, the language and the stories that illustrate them are simple and direct, full of dramatic incident and studded with metaphors that made the world of old India as palpable and romantic as the Baghdad of the Arabian Nights . . .”-Harper’s Magazine