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Gaffney – Jātakanidāna

Gaffney – sKyes pa rabs kyi gleṅ gźi (Jātakanidāna): Edition, Translation and Study

Sean Gaffney

Sean GAFFNEY was awarded a BA in history and philosophy by Middlesex University in 1983, an MA in Buddhist philosophy, Ancient Indian philosophy and Buddhist Art and Architecture by SOAS, University of London, in 1985, and a PhD in Buddhist Studies by SOAS in 2003. He studied Sanskrit, Pāli, Tibetan and Prākrit at SOAS between 1985—2017. He also studied Tibetan philosophy and textual studies under Prof. D. Seyfort Ruegg, 1989—98. From 1997—2007 he was an assistant editor to Dr. T. Skorupski on the Tibetan-English Dictionary Project at SOAS. He has been a Senior Teaching Fellow at SOAS from 1996 to the present on courses relating to various historical and doctrinal aspects of Buddhism, Pāli, pre-Classical and Classical Tibetan. Currently he is a Research Associate at SOAS, with interests including Tibetan translations of Indian texts, Buddhist narrative literature, and the comparative study of Pāli, Prākrit and Tibetan textual traditions.


The current project focuses on the Tibetan translation of the Jātakanidāna ‘Prologue to the Jātaka’ and is intended to present that text, its contents and sources, by means of several different approaches. The Jātakanidāna is the first attempt by the Pāli textual tradition to provide a biography of the life of the Buddha Gotama. Like the parallel works found in the early biographies of other schools, it is an incomplete biography, and does not record the entire life story of Gotama. This Pāli biography was compiled in Śri Lanka during the fifth century AD, using verses from canonical texts, commentaries on these verses, and other commentarial traditions recounting the life of the Buddha. It is, therefore, a highly composite literary work, that is formed from a wide variety of sources into a unitary narrative text. The Tibetan translation of this Pāli text was made in the early part of the fourteenth century. This was during the last phase of the centuries long task of collecting and translating canonical Indian Buddhist texts into the Tibetan language.

The overall project is divided into three parts: Edition, Translation, and Study. Firstly, by making a critical edition of the Tibetan text in order to show how six of the Tibetan translation traditions has recorded this text. The work makes available to the scholarly world a unique example of a Tibetan text translated from a Pāli original. Secondly, a fully annotated translation of this critical edition and a systematic comparison of it with the Pāli source text. This kind of translation is particularly useful for those interested in the methods of translation employed by the Tibetan translators of Indian texts. Thirdly, making a comprehensive study of the history, composition, and parallels to the Pāli text in Sanskrit or other Prākrits. Also including a study of the specific doctrinal and philosophical concepts that appear in the text. The study also makes a comparative survey of the specific doctrines associated with the Bodhisatta that occur in this text.


The Tibetan critical edition provides an example of the style and methods of translation used during a late period in transmission of Indian texts into Tibetan. It is an extremely rare specimin within the Tibetan bKa’ ’gyur collection, in that it is a commentarial work contained amongst their collection of canonical or buddhavacana texts. The text was translated at the beginning of the fourteenth century by the lo tsā ba ‘translator’ Ñi ma rgyal mtshan. It is unique in being the longest Pāli work translated into Tibetan. The edition is divided into three sections corresponding to the Pāli original. The edition makes an important contribution to the philological study of Tibetan texts that have been translated from Indian languages. While the overwhelming majority of Tibetan translations of Buddhist texts are translations of Sanskrit originals, this text has definitely been translated from a Pāli source. There had previously been some disagreement over precisely what language the text had been translated from. It was for this reason that the critical edition was initially undertaken, as a means of ascertaining the language from which it had been originally translated. The critical edition of the Tibetan text leaves no doubt that the source of the text was the Middle-Indo Aryan language of Pāli, and not Sanskrit, as some scholars had previously claimed.

The Pāli Jātakanidāna, the source text for the Tibetan translation, has long been known to the scholarly world through the monumental edition of the Jātaka collection made by Fausbøll. There has also been a more recent edition of the Jātakanidāna text in devanāgari script produced by Tiwari. Both these editions have been consulted for the comparison of the Pāli with the Tibetan. There are two English translations of the Pāli work, one of these partial and one a complete translation. The first of these was by Rhys-Davids, who omitted to translate the extensive commentarial interpolations in the text. The second was by Jayawickrama, that included a translation of these commentarial additions. The Tibetan translation has been partially translated into French by Feer, who used only a single Tibetan edition for his work.


The English translation is based on the text of the Tibetan critical edition, and provides a fully annotated translation of that text. The translation and its annotations allow for an exhaustive comparison with the Pāli original text, and for making references to any sections, or sentences, that do not agree in both versions. This translation is intended to supplement the critical edition, by indicating in the footnotes those parts of the text that vary from the Pāli original. It provides a view of a version of the text as it was transmitted in the fourteenth century from Pāli into Tibetan. It has significant philological importance for the study of the Tibetan translation and transmission process encountered in the later spread of Buddhism to Tibet. The translation also provides annotations to the text that show in detail any discrepancies or irregularities that were found between the phrasing or wording of the Tibetan and Pāli texts. A good deal of information is included in the footnotes that was not justified in the critical edition, but which has relevance for understanding the translation.


The study deals with the two most important aspects of the text. Uncovering the history and composition of the text, in both the Pāli and Tibetan, and the analysis of the specific doctrines in the text relating to the bodhisatta. The study of the text consists of investigating the historical, doctrinal and narrative features of the text as a whole, and its position within Buddhist literature portraying the life of the bodhisatta. The status and history of the Pāli text and its place in the Pāli canon is explored, the position of the text within the Tibetan tradition is then set out, together with reference to Tibetan historical sources referring to the text and its Tibetan translator. The study then examines how the text treats the topic of past Buddhas, and then how they are dealt with in other Pāli canonical texts. This is followed by an examination of the various doctrinal and philosophical concepts that are essential for the development of the bodhisatta doctrine in the Pāli tradition. These sections deal with, among other things, the concepts of former buddhas, the vyākaraṇa ‘prediction’ to the bodhisatta, the abhinīhāra ‘aspiration’ and adhikāra ‘meritorious act’ and the ten pāramī ‘perfections’ as primary factors in the bodhisatta attaining buddhahood. Finally, the important episodes and events in the bodhisatta’s life contained in the text, are compared with their parallel versions in the Pāli sources, and also with the other existing Sanskrit biographical works.


  • Fausbøll, Viggo (1990) The Jātaka Together with its Commentary, being Tales of the Anterior Births of Gotama Buddha. (Vol. 1). London: Trübner, 1877. [London: The Pāli Text Society, 1990.]
  • Feer, Léon (1883) Fragments Traduits du Kandjour. Annales du Musée Guimet5, 297—361.
  • Jayawickrama, N. A. (1990) The Story of Gotama Buddha. Oxford: The Pāli Text Society.
  • Rhys Davids, T. W. (1880) Buddhist Birth Stories. Trübner: London.
  • Tiwari, L. N. (1992) Paramatthajotikā nāma Jātakaṭṭhakathā. Varanasi: Sampurnanand Sanskrit University.

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