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Avadāna

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avadāna (P. apadāna; T. rtogs par brjod pa རྟོགས་པར་བརྗོད་པ་; C. apotuona/piyu) is translated as "tale," "narrrative," "realization acccount," etc. The term avadāna generally refers to narratives aimed at illustrating the workings of karma and instilling the principles of generosity and virtuous conduct.[1]

Contemporary scholar Richard Salomon described them as "stories, usually narrated by the Buddha, that illustrate the workings of karma by revealing the acts of a particular individual in a previous life and the results of those actions in his or her present life."[2]

The avadāna explore similar themes as the jātakas. However, whereas the jātakas focus on the past lives of the buddhas, the protagonist of an avadāna is often not the Buddha himself, but one of his followers or prospective followers.[3]

In the Sanskrit tradition, the avadāna are identified as one of the twelve categories of teachings.

Collections

Pali tradition

In the Pali tradition, a collection of approximately 600 stories is included in the Apadāna section of the Pali Canon.

Sanskrit tradition

In the Sanskrit tradition, there are multiple collections of avadana, including:[4]

Distinction from Jataka tales

In their introduction to the Account of the Noble Deeds of Puṇyabala, the Lokākṣi Translator Group (Tenzin Ringpapontsang, Ruth Gamble, John Powers, and Harmony DenRonden) states:

Most past-life stories of the Buddha are found within two genres of Buddhist literature: avadānas and jātakas. The Sanskrit term avadāna, broadly meaning “narrative” or “tale,” denotes a type of exemplary story that is common to most Indian religious traditions. In the Buddhist context, avadāna is traditionally specified as the tenth of a twelvefold categorization of Buddhist scripture (Skt. pravacana), classified according to content, thematic structure, and literary style. Although this class of works is as varied as it is voluminous, the stories typically illustrate the results of good and bad karma, indicating how past deeds have shaped present circumstances. In this vein, many avadānas, the present one included, set out to show how the exemplary lives of the Buddha, or more often of his followers, have resulted from their meritorious deeds in past lives. Avadānas may also, in certain cases, include prophecies (Skt. vyākaraṇa) of future spiritual attainments.
Avadānas recounting past deeds generally follow a three-part narrative structure: a story from the present life of the Buddha or another protagonist, a story of an exemplary past deed, and a connecting conclusion that shows how the past protagonist and his circle were prior incarnations of the present protagonist and his circle. In this regard, avadānas bear a close relationship to jātakas (“birth stories” of the Buddha), which some scholars have justifiably considered to be a subset of the avadāna genre. One notable difference, however, is that the protagonist of an avadāna is often not the Buddha himself, as it is in most jātaka stories, but one of his followers or prospective followers. Another difference is that avadānas typically concern realized beings’ past human lives, not those as animals or nonhumans, as is the case in many jātaka tales. Finally, while jātaka stories had wide popular appeal, with plots, characters, and motifs drawn from pan-Indian folklore, the avadānas seem to have been originally intended primarily for monastics, as suggested by their frequent references to attendant monks, their moral tone, and their specific prescriptions for Buddhist practice that are interspersed throughout the narratives. Yet, in the course of their historical diffusion, these edifying tales of spiritual and moral achievement eventually gained wide popularity and came to inspire and educate Buddhist monastics and lay followers alike.[3]

Etymology

84000 translation group states:

The Sanskrit word avadāna means “exceptional feat” or “magnificent deed,” but in the context of the twelve types of buddhavacana the term came to refer to the narrative accounts of such deeds, as reflected in the Tibetan rendering rtogs pa brjod pa, “realization account.” Hence the English rendering “magnificent account.”[5]

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