Stories have always been an effective way of explaining and expressing teachings, and can often do this in more subtle, memorable and existentially challenging ways than recounting facts. The historical Buddha, the Buddha of the Mahayana sutras, and Buddhist teachers today all use stories to illustrate ideas, provoke thoughts or model behaviour. The central story is that of the life of the historical Buddha. The Pali Canon incidentally relates many events from the Buddha’s life, but a full biography did not appear until the 1st century CE, so the various versions draw upon a range of sources. A very brief summary will suffice here. The birth of a ‘prince’ to a leading noble family of the Shakya people in North-east India/Nepal was accompanied by miraculous events signifying the arrival of no ordinary person. His childhood was exemplary, he was married at 16, he lived a life of luxury until encountering suffering outside his privileged circle in the form of a very old person, a very ill person and a corpse on its way to cremation. The fourth ‘sight’ was a shramana, someone who had renounced material possessions to seek spiritual liberation, and the Buddha-to-be decided to leave home and join those who were seeking to find truth and peace through asceticism, meditation, and discussions with leading teachers. After six years of this, he decided that extreme asceticism was not working and concentrated on meditation instead. The story outlines the events of one night of mediation during which the Buddha-to be overcame temptations, reached deep meditative states, remembered thousands of past lives, understood how beings are trapped in samsara and how they can be liberated, and by morning had himself found liberation from the round of rebirth, achieved the peace of nirvana and enlightenment. The rest of his life (45 years) he spent teaching, organising his renouncer followers (monks and nuns), gaining many lay followers including the rich and powerful who donated land and other material support, debating with other religious and non-religious teachers, and helping many groups and individuals.
There are many stories from the Buddha’s life that are often told such as his conversion of the famous robber Angulimala (who wore a necklace of his victim’s fingers), or his consolation of Kisagotami whose baby had died, and of his leading disciples Sariputta, Moggallana and Ananda, his cousin and constant companion. He also told many stories, including that of the blind men and the elephant, to illustrate why religious/non-religious teachers disagree – because they only perceive part of the truth. This story is also found in other Indian traditions.
The Buddha is also said to have told stories of his previous lives, including as animals or even a tree-spirit. These are known as jatakas or birth stories, and the Pali Canon contains 547 of them. Many of these illustrate the extreme efforts necessary to reach enlightenment, and may focus on a particular virtue, so are popular ways of teaching good behaviour to children. Among the most well-known are the story of Prince Vessantara who was so generous that he gave away all his possessions including his wife and children (it ends happily), and the story of the monkey king who sacrificed his own life to save the other monkeys. Contemporary Buddhists also make use of stories to express and form Buddhist values and beliefs, both traditional and new.