Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

Morality "Tails" East and West: European Fables and Buddhist Jataka Tales

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Malaysian Buddha figurine.

Malaysian Buddha figurine.

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

Fables, such as those attributed to Aesop, are short narratives populated by animals who behave like humans, and which convey lessons to the listener. In the past these narrative lessons were passed down orally as a way of commenting on human behavior, and to convey folk wisdom to listeners. Often the lessons contain the seed of morality, reminding listeners both what kind of behavior is encouraged, and what kind of behavior to watch out for. Fables have been around for centuries, and their roots can be traced at least as far back as ancient Greece, and may be linked to similar tales in ancient India. The tales have been retold, collected, written and published as books over and over again in Europe and America.

Jataka Tales are often short narratives which tell the stories of the lives of the Buddha before he reached Enlightenment, when, in the process of meditating beneath the Bodhi Tree, the cure for life's suffering was revealed to him. Before reaching his last life as the Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha lived through 550 successive lives in which he behaved justly and generously, accumulating merit during each life, until finally reaching Enlightenment. In some of his lives he is born as a human, while in others he is an animal, such as a deer or an elephant. The story of each of these earlier lives, like a fable, is meant to convey the lessons of moral behavior.

In this lesson students will be introduced to the Buddhist Jataka Tales, and will compare and contrast them with European fables. They will learn to search for the lesson that is embedded within both fables and the Jataka Tales. This lesson can also be used as a springboard for introducing world cultures and literatures through the use of morality tales.

Guiding Questions

  • What are the lessons of fables and Jataka Tales, and how to do the stories teach those lessons?

Learning Objectives

  • Define what fables and Jataka tales are, and identify important elements of each.
  • Recognize Aesop's fables and Jataka Tales.
  • Identify themes and patterns of both types of narrative.
  • Identify the moral lessons of fables and Jataka tales.
  • Compare and contrast the lessons of fables and the Jataka tales.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan, then find and bookmark the relevant websites and useful materials, such as the specific tales you plan to discuss. Download and print out the documents you will be using in class.
  • Review the definition of a fable which can be accessed through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library. If you would like more detailed information on the background of fables, the preface of the Aesop's Fables Website can provide background information on the history of fables, as well as a framework for defining them.
  • Review the Introduction to the Jataka Tales accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Asia Source. The Jataka Tales are narratives of the 550 lives of the Buddha before he reached enlightenment. Each tale contains a lesson on proper behavior and morality. These lessons- including gratitude, kindness, and generosity- are applicable beyond the sphere of Buddhist thought, however, familiarizing yourself with the background to these stories may help to elaborate upon some of the elements. For more information on this background you may wish to review an historical background on Buddhism which can be found on the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource AskAsia. If you would like to learn more about karma and samsara, or the cycle of rebirths that strings the Jataka Tales together, you can find this information on AskAsia.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Fables
  • Explain to students that some stories are written down, while others are passed on orally from one generation to the next. Ask students if they know of a family story, such as a story a grandparent might have told them about their mother or father, and ask how they learned that story. Explain that there are some stories that have been passed on in this way for hundreds and even thousands of years.
  • Explain to students that one type of story that has been passed on orally is fables. Show students a map of Europe, such as the one accessible through the partner web resource National Geographic Xpeditions. Tell students that the type of narrative known as fables has its roots in ancient Greece while showing them where Greece is on the map. Explain that these stories were told over and over, and that they traveled across the rest of Europe, and then on to America, over hundreds of years.
  • Read to the class three or more different fables from the collection of Aesop's fables accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resources Internet Public Library. Ask students to identify the characters in these fables. Do they notice any similarities in the fables and in the characters? Guide students in creating first a short list of characteristics of fables, and then a definition for fables from that list. A brief definition that you can assist students in assembling is: Fables are short tales passed on by word of mouth populated by animal characters with human qualities that teach listeners a lesson.
  • Ask students to identify the lesson in each of the tales that has been read to the class. Ask them to explain how the story gets that lesson across. Did they learn the lesson because a character in the story gained something for good behavior? Or because a character lost something for bad behavior? Or was a character tricked? Ask students to imagine ways in which these lessons could be applied to experiences in their own lives.
  • Assign one of five of Aesop's fables to students in the class. Students can either access the fables online through your bookmarked web pages, or you may want to print out copies of the stories to distribute. Ask students to think about what the lesson of the fable was and how it was taught through the fable.
  • You may want to divide the class into 4 or 5 groups and assign each group one of Aesop's fables. Ask each group to work together to fill out the Personification Chart. A version for The Bat, The Birds, and The Beasts specifically is available here. Students should think about what kind of characteristics the animal characters in the fables they read have in nature, as well as in the fables. How do the fables utilize the natural characteristics of these animals in the fables?
  • Once each group has completed the personification charts, you may want to have each group work together to write out in one sentence what the lesson of the fable is. Once this has been completed one student from each group should read out the lesson to the rest of the class.
Activity 2. The Jataka Tales
  • Review the definition of a fable from the previous activity. Show students the map of Asia found on the EDSITEment partner web resource National Geographic Xpeditions. Ask students to find India on the map. Explain to students that the stories they will be hearing in this lesson originated in India, and have spread beyond India to Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Ask them to find each of these countries on the map of Asia.
  • Jataka Tales are not fables, though it is thought by some scholars that some of the fables attributed to Aesop may have originated in the Jatakas. The stories teach the lessons of Buddhism through short morality tales, each of which is said to be a tale from one of the Buddha's earlier lives. Like fables, they are designed to teach the listener a lesson, were transmitted orally, and often focus on animal characters who display humanistic behavior -- particularly human foibles. Explain to students that while the Jataka Tales are not the same as fables, they are morality tales, which are very similar. Help students create a definition for Jataka Tales. A working definition for this age group is: Jataka Tales are morality tales which strive to teach people lessons about behaving well.
  • Read two or three Jataka Tales from the list of stories accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Asia Source. The stories which provide the clearest and most concise lessons provide the best material for the activities, such as The What Not Tree; A Hero Named Jinx; and A Bull Called Delightful.
  • Ask students to identify the lessons of each of these stories, and how that message was conveyed. Did they learn the lesson because a character in the story gained something for good behavior? Or because a character lost something for bad behavior? Or was a character tricked? As they did with the fables in the first lesson, ask students to imagine ways in which these lessons could be applied to experiences in their own lives.
  • Distribute copies of the Jataka Tale The Phony Holy Man, and have students read through the text. For younger students you may need to explain new vocabulary words:
    • Matted
    • Venerable
    • Thatched roof
    • Reverence
    • Bodhisattva or Enlightened being are titles for holy men in Buddhism
    Ask students to identify the lesson of this tale.
  • Divide students into small groups and distribute copies of the fable The Ant and the Chrysalis. For younger students you may need to explain what a chrysalis is. Ask students to identify the lesson of this fable.
  • Ask each group to work together to create a list of similarities and differences between The Phony Holy Man and The Ant and the Chrysalis. This can be done using our online interactive.
  • Similarities should include the admonition contained in both stories that looks can be deceiving. Differences should include points such as the ugliness of the chrysalis concealing its ultimate beauty, while the appearance of holiness concealed the phony holy man's black heart.

Assessment

  • Ask students to remember and write a definition of fables and Jataka Tales.
  • Ask students to retell in their own words at least one fable and one Jataka Tale. They should explain the moral or lesson of each of these narratives.
  • Students should bring together all that they have learned in this lesson by writing a morality tale of their own. These tales should end with a clearly defined lesson that has been learned.

The Basics

Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > Ancient World
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Europe
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Ancient World (3500 BCE-500 CE)
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Folklore
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Asia
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Fables, Fairy tales and Folklore
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Philosophy
Skills
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical thinking
  • Cultural analysis
  • Discussion
  • Interpretation
  • Logical reasoning
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
Authors
  • Jennifer Foley, NEH (Washington, DC)