Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Haven't I Seen You Somewhere Before? Samsara and Karma in the Jataka Tales


The Lesson


Malaysian Buddha figurine.

Malaysian Buddha figurine.

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

Many English speakers are familiar with the Sanskrit word karma, which made its way into the language during the first half of the nineteenth century. It is often used in English to encapsulate the idea that “what goes around comes around.” This explanation is not entirely divorced from its original Sanskrit meaning, however, it does not contain the entire story. This more complete understanding of the word is brought to life in the stories known collectively as the Jataka Tales. These vignettes tell the story of the 550 lives of the Buddha before he reached Enlightenment. Each story contains a life lesson, often told with humor, and a reminder that one’s karma is bound to one’s actions.

This lesson plan is designed to bring the meaning of karma and the related concept of samsara to life through the reading of the Jataka Tales. This lesson can be used either as an extension of lessons of the birth of Buddhism and the history of Asia, or as an introduction to world literature.

Guiding Questions

  • What are the Jataka Tales, and what is their purpose?
  • What are karma and samsara? How are these concepts used in the Jataka Tales?

Learning Objectives

  • Become familiar with one form of Buddhist storytelling.
  • Explain what the Jataka Tales are, and their purpose as teaching tools.
  • Explain the concepts of karma and samsara.
  • Identify these concepts in the text, and explain how their presence in the tale teaches and supports the lessons of the stories.


Important Terms
  • Samsara—According to Buddhism, all beings are born into an endless cycle of birth and rebirth which is called samsara. The first of the Four Noble Truths states that life is suffering. If one is destined to be reborn into this life of suffering at the close of their current life, then that cycle of rebirth is one of endless suffering. It is thus the goal of Buddhists to leave this cycle by reaching Enlightenment and entering Nirvana.
  • Karma—How does one achieve Enlightenment? It is generally seen as a slow and gradual process, in which one is reborn into successively better lives, until finally reaching the pinnacle of Nirvana. But being born into a better life is not an arbitrary process. Rather, one finds themselves in their current position specifically because of his or her behavior in a previous life. If someone has led a meritorious life, filled with kindness and generosity, then they will have earned “good karma,” and will be rewarded in their next life with more comfort or ease. If they have been miserly, cruel or greedy in this life, they may find that it will take several—or even hundreds—of lives of hardship to return to their last position. In this case, the debt to their karma through unkind or selfish behavior will take many lifetimes of kindness and generosity to pay back. While karma is sometimes used interchangeably with words like “fate” and “destiny,” it is not synonymous with these concepts. In karma there is nothing of the arbitrariness of fate. Rather, one’s place in this world- be it as a rat, a deer, a beggar or a king—is the direct result of one’s behavior in previous lives.
  • Dharma—Like the words samsara and karma, dharma is used in both Buddhism and Hinduism, and the details of the concept and its application to life varies between the two faiths. However, within both religions it contains the idea of “right behavior,” or of the law, and behaving according to laws of society. In order to accrue “good karma” one must always behave according to dharma.
  • The Four Noble Truths—The Four Noble Truths are the ideas that came to the Buddha as he reached Enlightenment.
    • All life is mired in suffering.
    • All suffering comes from desire (for objects, attention, wealth, etc.)
    • There is a cure for this suffering, which is the elimination of desire.
    • This can be achieved by following the Eightfold Path.
  • The Eightfold Path—This is the path that the Buddha prescribed for the elimination of desire, and thus of suffering:
    • Right Understanding or Perspective
    • Right Thought
    • Right Speech
    • Right Action
    • Right Livelihood
    • Right Effort
    • Right Mindfulness
    • Right Concentration
  • More information on the definition and history of karma, samsara, dharma, The Four Noble Truths, and The Eightfold Path can be accessed through the EDSITEment reviewed web resource Internet Public Library.
  • Please note that the Jataka Tales are not a universal component of Buddhism. There are a number of forms of Buddhism, including the Mahayana Buddhism often practiced in China, Vietnam and Korea, Zen or Chan Buddhism that is often associated with Japan, as well as Tibetan forms of Buddhism, among others. The Jataka Tales are primarily associated with Theravada Buddhism, which is today practiced predominantly in Sir Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

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. This might include the pertinent sections on Buddhism, accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library.
  • Familiarize yourself with the stories students will be reading for class. A short list of some of the tales is accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed website Asia Source. The stories which provide the clearest and most concise examples of karma and samsara provide the best material for the activities, such as Prince Five-Weapons and Sticky Hair, The Elephant King Goodness, Four on a Log, and the Mittavinda Story about Jealousy. Two of these stories are recommended in this lesson plan, however, you may wish to use other stories from that list in their place.
  • The Jataka Tales are morality tales, and each of the lives of the Buddha told in these stories carries along with it a lesson. The lessons of the Jatakas are both practical and directly linked to the messages found in Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. In particular, the stories often tell the tale of those who give in to desire and the suffering that is meted out upon them as a result. You should familiarize yourself with the Four Noble Truths, as well as the Eight-fold Path, in preparation for this lesson. This information, as well as historical background on Buddhism, can be found on the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource AskAsia. In addition, introductory information on the history, uses and influence of the Jataka Tales is accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed website Asia Source.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Reading karma in the Jatakas
  • Ask students to read the story Four on a Log, accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Asia Source. Divide students into small groups, and ask them to make a list of the characters in the story. They should write three characteristics describing each character next to the character’s name. Ask each group to contemplate the following questions:
    • Who are the good and bad characters, and how are they identified?
    • Does the status (as a good or bad character) of any of the characters change over the course of the story?
    • What precipitates those changes?
  • Introduce the concepts of karma and samsara. Ask students to identify these elements in the story. Karma and samsara are an interrelated cycle, and this story exemplifies the way in which one’s place in that cycle can move forward or slip backwards according to their behavior. Ask each group to identify where each character is in the cycle at the beginning of the story, in the middle and at the end of the story. Ask students to note:
    • Whose position improved over the course of the story, and why?
    • Whose position was lowered over the course of the story, and why?
    • What lessons is the story meant to impart?
  • Ask students to imagine situations in their own lives when they, or someone they know, might have accrued “good karma” or “bad karma.”
Activity 2. The Jataka Tales and Buddhism
  • Ask students to explain the concepts of karma and samsara discussed in the previous class. Do any students know where the words come from? Explain that these concepts are very important in both Buddhism and Hinduism, both of which originated in India, and the words come from Sanskrit, the written and spoken language of parts of ancient India.

    Explain that the Jataka Tales are a method of teaching Buddhists the lessons of karma, samsara and dharma. Similar to the students’ mapping of the upward and downward movement of the characters in Four on a Log, the overall structure of the Jataka Tales is the movement through the cycle of samsara followed by the Buddha before reaching enlightenment. He is said to have lived 550 lives -- some in human form, some in animal form- and with each life his example carried a lesson. The stories of his many lives are known collectively as the Jataka Tales.

    Ask students to identify which character in Four on a Log is an earlier life of the Buddha. Ask them to explain their answer.
  • Introduce students to The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path of Buddhism. You may wish to review these concepts as they are presented in your class textbook, or to present the readings on The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library. Divide the class into four groups, and ask each group to rephrase The Four Noble Truths in their own words. Once each group has completed this task, ask each group to read their rephrased rendition of The Four Noble Truths. Students should be asked to comment, and to give feedback, allowing the class to work on a common understanding of what these ideas mean.
  • Assign two of the steps on The Eightfold Path to each of the four groups. Ask each group to read the explanation of The Eightfold Path accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library. Each group should work together to write an explanation of their two steps on The Eightfold Path. Each group should exchange their explanation of these steps with another group in the class, who will then read through and offer comments and feedback.
  • Both The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path implicitly include the important concepts of karma and samsara, although neither of them mentions the concepts by name. Ask each group to work together on writing an explanation of the place of karma and samsara within the framework of The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path.
    • Where does the idea of the cycle of rebirths (samsara) appear within the Four Noble Truths?
    • Where does the redemptive power of performing good deeds and of right behavior (karma) appear in the Four Noble Truths and in The Eightfold Path?


  • Ask students to write definitions in their own words of karma and samsara.
  • Choose at least one additional story from the list of Jataka Tales, such as The Elephant King Goodness, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Asia Source. Ask students to read the story and to note the role that karma and samsara play in the story. Students should also write a comparison of the behavior of the main characters—such as The Elephant King Goodness and the forester- in light of The Four Noble Truths. Finally, they should identify one moment in which one of the characters applies at least two precepts of The Eightfold Path.
  • Karma is sometimes used interchangeably in English with words like “fate” or “destiny.” However, while it could be said that one’s karma may affect their standing in this life, that does not carry the same meaning as saying that one’s place in the world is their destiny. Advanced students could be asked to write a short essay explaining the difference between “fate” or “destiny” and karma. This essay should explain clearly what the terms mean, how they are used, and that their fundamental difference lies in the presence or lack of its arbitrary application.

Extending The Lesson

  • In the Jataka Tale entitled The Shovel Wise Man, accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Asia Source, the main character gives up the thing he cherishes most in order to find the peace of mind that comes with throwing off desire. This lesson could be extended by comparing the Shovel Wise Man’s decision to give up what is most precious to him with Jim and Della in O. Henry’s well known story, The Gift of the Magi, which can be accessed by linking through the EDSITEment-reviewed website, the Center for the Liberal Arts.


Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > Ancient World
  • 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
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Cultural analysis
  • Discussion
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Jennifer Foley, NEH (Washington, DC)