When Indian Buddhist monks first left their homes to spread the Buddha's teaching, they faced the same problem that every missionary group in every age has faced; how to convince people to give up their old, respected and comfortable ways for something new, foreign and different. Like all successful missionary movements, Buddhist missionaries in Asia adopted and adapted many local traditions, legends and religious practices into the Buddhist faith.

Jataka tales are a collection of stories of heroes and legends that Buddhist missionaries adopted and adapted from the same people they tried to convert people to Buddhism. These local tales were transformed into stories of the Buddha's previous lives, before his historical existence around 500 BCE. Jatakas are moral stories that tell of the deeds and misdeeds of the Buddha on his long path toward enlightenment.

With a few minor changes, these local legends became part of the Buddhist scripture. Missionaries used these tales to encourage people to lead ethical lives. Jataka tales were also popular subject matter for artists. Dunhuang artists painted extensive Jataka scenes along the outside walls of many caves. Like the stained glass windows of European cathedrals, these paintings were visual representations of the religion's teachings, providing people with powerful reminders of the importance of moral living.

Early Buddhist missionaries were wildly successful. By 500 CE much of Asia was Buddhist. Jataka stories were an important tool in converting regions to Buddhism and also a still important part of the Buddhist scriptures.

Here are two popular Jataka stories from Dunhuang.

text Cave 257, Northern Wei
text Cave 428, Northern Zhou Cave 85, Tang