- Wet rice culture: The lowlands of both mainland and insular Southeast Asia tend to be densely settled, and wet (irrigated) rice agriculture is the predominant feature of the countryside. => we can easily see the sight of paddy fields and farmers in folk tales of this region
2.There was a tendency to localize Indian literature’s Buddhism pieces into folklore.
-Different versions of Ramayana: this Indian epic contains the teachings of the very ancient Hindu sages. Prince Rama, the main character, is understood to be an incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu.
A brief summary of the Ramayana
Rama, prince of Ayodhya, won the hand of the beautiful princess Sita, but was exiled with her and his brother Laksmana for 14 years through the plotting of his stepmother. In the forest Sita was abducted by Ravana, and Rama gathered an army of monkeys, with his brother and a monkey chief, Hanuman, and bears to search for her. The allies attacked Lanka, killed Ravana, and rescued Sita. In order to prove her chastity, Sita entered fire, but was vindicated by the gods and restored to her husband. After the couple’s triumphant return to Ayodhya, Rama’s righteous rule inaugurated a golden age for all mankind.
One of the most important literary works of ancient India, it has greatly influenced art and culture in South East Asia. When mainland Southeast Asian societies embraced Theravada Buddhism, Rama began to be regarded as Buddha-to-be, in a former life.In this context, the early episodes of the story were emphasized, symbolising Rama’s Buddhist virtues of filial obedience and willing renunciation. Throughout the region, Hanuman enjoys a greatly expanded role; he becomes the king of the monkeys and the most popular character in the story, and is a reflection of all the freer aspects of life
-Laos version: Phra Lak Phra Lam
-Khmer version: the Reamker
The tendency to localization Buddhist tales from Indian literature is a prominent characteristic of South East Asia literature. South East Asia countries have the ability to adapt and adopt the best of the Indian and Chinese culture, turning them into their own and at the same time still retains their local culture.
3.Diversity: While there are some common geographical and cultural features, diversity is the hallmark of the region. Incredible indigenous cultural variation has been overlaid with centuries of contact, trade, migration, and cultural exchange from within the region and from other parts of Asia.
The Buddha said of death: “Life is a journey. Death is a return to earth. The universe is like an inn. The passing years are like dust. Regard this phantom world As a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, A flash of lightning in a summer cloud, A flickering lamp – a phantom – and a dream”.
In Buddhism, it is believed that death is not the end of life, it is merely the end of the body we inhabit in this life, but our spirit will still remain and seek out through the need of attachment, attachment to a new body and new life. Their incarnation is a result of the past and the accumulation of positive and negative actions, and the resulted karma (cause and effect) is a result of ones past actions. => In many folk stories, we can see the present of incarnations, reincarnations and karma.
For example: The story of Tam and Cam (Vietnam)
Once upon a time there was a young girl named Tam, whose mother died early and so her father remarried. Tam lived under the tyranny of her stepmother and stepsister, Cam, until she was visited by the Goddess of Mercy (or in some versions, the Buddha) who gave her a golden carp. The bones of the golden carp magically turned into a dress, golden slippers, jewelry, and even a horse, which allowed Tam to attend a royal banquet. However, she fled upon seeing her stepmother and stepsister and left behind her slippers. The royal house searched for the young woman whose slippers fit, and eventually found Tam and proceded to have her married to the king.
Later, under some circumstances, Tam was murdered by her stepmother, allowing Cam to take her place in the royal wedding, as custom dictated. Tam was able to reincarnate into a nightingale, until Cam skinned it. From the feathers grew a white cedar tree, until Cam chopped it downed to make a loom, under the construction of the Stepmother. The voice of Tam emerged from the loom and told Cam that she had stolen Tam’s husband, and so Cam had the loom burnt. But from the ashes grew a persimmon tree. An old lady found the persimmon, but a voice came to her not to eat it. She took it home and eventually found Tam’s spirit emerging from the persimmon into corporeal forrm, after which the persimmon was destroyed to keep Tam in human form.One day, as he was passing by the old lady’s house, he saw the betel quids that looked so alike the betel quids Tam used to make for him, so the king inquired to see the one who made those, and found his beloved Tam. The king immediately had Tam brought to the palace to become his first wife. The shocked Cam was fearful seeing Tam still alive. One day she asked Tam how to keep her skin so fair, to which Tam replied that Cam should bathe in boiling water. When Cam did this, she was boiled alive and died. Tam had Cam’s flesh preserved in a jar and sent to the stepmother. The stepmother thought it was food and started eating it. A crow flew in by the window and started shouting that the stepmother was eating her own daughter’s flesg. Annoyed, the stepmother broke the jar and eventually found a skull and then died from the shock.
We can see clearly the Buddhist belief of reincarnation here. In the story, Tam reincarnated many times, relatively as a nightingale, a white cedar tree, a persimmon and again as Tam. Karma also plays a big role in this story. Despite the unfortunate events bestowed upon Tam, she is still a good person who does no wrong. Therefore, she is rewarded by the Buddha/Goddess of Mercy several times. An example of bad karma can be displayed by Cam and the Stepmother. They are constantly horrible to Tam, and in the end they pay for their evil deeds. The main theme that can be drawn from this tale is that “Good overcomes Evil”.
This story is just one of many folk tales that have the same motifs like Burma’s “The great female turtle” or Indonesia’s “The story of the Red Onion and Garlic”,…
*The common characteristic of mainland Southeast Asia is Buddhism, although there are very significant variations across and within countries, in particular:
Laos, Campuchia, Myanmar are greatly influenced by Indian culture and thus theravada buddhism is practiced.
Many folktales of this region is originated from Jatakas. These are the stories that tell about the previous lives of the Buddha, in both human and animal form. The future Buddha may appear in them as a king, an outcast, a god, an elephant—but, in whatever form, he exhibits some virtue that the tale thereby inculcates.There is humour in these stories and considerable variety.The Buddha himself used jataka stories to explain concepts like karma and rebirth and to emphasise the importance of certain moral values.
In folktales of these countries, we notice the existence of many characters that are the previous incarnation of Buddha and symbols which represent Buddism such as the white elephant, the rabbit, lotus,…
One of the previous incarnation of Buddha is the rabbit. The rabbit was so devoted and noble in the tale “The Rabbit in the Moon”, that’s why the people of Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar,… see the rabbit as the most special of all. It’s the lucky animal, the one that brings happiness, the wisest of all. There is a series of stories about the smart rabbit who prefer peace and harmony, despise killings, violence, betrayal and ungratefulness. These stories are not only influenced by Buddhism in the image of the rabbit but their moral lessons are also according to the teaching of Buddha. There are so many tales involved the rabbit, such as: “How the Hare Crossed the River on the Crocodile’s Back”, “How the Snails Outwitted the Hare” (Cambodia),…
Jataka: The Rabbit in the Moon
There was once a rabbit who had three friends: a monkey, a jackal, and an otter. For a special holiday, the four animals decided that they would all honor the gods by feeding the poor and performing other acts of charity. When the holiday arrived, the otter found some fish and the jackal found a pot of milk. The monkey, meanwhile, collected some mangoes and suggested that they give the fish, milk, and mangoes to a hungry beggar as an act of charity.
The rabbit, on the other hand, had nothing but grass to offer. He did not think that grass would be enough to satisfy a hungry beggar, so he decided that he would offer up his own body as food.
When the god Indra heard about this, he was amazed by the rabbit’s devotion. He came down to earth, disguised as a beggar, and asked the rabbit for food. The rabbit was delighted by this request and asked the beggar to build a fire where the rabbit could roast himself as a holy offering. Indra built a fire and the rabbit shook his fur carefully to make sure there were no insects hiding there; he did not want for a flea or any other insect to have to die in the fire with him.
Then, without hesitation, the rabbit jumped into the fire, but the fire did not burn him! Indra revealed himself to the rabbit and praised his dedication. “Dear rabbit,” the god said, “you have shown that you are the most devoted of all animals, and I will honor you by placing you in the moon.”
That is why, if you look closely, you can see a “rabbit in the moon,” a sign that honors the rabbit for all eternity.
“The four puppets” in Burmese folklore has the similar way of telling story to teach moral values (influenced by Jataka)
Once there was a puppet maker who had a son named Aung. The father always hoped his son would grow up to be a puppet maker like himself. But to Aung, such a life was far from exciting, he decided to travel and seek his fortune. The puppet maker sadly gave his son his four precious puppets, each has its own virtue and value.
The first puppet was the king of the gods. The puppet maker said, “The god’s virtue is wisdom.”
The second puppet was a green-faced ogre. “The ogre’s virtue is strength.”
The third was a mystic sorcerer. “The sorcerer’s virtue is knowledge.”
The fourth was a holy hermit. “The hermit’s virtue is goodness.”
Whenever he called out a puppet, it would come to life and give him its advice.
With the wisdom of the first puppet, he was able to spend the night safely in the forest. The next day, he saw a caravan full of costly goods in the road below the mountainside. It belonged to a rich merchant. As he turned to the orge to ask about a way to become wealthy like that, the orge said with strength we could take anything we like, and stamped his foot and make the earth shook, thus blocked the road, the driver was jumped from the carts and ran away. He was exhilarate with all the treasure before his eyes. But then he found a terrified and crying girl beside the road, she was the merchant’s daughter. He immediately fell in love with her. With the orge’s help, he leaded the caravan and took the girl, Mala was her name, with him, but she told him that he was a thief and wouldn’t talk to him. With the knowledge of the sorcerer puppet, he became a merchant and headed to the capital city and grew many times richer than at first. He bought a palace for himself and Mala, but for all his weath, she would still refuse to talk to him and instead ran away. Aung was heartbroken, no puppets could help him. Then he remember the one puppet he had never called on, he turned to the holy hermit.
The puppet came to life. “Aung, you imagined that wealth brings happiness. But true happiness comes only from goodness. What is important is not what you have but what you do with it.”
The king of the gods then came to life and stood beside the hermit. “You forgot what your father told you, Aung. Strength and knowledge are useful, but they must always serve wisdom and goodness.”
“I won’t forget again,” said Aung.
From that day on, Aung used his wealth and his talents to do good. One day, he met Mala again, with her father by her side. He apologized for everything, and willing to give all he had to them in remorse. With that, the merchant forgave him and even asked him to become his assistant. As time went by, he became the merchant’s partner instead of assistant, won Mala’s heart and became her husband.
As for the puppets, Aung still called on them as needed. But though he was helped often by strength and knowledge, he was guided always by wisdom and goodness. He lived happily ever after.
Buddhism influences are not that great compare to other neighboring countries, the culture in Vietnam is more influenced by Chinese culture, so both Confucianism and Taoism exerted some influence on Buddhism in Vietnam, and here Mahayana Buddhism is practiced.
Jataka style is quite unfamiliar in Vietnam, and Buddhist folktales here almost don’t have any direct teaching of Buddhist moral values in it compare to the neighboring countries in which theravada buddhism is practiced. So there is a lack of Jataka-inspired tales in Vietnam. We also don’t see much the image of the rabbit and such symbolic creatures of Buddhism in Vietnamese folktales.
In folktales of Mahayana Buddhist countries, for example in many versions of “The story of Tam and Cam” of Vietnam, we noticed that Buddha appeared directly for many times in order to help the main character to find happiness. Whereas in folktales of the same motif but of Theravada Buddhist countries, Buddha doesn’t directly play the helping role. This is because in theravada buddhism perspective, Buddha is the one who teachs and helps enlightening, freeing oneself from bondage, while in mahayana buddhism, it is bevieved that Buddha and other celestial beings exist in other realms and they are able to help humans and answer prayers.
3.2. Maritime South East Asia Countries :
In Archipelagic countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, it’s inevitable that many of their folktales are myths of origins of many of its places. For example, “The sacred cave”, a folktale from central Java, explains the origin of the sacred cave of Gua Keramat or “The legend of Toba Lake” (Indonesia)
Islam is the state religion of many archipelagic countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, the Islamic motif added a new, distinct note within the weaving of the tales.
And long before that, at one point, Hinduism was the most prominent religion being spread by trade and Brahman priests all over the region. Although Hinduism has greatly declined in size its influence lives on. Little or no Buddhist literature survives in Indonesia and Malaysia, but there is a wealth of Hindu literature=> The influence of Buddhism is quite vague in folklore of these countries => there is almost no Buddhist tales found here. Still, there are hints of Buddhist Jataka in fable animal folktales
In folklore of these countries, the mouse deer (Sang Kancil) is considered the most intelligent animal in the forest. It is also a humble and cunning animal. Despite its small size, it always managed to trick and defeats his enemy. Hence, many animals will come to seek advice and help from him and he is always ready to help his fellow animals. There are several stories that revolve around the mouse deer, and those are very famous in Malaysia and Indonesia, here is one of those that tells the tale of how the mouse deer managed to outwit a crocodile:
Crocodile and the mouse deer
One day, Kancil wants to cross a river. But the river is full of hungry crocodiles. The crocodiles will eat Sang Kancil if he crosses the river. Eventually, Kancil has an idea. He said to the crocodiles “the king wants me to do something. He is having a big feast with lots of food, and he is inviting everyone, including you and all the other crocodiles. But first, I have to count all of you. He needs to know how many of you will come. Please line up across the river, so I can walk across your heads and count all of you!”. Excited by Kancil’s words, the crocodiles follow his order and make a row of crocodiles. Kancil quickly hops from on crocodile to another until he reaches the other side of the river, leaving the angry crocodiles far behind.
With Hinduism influences, it leads to the existence of Hikayat, which are the stories of national heroes of Malayan kingdoms, these stories, though based on history, are heavily romanticized: “Hikayat Nur Mohammad”, “Hikayat Amir Hamzah”,…