The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth and winner of the Newbery Award in 1931 is a jewel of a book. It may also be the shortest book to win the award since it was first given in 1922.
At it's heart, this book is a collection of Jataka Tales (explanation to follow) woven together by the external story of a poor young artist who sends his housekeeper to the market to buy food with the last of his money. She returns not with food, but with a cat. Angered at first, cats not always having the best reputation, the artist relents and says, "Sometimes it is good fortune to have even a devil in the household. It keeps the other devils away." And, upon finding that she is a tri-color cat, which is a sign of good luck, the artist agrees to allow the housekeeper to name her Good Fortune.
She proves true to her name when the artist is commissioned to paint the scene of the Lord Buddha's death for the village temple. If his painting is well received, the artist will never have to worry about going hungry again. If it is rejected, his career will be ruined. The artist meditates long and hard on his subject matter, first imagining himself as Siddhartha, the Indian Prince, in his final human incarnation before he attained Enlightenment and became the Buddha. In Buddhism, there is no heaven, but rather nirvana, which is the state of freedom from the cycle of birth-death-rebirth, freedom from the restraints of a corporeal body. Nirvana, a oneness with the universe, is the goal of enlightenment. As he sits, near death, the Buddha's disciples and the animals of the earth come to bid him farewell. However, the cat does not join them, refusing to pay homage. Remembering this, the artist thinks to himself, "and so, by her own independent act, only the cat has the doors of Paradise closed in her face." With his affection for Good Fortune growing, the artist is saddened by this fact.
However, he continues to meditate and paint, depicting the various animals did come to pay homage, Good Fortune always by his side, encouraging and offering her praise of his masterful work. With each animal he considers painting, the artist remembers a different birth story, or Jataka Tale, from the Buddha's many lifetimes, of which there are over 550. The stories illustrate Buddhist virtues, particularly those of charity, compassion and self-sacrifice, through the stories of the Buddha's various incarnations, both human and animal. Buddhists believe in reincarnation and karma, the law of cause and effect. The karma or one life sets up the next life, but does not determine the unfolding of that life. Good acts in one life make it possible to be be reborn into a life that allows you to continue practicing good virtues on the path to enlightenment. The traditional birth and death dates of Siddhartha are 563 - 483 BCE. The Jataka Tales are dated between 300 and 400 AD and are believed to have influenced Aesop's Fables and other traditional folktaled.
Although the book is only seventy-four pages, Coatsworth manages to fit in more than ten Jataka Tales, including that of the Banyan Deer. As he nears completion of his painting, the artist struggles with his love for Good Fortune and his sadness that he cannot paint a cat in his picture. Trying to find a way around this, the artist thinks of the tiger and how devoted it is to it's mate and cubs. He remembers the story of how Siddhartha won the hand of Princess Yosadhara by out performing the other contestants in a match for her hand. As he was led to the side of the Princess, her face hidden behind a gold and black striped veil, Siddhartha leaned in and whispered, "By you veil I know that you remember how once, in another life, you were a tigress, and I was the tiger who won you in open combat against all the others." The artist discovers that the fierceness in love and love in fierceness can been seen as a virtue, as a "narrow pathway by which the tiger reaches the Buddha." Looking at his painting after adding the tiger, the artist finds his "scroll of silk seemed scarcely large enough to hold all those varied lives, all that gathering of devotion about the welling up of love."
The artist imagines how his little cat feels, excluded from this scene, and tears come to his eyes as he imagines all the other animals receiving the Buddha's blessing. He hears the doors of nirvana close before Good Fortune and decides to add her to the painting. When the priest from the temple arrives the next day to view the finished painting, he rebukes the artist for painting a cat into the picture when he knew that the cat did not belong there. The priest says, "The cat must suffer for her obstinacy and you from yours. As one can never erase work once done, I will take the painting tomorrow and officially burn it. Some other artist's picture must hang in our temple." The artist thinks sadly of what this will mean for his life and the housekeeper weeps for bringing the little cat home in the first place. The artist meditates through the night and sees the sun rise. And our after dawn a commotion arises in the village as the priests of the Temple run to the artist's house, speaking of a miracle granted by the compassion of the Buddha. The artist finds his painting altered. Where the last animal, the cat, had been painted there is only white silk. The Great Buddha, whom the artist had painted with his hands folded upon his chest is now reaching out an arm in blessing. Underneath the Buddha's hand sits a tiny cat with "her white head bowed in happy adoration." Brilliantly, Coatsworth manages to take her story of the artist and the cat and turn that into a Jataka Tale as well, illuminating the virtues of charity, empathy and compassion that the housekeeper and artist showed for the cat upon bringing her into their home.
This story bears reading more than once because it is deceptively simple in it's many layers. It is easy, upon first reading, to get caught up in the Jataka Tales and gloss over the story of the artist. However, upon second reading, the empathy that the artist gains through his mediations in preparation for each stage of the painting are truly profound. He is not just remembering a story, but imagining himself to be each creature and human that he is thinking of. And, finally, there are the poems in the book, the eight songs of the housekeeper that tell her story as well. The illustrations of Lynd Ward and the wood block prints of Jael add yet another wonderful layer to this story. Simple as it is, I think that this story should be read in context with a discussion of the teachings of the Buddha, especially the virtues that the Jataka Tales illustrate.
For Jataka Tales you can visit:
The Baldwin Project, which is part of a great site that focuses on bringing "Yesterday's Classics to Today's Children."
New York Buddhist Vihara has a large selection of Jataka Tales to be read on line.
For books with collections of the Jataka Tales for children, you might like:
The Wisdom of the Crows and Other Buddhist Tales retold by Sherab Chodzon and Alexandra Kohn, illustrated by Marie Cameron. This collection contains Jataka Tales and Zen parables from Japan as well as Indian, Chinese, Burmese and Tibetan folktales that illustrate Buddhist teachings.
Once I Was a Monkey: Stories Buddha Told by Jeanne M Lee is a beautifully illustrated picture book with six Jataka Tales.
Buddha Stories, by Demi
Don't miss anything on any subject, by the marvelous, prodigious, prolific author and illustrator, Demi. This is a collection of ten of the most famous Jataka Tales told in picture book format.
For books that tell of the life of the Buddha:
Buddha, by Demi
Demi became fascinated with Buddhism at the age of three, when she chose a small golden statue of the Buddha at a five-and-dime store. At age twenty-one she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study art in India, where she walked in the footsteps of the Buddha. She has practiced Buddhism for twenty years, along with her husband, Tze-si Huang. In researching the art for Buddha, she drew from Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Burmese, and Indonesian paintings, sculptures, and sutra illustrations, particularly Pahari and Chamba Indian miniature paintings. For the story of the Buddha's life, Demi relied on her library of more than 82,000 books, most of which she has read. (biographical information taken from bn.com)
The Dalai Lama: With a Forwad by His Holiness the Dalai Lama by Demi
In simple language and iconic art, Demi tells the story of the life of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, capturing the beauty and the charm of the Tibetan culture. An important book, children and parents will find the procedure for selecting a Dalai Lama following the death of the preceding one very interesting.
Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha by Thich Nhat Hahn
At six hundred pages, this may be more than you want to take on, let alone consider reading out loud to your children, by Thich Nhat Han, to the Western world, is the most famous living Buddhist after the Dalai Lama.
Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
Published in America in 1951, Herman Hesses "biography" of the life of the Buddha is considered a classic. At 152 pages, and written in simple but flowing prose, it is an easy read that is a good entry for Westerners into the study and practice of Buddhism.
For parents interested in teaching their children Buddhism:
A Pebble for Your Pocket and Under the Rose Apple Tree by Thich Nhat Hahn
Thich Nhat Hahn presents the basic teachings of the Buddha and offers various practices that children can do on their own and with others. These books are written at a fourth grade reading level and are perfect for children to read on their own, but definitely deserve to be part of a discussion with mom and dad.
For Parents interested in parenting with a Buddhist perspective:
Everyday Blessings by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Myla Kabat-Zinn
The Kabat-Zinn's teach parents how they can enrich their lives and the lives of their children through mindful parenting. - honoring the fullness of the present moment and within it the inner beauty and potential that reside in ourselves and our children.
For websites to help you parent mindfully, check out:
Good books for those of you who are new to Buddhism:
Essential Buddhism by Jack Maguire is a great reference book for beginners.
Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Sounds like the title of a Dr Seuss book, but it changed my life and started me on the path of practice. This book focuses on the concept of "mindfulness." Listening to this on audio is great, also.
Thoughts Without a Thinker and Going To Pieces Without Falling Apart by Mark Epstein. For those of us who are firmly rooted in Western ways of thinking and looking at life, Epstein provides an accessible, intellectual explanation of why we think the ways we do and how that can work with (and against) Buddhist principles. Above all else, Epstein works to free us from the destructive thought processes and emotional patterns that keep us stuck in the cycle of suffering.
And, finally, picture books with Buddhist themes that I love:
Samsara Dog by Helen Manos, illustrated by Julie Vivas.
Samsara is the Buddhist concept of the cycle of birth-death-rebirth and ultimately the suffering that is a fact of human life (we all get sick, old and die, and that is suffering.) The dog of the story lives through various lives and deaths and experiences in each, both good, bad, brutal and tender. Finally, he lives a full life as the pet of a boy, dying of old age.
The Mountains of Tibet by Mordicai Gerstein is a beautifully illustrated story of reincarnation and karma.
Zen Shorts by Jon J Muth.
With lush watercolors as well as pen and ink drawings to tell the Zen parts of the story, Muth has created a classic. His second book featuring Stillwater the Zen Panda is a little bit more plodding, but still worth reading.
The Three Questions by Jon J Muth
Based on a story by Leo Tolstoy, Muth manages to imbue Buddhist themes into this gorgeous book.
Stone Soup retold by Jon J Muth
Set in the Asian countryside, this is a great version of the classic story.