Elizabeth Coatsworth was inspired to write this book by her travels in Asia. According to her editor and Vassar classmate, Louise Seaman Bechtel, in her essay “From Java to Maine with Elizabeth Coatsworth” in Newbery Medal Books: 1922-1955 (Boston, Horn Book Inc., 1955, pp. 94-98), Coatsworth said:
Its main inspiration was the Buddhist temples of Borobodur, in Java, a magnificent carved stupa, standing, scarcely in ruins, in a plain surrounded by volcanoes. Among the many carvings on its terraces are some of the animal rebirths of Buddha, which very much took my imagination. Many years later, in the Pasadena Library, I was to read translations of the rebirths and string them together on the thread of a Japanese legend which we had been told in a Kyoto temple, one day in the enchanted October of 1916. Later, Tom Handforth* sent me a print, which, like the temple scroll, showed a cat coming to mourn the death of Buddha. It was unusual to see a cat among the other animals. These things lay, with a thousand other impressions, long in my mind, and happened to be the ones I could use.
[*As an aside: Tom Handforth is probably Thomas Scofield Handforth (1897–1948), an American artist and etcher who wrote and illustrated the 1939 Caldecott Medalist Mei Li about his personal experiences in China.]
The animal rebirth stories would be the Jataka, fables Buddha originally told to his disciples to illustrate his teachings. Like Aesop, each tale features animal characters, as well as an incarnation of the Buddha from an earlier life, usually as an animal himself. These amusing parables embody some of the central tenets of Buddhist principles of wisdom, heroic action, nonviolence and compassion. Other stories are from the Buddha’s life or other sources.
The snail (pp. 21-22) comes from “The Snail Martyrs” (scroll down to that section of the web page), a story that explains Buddha’s hair curls. The elephant tale (p. 24) can be found at the website Himalayan Art, which has translations of Jataka tales from Tibet.
Kanthaka (p. 26) was the favorite horse of Prince Siddhartha, who later became the Buddha, while the tale about the horse who captured seven kings (pp. 26-28) is this one, "Siddhartha and the swan (p. 31) is in a number of places; I also found it in Buddhist Stories (2006, pp. 9-10) by Anita Ganeri.
The buffalo story (p. 34) appears to be "The Ox Who Won the Forfeit" from Jataka Tales: Animal Stories retold by Ellen C. Babbitt and published in 1912. I can see how a water buffalo and an ox might be confused.
The story about the dog Shippeitaro (pp. 36-37) can be found in Mary F. Nixon-Roulet’s Japanese Folk-Stories and Fairy Tales (1908). The deer tale(pp. 43-44) is “The Banyan Deer”, also from Babbitt’s 1912 Jataka Tales.
After this story, Coatsworth mentions a number of other animals that “in each of them the spirit of the Buddha had at one time lived, or it had rendered service to him when he was a prince on earth” (p. 46). Many of the tales of these animals – the woodpecker, the lion and hawks, the goose with golden feathers, and the wise goat and the wolves, can be found in Babbitt’s 1922 More Jataka Tales. The story about “the hare who jumped into the frying pan of the beggar” can be found in Eastern Stories and Legends, by Marie L. Shedlock, published in 1920.
The monkey or ape story (pp. 46-48) appears to be “The Story of the Great Ape,” which can be read in The Illustrated Jataka & Other Stories of the Buddha by Dr C. B. Varma, a multimedia collection based on the digital collections of the Indira Ghandi National Centre for the Arts in India.
The reference about the tiger (p. 51) is from The Light of Asia, Book 2, by Edwin Arnold, originally published in 1879.
And what about the cat? On the Laws of Japanese Painting: An Introduction to the Study of the Art of Japan by Henry P. Bowie, published in 1911, has this to say on page 97:
Shaka’s [a Japanese term for Buddha] death is commemorated in the picture called NEHAN, nirvana. The lord, Buddha, is stretched upon a bier tranquilly dying, an angelic smile lighting his countenance, while around are gathered … the different animals of creation, all weeping. A rat having gone to call Mayabunin, mother of Buddha, has been pounced upon by a cat and torn to pieces. For this reason in paintings of this moving scene of Shaka’s death no cat is to be found among the mourning animals. The artist Cho Densu, however, in his great painting of NEHAN (still preserved in the Temple To Fuku Ji at Kyoto) introduces the portrait of a cat. It is related that, while Cho Densu was painting, the cat came daily to his side and continually mewing and expressing its grief, would not leave him. Finally Cho Densu, out of pity, painted the cat into the picture and thereupon the animal out of joy fell over dead.
Similarly, in her book Cat (2006) Katharine M. Rogers writes (on pages 28 and 30):
In Buddhist folklore, a rat was sent for medicine to cure the Buddha when he was mortally ill, but it could not fulfil [sic] its mission because a cat seized and ate it on its way. In another version, the cat was the only animal not overwhelmed with awe when the Buddha was passing into Nirvana: it was too intent on eyeing the rat.
And on page 75:
a cat came regularly to sit by the famous late medieval artist Cho Densu in the monastery Tofuko-ji, where he was painting an enormous picture of the entrance of Buddha into Nirvana. One day he ran short of ultramarine blue, and he joked to the cat, "If you would be good enough to procure for me the mineral [lapis lazuli] powder that I need, I will portray you in this painting of Nirvana.” The next day, the cat not only brought him some powder but showed him where an ample supply could be found. In recompense, the artist included the cat in his composition, and thereby improved its moral reputation throughout the country. This rehabilitation was important, because in Buddhist tradition the cat was often disparaged as impious for showing disrespectful unconcern when Buddha ascended into Nirvana.
From all this, I would say Coatsworth’s book is well-researched and true to the cultures it is trying to portray, blending Buddhist folklore and Japanese legend she first learned about on her own travels. Perhaps calling it “The Cat Who Went to Nirvana” would have been more politically correct, but I believe the book is more accessible to children with its present title.
As for the cat on the cover: my library’s copy (a 1967 edition) does not have the Newbery sticker over the tail, but it did have our bar code and shelf label, so I have superimposed the title area of a photo of the cover without those over my photo of the cover illustration. The cat is probably a Japanese bobtail, which are “considered symbols of good fortune in Japan.”
[originally posted at Bookin' It]