Story of the Buddha - Edith Holland

Some Stories of Olden Days

The monks, about whom I told you in the last chapter, have always been zealous missionaries, and by their efforts the Faith has spread to countries far removed from the land of its birth. For Buddhism, like Christianity and Mohammedanism, is a missionary religion, and from its earliest days has sent forth teachers to convert others to the Faith, and invite all the world to share in its blessings. You will remember how the Buddha sent out his first sixty disciples, bidding them go in different directions to announce the message of salvation. They were to preach alike to rich and poor, men and women, to the wise and the unlearned.

When the Buddha taught the simple village people, who crowded to the Jeta Garden to hear him, he often made use of parables and allegories. On many a lovely night, when the garden slept in the white moonlight, and the fire-flies glimmered in the dark spaces beneath the trees like the dim lamps of some cathedral aisle, Gotama sat in the great hall, above the circle of attentive listeners, telling them simple stories, such as they could understand, teaching them that every man must reap the results of his own actions, good for good and evil for evil. Many of the stories with which the Buddha delighted his hearers have become favourites in every European country. For the tales which we call Aesop's Fables came originally from India, and some of them were first told by Gotama in the famous Jetavana, or Jeta Garden. Thus, the fable of the Talkative Tortoise, of the Ass in the Lion's Skin, and many others, were well known to the people of India more than two thousand years ago. You will notice that these stories all have a moral, that is, a lesson to be learned—it is usually the wise and virtuous who flourish, while he who acts wrongfully or foolishly suffers in consequence.

Some of these Indian parables show us how a being may, in the course of countless lives, rise, step by step, from the lowest stages to the highest—even to the summit of perfection as shewn forth in a Buddha. For the fate of every being depends on his own efforts—for good or for evil he himself weaves the thread which links his many lives together. Each life is the direct outcome of the one preceding it, so that in reality these many lives are one, and death but a momentary interruption—a change to a new phase of being.

Many of the old stories tell of the supposed farmer lives of Gotama the Buddha, both in human and animal form, as, for instance, that of a hare, a quail, a stag, and so on. The name by which he is called in these tales of long ago is 'Bodisat.' This means one who is striving to reach the perfection of Buddhahood, but has not yet attained enlightenment. In each life some act of virtue is performed, and a step gained on the upward path.

In a story called "The Devoted Deer," a noble stag, the leader of the herd, is supposed to be the future Buddha. There was a herd of a thousand deer living in a beautiful and sheltered valley. The king of this herd was a magnificent stag, who took good care of the deer and kept his wits well about him if any danger threatened them. One day a hunter, who was stalking some game on the neighbouring hills, noticed the beautiful stag and his herd of many deer. So he went to the King and told him about them. The King, pleased with the prospect of a good day's sport, came to the valley with all his soldiers, who surrounded the herd of deer.

The brave stag was determined to do his utmost to save the herd, he could see, however, no way of escape except by crossing a swift stream which flowed through the bottom of the valley. But the deer, especially the younger and the weaker ones, could never have crossed the foaming torrent in safety. What was to be done? The stag, forgetful of self and thinking only of the welfare of the herd, jumped into the middle of the stream, calling on the deer to spring on to his back, and so on to the farther bank. One by one the deer jumped on to the stag's back, as on to a stepping stone, and in this way crossed the stream in safety. But the stag was sorely wounded, the flesh of his back being torn to the very bone through being struck by so many hoofs. He felt that death was near, when he saw a young fawn who had not been able to keep up with the herd. He called to the fawn to hurry down to the stream, and succeeded in getting it safely over before he lay down and died.

Thus by his noble act of self-sacrifice had the stag saved his whole herd from destruction. In giving his life to save others he had per formed an act of virtue, and so gained a step on the upward path leading to perfection.

Sometimes the future Buddha is represented as coming to life as a merchant, a king's treasurer, a seller of brass ware, and so forth. There is a story called "Holding to the Truth," which is intended as a warning to those who are too easily led and inclined to follow the advice of the first person they may meet.

The story is told as follows: Once upon a time the Bodisat was born into a merchant's family living in Benares. When he grew up he went about selling merchandise with five hundred bullock carts, sometimes travelling east, sometimes west. There was another merchant's son, in the same city, who was stupid and dull, and wanting in resource. Now both these young merchants had collected much valuable merchandise, and each had loaded his goods on five hundred bullock carts. Then the Bodisat thought, "If we both travel together, there will not be room enough for so many carts, we shall not be able to get enough wood and water, nor enough grass for the bullocks." So he said to the foolish young merchant, "We cannot travel together; will you choose whether you start first, or come after me?" And the foolish young merchant chose to go first, thinking he would thus have the advantage—there would be more grass for the oxen, the water would be undisturbed, and he would come first into the market to sell his goods. So he yoked his oxen to the five hundred carts and started on his journey. The way to the city to which the caravan was bound lay through a great waterless desert, haunted by demons. Before entering this desert the merchant told his men to fill some large water-pots with water, and load these on the carts. When they were about halfway across the great desert they met a man seated in a beautiful carriage, drawn by milk-white bulls; ten or twelve attendants followed him, and all wore garlands of water-lilies and carried bunches of red and white lotus flowers in their hands. The hair and clothes of these men appeared to be dripping with water, and the wheels of the carriage were covered with mud. The foolish merchant greeted the traveller, and asked him if it had been raining the way he had come?" Raining," exclaimed the chief of the demons, for he it was, "it is always raining! Beyond that green forest that you will soon see, the country is full of water, Ile streams are always running, and there are pools covered with lotus flowers." The merchant, foolishly believing this story, was persuaded to throw away his water-pots, in order to lighten his carts, it being useless to carry water to a country where it was always raining. Then the demons passed out of sight and returned to their home.

But the poor travellers soon discovered what a grievous mistake had been made, for before them lay a parched wilderness with no sign of water. When night fell they encamped by the way side, but they had not a drop of water, so they could neither cook their rice nor give the tired oxen anything to drink. Weary and dispirited the men fell asleep, and none kept watch over the camp during the night. Toward dawn the demons came up from the demon city and fell on the camp, slaying both men and oxen, and when they had devoured them all, leaving only their bones, they went away. So all those men came to destruction on account of the merchant's foolishness in believing the demon's tale.

Now a month and a half later the Bodisat started with his caravan for the same city to which the foolish young merchant had been going. When the Bodisat and his men were come about midway across the desert, they met the demon in his carriage drawn by the white bulls. As on the former occasion he and his attendants had all the appearance of having been drenched with rain; they carried lotus flowers, and wore wreaths of water-lili The demon told the Bodisat exactly the same story as he had told the foolish young merchant. But the Bodisat, who had his wits about him, thought, "This fellow seems bold in his manner, and I notice that he throws no shadow like an ordinary man; he is, no doubt, a demon, and probably it is a lying tale which he tells. I will give no heed to him." So when the demon advised throwing away the water to lighten the carts, the Bodisat told him that he could manage his own affairs. And the demons, as before, passed out of sight, and returned to the demon city.

Then the Bodisat addressed his men, and told them he felt sure the stranger was a demon, and his story, besides, was against all common sense; if they were near such a rainy country as that described by the demon, would they not see rain-clouds, or hear thunder? For thunder can be heard at a distance of several leagues, and the moisture of the clouds can be scented a great way off; but no one had seen a cloud in the sky or noticed any sign of rainy weather. Then the caravan moved in again, and presently came to the spot where the foolish young merchant had camped; the live hundred carts stood full of merchandise, just as they had been loaded, and the bones of the men and oxen were scattered in all directions.

Before nightfall the Bodisat's men had made their camp; the waggons were ranged in a circle to make a strong defence, and the oxen, which had been watered and fed, were placed in the middle. The Bodisat and the chief men of the caravan stood on guard all night, with drawn swords in their hands, and the demons dared not attack them. When morning came the oxen were yoked to the waggons and the caravan started on its way. The end of the journey being safely reached, the Bodisat sold his merchandise at a high price, and he and all his men returned in safety to Benares. So ends the story of "Holding to the Truth"—of holding fast to what you know to be the right course, instead of listening to any stray advice.

Many of these quaint old stories teach us what a high value was set on acts of self-sacrifice. There is a story about a wise hare, who is supposed to be the future Buddha living one of his many lives in the dim ages of the past. The hare, we are told, lived on a mountain side, in company with several other animals. One day a holy man passed that way, and the animals were all anxious to make him some gift. Each of the others gave according to what he had, but the hare thought, "What have I to give? the only gift I can make to this holy man is myself!

Now there was a fire kindled close by, and the hare jumped into it, and roasted himself to make a meal for the hermit, thus gaining great merit, for what higher act of self-sacrifice can there be than to lay down one's life?

Another time the Bodisat, or future Buddha, is represented as a hermit living in a great forest. It was a time of famine—no rain had fallen for months, all the crops had failed, and there was not a blade of grass to be seen; the earth was so dry that it was rent asunder in deep cracks and chasms. One day, as the hermit sat under a tree in the shimmering heat, wrapped in meditation, he spied a lean, gaunt tigress with her two cubs. The beast was so wasted with famine that she could hardly crawl, and the little cubs were whimpering for the food she could not give them.

The hermit felt a deep compassion for the poor mother and her starving young, and he thought to himself, "I will perform the highest act of self-sacrifice—I will give my life for this hungry tigress, that she may feed her young and relieve their pain." And he lay down, in the path of the wild beast, who, seeing her prey, sprang on the hermit and devoured him. These tales may sound strange and unreal in Western ears, but they are full of meaning to those people of the East who hold that the highest ideal that can be reached is the entire giving up of Self.

There is a story called "The Old Woman's Black Bull," which you may like to hear. Once, long ago, the Bodisat returned to life as a bull. While still a young calf he was given to an old woman by a man who owed her some money for his lodgings. The old woman soon grew very fond of the little black calf; she fed him on rice and gruel and made a great pet of him. His name was 'Blackie,' and he was everywhere known as the 'Old Woman's Blackie.' He roamed about just as he pleased and made friends with the village children, who used to ride on his back and catch hold of his horns and tail; but 'Blackie' was so good-tempered that he never harmed them. As he grew up he became a very strong and handsome young bull, with a coat that shone like the raven's wing. One day the thought came to him, "My mother" (for so he thought of the old woman) "seems very poor; she has always been kind to me, and treated me like a son; how would it be if I did some work that would bring her in a little money?" So 'Blackie' began to look out for a job.

Now one evening the old woman was sitting alone in her house, when 'Blackie' came in, looking quite exhausted, with a bag tied round his neck. Inside the bag the old woman found a thousand pieces of money. On inquiry she was told that a caravan with five hundred bullock carts had been trying to cross the ford, but the mud was so deep that the bullocks were unable to move the waggons. The owner of the caravan, looking about to see if he could hire a strong bullock, noticed 'Blackie' grazing near the ford. He asked some herdsmen who was the owner of the young bull; he would be willing, he said, to pay a reward for having his wagons pulled across the ford, and he offered two pence for each of the five hundred carts, a thousand pieces in all. 'Blackie,' hearing this, allowed himself to be caught and yoked to one of the carts. Putting forth all his strength, he made a mighty effort, and dragged the cart across the ford. Then he was yoked to the second cart and then to the third, and so on, until he had brought all the five hundred carts safely across the ford.

When the old woman heard what 'Blackie' had done, she called him her darling and gave him some good food and drink. Then she bathed him in warm water, and rubbed him all over with oil. 'Blackie' lived happily with the old woman until the end of his days, and then he passed away 'according to his deeds,' which means that according to his deeds would be the conditions of his future life. The story of 'Blackie' ends with the following verse:

Whene'er the load be heavy,

Where'er the ruts be deep,

Let them yoke 'Mackie' then,

And he will drag the load!

Once upon a time the Bodisat was born as an Elephant in the country of the Himalaya. He was a beautiful beast, white all over, and was lord of a herd of eighty thousand elephants. His mother was blind, so, like a dutiful son, he ranged far and wide to get her the sweetest fruits, which he sent her by some of the other elephants. After a time he discovered that she got none of the sweet fruits he toiled to get for her, for the greedy elephants had eaten these themselves. So he determined to leave the herd and take his mother to a quiet spot where he could look after her. In the middle of the night they stole away and went to a cave in the mountains, close to a beautiful lake. Here the Elephant looked after his mother and brought her all she wanted.

One day when the Elephant was out to get food he heard a sound of lamentation, and came on a forester who seemed in great distress. On being asked what ailed him, the man replied that he had lost his way and had been wandering about for seven days trying to find the path. "You have no cause to fear me," said the Elephant, "I will show you the way to the paths of men." And he let the man get on his back and carried him safely out of the jungle. The forester, having been shown the right track, found his way back to Benares, where his home was.

Now at that time the King's state elephant died, and no other could be found fit to carry the King in royal processions. So a crier was sent through all the city of Benares, beating a drum, and calling out: "If any man has seen an elephant fit to carry the King, let him come to the palace to announce it." Then the ungrateful forester remembered the white Elephant who had saved his life and carried him out of the jungle. And he went to the palace and stood before the King. "O King," he said, "far away on a mountain in the Himalaya country there is a magnificent elephant, snow white, and fit to carry your Majesty." So the King sent out his elephant-tamers, and the forester showed them the way to the cave in the mountains. They found the white Elephant feeding in the lake among the lotus lilies. And he, knowing that those men had come to capture him, said to himself, "Though my strength is such that I could scatter a thousand elephants, yet I must not give way to anger, not even if I should be pierced through with knives." So he stood quietly and allowed himself to be caught and taken to Benares, a seven days' journey.

The King was delighted with the beautiful white Elephant, and had him put into a stable adorned with bright coloured hangings and decked with garlands of flowers. But no food would the Elephant eat, for he was thinking of his poor blind mother, far away in the mountains. Then the King asked the Elephant why he would not eat. "O King," he replied, "my mother, blind and wretched, is pining for her son; far away in the mountains she stands, beating her foot on some tree root." Then the King was touched by the Elephant's kindness to his mother. "Let the mighty Elephant go free," he said, "let him return to his old haunts that he may find the mother who pines for him." So the Elephant returned to his home in the mountains, and his mother rejoiced to have her son with her once more.

Another story tells that the Bodisat was once born into a rich Brahmin family. When his parents died he inherited great wealth, but he gave it all away in charity and went to the Himalaya mountains to lead the life of a hermit. Now at that time Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares. One night the King, lying on his royal bed, was startled by hearing several strange sounds. First he heard a crane screaming in the palace garden. Then a solitary crow cawed from the gateway of the elephant house. Shortly after, the buzzing of a large insect disturbed the King, then the note of a cuckoo. A tame deer and a monkey who lived in the palace also made terrified noises. The King was much alarmed by these strange sounds at midnight, and the next day he consulted the wise men, asking them if they could account for the disturbance. "O King," they said, "you are in great danger; it would be well to offer a sacrifice to turn away the anger of the gods." So the priests collected many animals and made preparations for a great sacrifice.

It happened that the Bodisat, having travelled down from the Himalaya, was staying at this time in a garden in Benares. Now a pupil of one of the wise men, having pity on the animals who were about to be slain, went to the Bodisat and asked him if he could account for the sounds which had alarmed the King. "The sounds were quite natural," replied the Bodisat, "there was nothing to be feared from them." The pupil begged him to come to the palace and give this explanation to the King; but he answered: "How can I, who am a stranger here, pretend to greater wisdom than these priests?" The pupil, however, told the King what the hermit had said, and Brahmadatta went himself to the garden to question him.

"O King!" said the Bodisat, "there was nothing unusual about the noises you heard—they were quite natural and betokened no danger to your Majesty. The crane called out because he was hungry, for the tanks were empty and he could find no food. The crow had built her nest over the gateway of the elephant house, and had laid her eggs and hatched out her brood; but every time the elephant-keeper rode through the gate he struck at the crow with his iron hook, and destroyed her nestlings. So the crow was mourning the loss of her young." When the King heard this he sent for the elephant-keeper and dismissed him.

"The caged cuckoo," continued the Bodisat, "was pining for her life in the forest. I beg of you, great King, to set her free!" And the King had the cuckoo set free.

"The stag," the Bodisat went on, "had once been lord of the herd, and he was dreaming of his wandering life in the plains, and of the hinds who used to follow his lead." In this way the hermit made it clear that all those strange noises had been due to natural causes, and he assured the King that there was no need to fear any danger to himself. So Brahmadatta, persuaded of the truth of the Bodisat's words, let it be proclaimed by beat of drum that there would be no sacrifice, and he gave orders for the release of all the animals that had been set apart for slaughter.

Thus the Bodisat extended his love toward all creatures and persuaded men to deeds of compassion and mercy. There are many more of these old stories which you may like to read for yourselves some day. They teach that of all virtues the highest is self-sacrifice; he who forgets Self will reach the end of his voyagings down the troubled river of Life, and enter that calm ocean where no winds blow—the ocean of eternal Peace.