The reading this morning is rather long, but I think you’ll find it engaging. It is a Buddhist story, Jataka tale no. 33, translated by Viggo Fausboll, and published in 1873 in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. I have lightly edited and modernized the language.
“Living in harmony.” The Master related this story, while living in the grove of banyan-trees near Kapilavatthu, in reference to a dispute he had just witnessed. The Master, admonishing his royal relations, said: ‘Dispute between relatives is not becoming. Even animals which had conquered their enemies while living in concord, when quarreling suffered great destruction.’ Then his royal relatives called upon him to tell this story.
Once upon a time, when Brahmadatta was king of Benares, the Bodhisattva was born a quail. He lived in the wood, with a following of many thousands of quails.
One day a quail-hunter went their dwelling-place and counterfeited the cry of quails. When the hunter saw that they had assembled, he threw his net over them, and after drawing it together, he filled his basket. He went to his house, sold the quails, and thus had his livelihood with that money.
The Bodhisattva said to the quails, “This quail-hunter destroys our kin. But I know a means by which he will not be able to catch us. As soon as he throws the net over us, each of you put your head into one mesh of the net. Then fly together and lift the net and carry it to a thorn-bush. This being done, we shall escape each from under his place.”
Saying, “Very good!” they all promised to do so.
The next day when the quail-hunter threw the net over them, they lifted the net together, and having cast it on a thorn-bush, they themselves fled away from underneath. It took so long for the fowler to extricate the net from the thorn-bush that it became dark, and he went away empty-handed.
Day after day, the quails continued in the same way. Each day the quail-hunter went to his house empty-handed. His wife grew angry, saying, “You come empty-handed every day. I think you are keeping another household.”
The fowler said, “Dear, I have no other household. Those quails live in harmony, and as soon as I throw my net on them, they fly away with it and cast it on a thorn-bush, and so escape. But fear not, they will not always live in harmony. Thou must not grieve. When they fall into disunion, I will take them all. Then I shall come and make your face smile.” Then he repeated this short poem:
While they agree, the birds go
and carry off the net;
but when they quarrel
they will fall into my power.
Not long thereafter, one quail, descending on the pasture-ground, unawares trod on the head of another. The other was angry, and said, “Who trod on my head?” The first said, “Be not angry, I trod upon you unawares.” Yet the first quail was angry. They began to quarrel. Before long, one said scornfully, “It is thou, I suppose, that liftest the net all by yourself.”
Hearing them quarreling, the Bodhisatta thought, “For those who quarrel there is no safety. Now they will not lift the net together. Then they will incur great destruction, and the quail-hutner will capture them. I cannot stay in this place any longer.” So he gathered together his close followers and flew away.
Soon the quail-hunter returned. Once again, he counterfeited the cry of the quails, and when they had assembled he threw the net over them. Then one quail said mockingly, “They say that last time while lifting the net, the feathers on thy head fell off. Now this time, lift!” Another said, “While thou wert lifting the net, thy wings on both sides dropped. Now you lift.”
While they quarreled thus, the fowler threw his net over them, gathered them together, and filled his basket. He went home, showed all the quails to his wife, and made her smile.
Having finished telling this story, the Master said, “Thus, O King! dispute among kinfolk is the root of destruction.” Having given this moral instruction, he completed the story by saying: “At that time the unwise quail was Devadatta, while I was the wise quail.”
Sermon: “Calming the Quarrel”
The reading this morning is one of the Jataka tales. The Jataka tales are ostensibly stories about one of the Buddha’s previous lives. At the same time, they are stories that often help us reflect on the problems of day to day life.
The Jataka tales typically start with a brief description of a problem faced by Buddha’s followers. The problem reminds Buddha of one of his previous lives — for, being an enlightened being he can remember all of his five hundred or so previous lives. The Buddha tells the story of this previous life, and concludes by drawing a moral to instruct his followers in how to live a better life. So there’s a framing story that presents an opening problem, a story told by Buddha, and a conclusion of the framing story, with a closing moral.
This reading this morning was Jataka tale number 33, the Sammodamāna-Jātaka. You have probably heard it before, in some form or another, for it is one of the best-known stories in the South Asian cultural legacy. It’s a simple story, the kind of story you tell to your children to keep siblings from fighting with one another. Although perhaps we hope that children don’t feel the full horror of the ending of the story. When the quails quarrel, the quail-hunter captures them, and crushes them in a basket, where not doubt they panic and trod on one another’s heads and smother one another, until they are pulled out and sold for someone’s dinner. In short, as a result of their quarreling, they die a miserable death.
This story reminds me of the current situation in the United States. We face problems that can kill some of us. Those problems include things like a decrease in the number of decent jobs, an opioid crisis, racial injustice, a looming environmental disaster, and conflict with aggressive nations like Russia and North Korea. We have been told — we know in our hearts — that if we could just work together, we could address these problems. If we could keep our common goals in the forefront of our minds, we could work together. Only if we work together can we extricate ourselves from the danger.
So (to paraphrase a catchphrase made popular in 1896 by Christian Socialist Charles Sheldon), when we are faced with overwhelming social problems, we first ask the question: What would Buddha do? Then we ask the question: Can we follow the Buddha’s lead?
What does Buddha do in the story of the quails? He first tries persuasion and leadership. He gently explains the problem to the other quails: the reason so many of them are disappearing is that a quail-hunter is using a net to catch them. He then explains what they can do to avoid the problem: they can fly up together, lifting the net. And finally he persuades them to try.
Can we follow the Buddha’s lead? At first glance, it looks like we can follow the Buddha’s lead. We face more complex problems than the quails faced. We face — among other things — loss of jobs, an opioid crisis, racial injustice, environmental disaster, and international conflict. But if we worked together, we could address these problems.
On the other hand, we also know that not everyone is in complete agreement with the nature of the problems facing us. The quails in the story seemed to be in agreement about the problem facing them. But we today do not agree about everything. For example, some people in the United States would add same-sex marriage to the list of problems facing us; while we Unitarian Universalists generally support same sex marriage. So at second glance, it looks like we cannot follow the Buddha’s lead.
But if we look again, I think we can indeed follow the Buddha’s lead. We do not have to agree on everything in order to work together. As an example of what I mean, I can point to the last two Unitarian Universalist congregations I served. Both those congregations did a lot to fight homelessness. Both of those Unitarian Universalist congregations had to team up with other congregations in order to carry on an effective fight against homelessness, and some of those other congregations we worked with were bitterly opposed to same sex marriage. But we managed to put aside our differences to work together towards a common goal.
And I suspect the story of the quails glosses over some of the problems the Buddha faced to convince the other quails to work together. The story makes it sound easy, but I’m willing to bet that the Buddhas had to do a lot of persuading and explaining to get the quails to work together.
The real miracle in this story is that the Buddha did all that persuading and explaining without losing his temper, without losing his cool. He managed to not get into any fights with the other quails. He managed to stay calm and centered. And remember too that at this point he wasn’t yet the Buddha; he had not yet achieved Enlightenment. In that incarnation, he was merely a Boddhisatva, that is, someone who has the potential to reach Enlightenment. The progressive Buddhists I know believe we all have the potential to achieve Enlightenment, meaning each of us (in that specific sense) is a Boddhisatva.
In other words, we — you and I — have the capability to do what the Buddha did in his incarnation as a quail. We have the capability to persuade and explain how to work together for the common good. And to do that, we will have to be like the Buddha, and remain calm and centered.
That’s the hard part, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty good at persuading and explaining. But in order to be good at explaining and persuading, you have to stay calm and centered. I found this out when I was selling building materials. I quickly learned that if you came across as desperate, you were likely to lose the sale. Similarly, if the Buddha had come across as desperate, half the quails would just stop listening to him. He cultivated a state of being where he was both fully aware of the danger — it was, after all, a matter of life and death — and he did not let the danger ruffle the calm of his soul.
And this, it seems to me, is one of the big problems we face in the United States today. We are letting danger ruffle the calm of our souls. We go from passive to frantic very quickly. When we become frantic, we are no longer effective at either explaining or persuading.
So how can we stay calm and centered? This is something that religion is actually quite useful for. In fact, helping people stay calm and centered is one of the default settings in just about any organized religion. And most organized religions offer a number of different techniques we can use to stay calm and centered. We human beings are a diverse lot, and organized religions typically offer more than one path to being calm and centered. Buddhism, for example, encourages people to meditate, to study sacred texts, to chant, to gather together in community, to give offerings and alms, and Zen Buddhists even get to practice archery.
Or, more to the point, take our own organized religion, Unitarian Universalism. In our worship service alone, we offer a diversity of paths: we can sit in community, we can sing, we can listen to music, we can share our joys and sorrows, we can listen to a sermon, we even have a short time of silence for those of us who need silence. Beyond Sunday morning worship, you can join a Circle Ministry group, you can go on a meditation retreat, you can do hands-on volunteering, you can lead worship yourself in the summer. These are all spiritual practices you can find in our congregation, practices that can help you get calm and centered.
And I suspect the most important aspect of Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice, or indeed of any organized religion, is the communal aspect. Thich Nhat Hahn, one of the most interesting Buddhist thinkers of the past few decades, used the term “inter-being” to describe how we are linked to all beings. Thich Nhat Hahn said, “You cannot be by yourself alone, you have to inter-be with everything else.” (1) We Unitarian Universalists often use the phrase, “the interdependent web of existence,” which means much the same thing. (2)
“You cannot be by yourself alone.” This is the most important part of learning how to be calm and centered. “You have to inter-be with everything else.” This is how the Buddha remained calm and centered in the story about the quails: he was always fully aware of how he was “inter-being” with all the other quails, and indeed with all existence.
So in our spiritual practices, this is what we must always remain fully aware of: we are all part of each other; we all “inter-be.” It’s fairly easy to remember that when we gather for Sunday worship services. We mostly like one another, and while there are inevitably feuds and squabbles in every congregation, the bonds between us end to be stronger than the weak forces trying to pull us apart. So we gather for Sunday worship — or for Circle Ministry, or to volunteer, or for a mediation retreat — we gather together with people we more or less get along with, and that is the key to our spiritual practice. We remember what it is to get along with other people. We remember inter-being.
The next step is to take that spiritual practice out into the wider world. When we hear something inflammatory on social media, we can remember that feeling of inter-being. Instead of lashing out, we remain calm and centered. Remaining calm and centered, we can stay focused on what’s really important: that we must work together if we’re going to get out of this mess we’re in. And so we can remember that we don’t need to react to that inflammatory social media post. When we don’t react to that social media post, that helps other to back down, so that they can return to being calm and centered. So it is that calmness can spread, and so it might be that we can learn to work together again.
Not that this is an easy task. It’s hard to remember about inter-being. It’s hard to really and truly believe in the interdependent web of existence. That’s why we keep coming back to communities like this one; we all need constant reminders. Well, maybe not all of us. It does seem that there are a few special persons, like the Buddha, who don’t need constant reminders. The rest of us rely on each other, we rely on our gathered community, to help us stay calm and centered. And then we’re able to take that feeling of calm, that feeling of being centered, out into the world. May it be so: may we spread calm wherever we go in our lives; may we live our lives as if we are all interdependent.
(1) Dharma talk by Thich Nhat Hanh, 1998, “The Island of Self” http://www.purifymind.com/IslandSelf.htm This dharma talk was reprinted in a slightly different form in the book No Mud No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering (Parallax Press). Available as a print book or ebook from Parallax Press or it can be borrowed online from the Internet Archive.
(2) The phrase “interdependent web of existence” comes from theologian Bernard Loomer, who was affiliated with the Unitarian Unviersalists and the Presbyterians. Loomer used the phrase to describe what Jesus of Nazareth meant by the phrase “the Kingdom of Heaven.” One can also find parallels between the concepts of interdependence and intersubjectivity, and the Jewish Philopher Martin Buber’s book I and Thou. While all these concepts have distinct differences, arising in part out of the distinctly different religious traditions from whence they come, nevertheless the parallels are striking.