The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2011 Daniel Harper.
I’d like to speak to you this morning about the power of stories, both formal stories with a beginning, middle, and end, and the informal stories that we tell about ourselves. And I’ll begin by telling you a story, the story of the Frightened Rabbit. You may have heard this story before in a slightly different form, but I’m going to tell it more or less the way Buddhists have told it for the last two thousand five hundred years. 1
One day in the town of Savatthi, some of Buddha’s followers, known as the bhikkus, went out to beg for their food, as they did every day.
Each day, the bhikkus went to a different part of the town to beg. One day, they went past some holy men who lay naked on beds of thorn-plants, in the hope that this would help them become more holy. Further along, they saw more holy men. These holy men had built a large bonfire, and even though the day was hot and the sun was bright, they sat as close as they could to the broiling fire, in the hope that the burning heat would help them become more holy.
The bhikkus continued on their way, stopping at each house to beg for their food. When each of their begging bowls was filled with food, they returned to where they lived with Buddha. And Buddha came to sit and eat with them.
“Buddha,” said one bhikku, “when we were out getting our food this morning, we walked past some holy men who were lying naked on cruel, sharp thorns.” She paused for a moment. “Will doing this make them any more holy?”
“And Buddha,” said another bhikku, “we also walked past some holy men who were sitting next to a blazing fire, out under the blazing hot sun. Will this make them any more holy?”
“No,” said Buddha. “These men are heretics. They have deluded themselves, and so they avoid the truth. They lie on thorns and bake themselves only because someone told them to. Which reminds me of the frightened rabbit and the horrible noise.” And then the Buddha told this story:
Once upon a time (said the Buddha), there was a little rabbit who lived in a forest by the Western Ocean. This little rabbit lived in a beautiful grove of trees, at the foot of a Bengal quince tree, the kind of tree under which the god Shiva was said to have lived. Next to the Bengal quince tree was a palm tree where the little rabbit liked to sit and nibble grass.
A Bengal quince (Aegle marmelos)
One fine day, the little rabbit sat under the palm tree nibbling grass and thinking about what would happen to him if the world got destroyed by Lord Shiva. At just that moment, a large, hard Bengal quince fell off the tree and hit the ground directly behind the little rabbit.
“The earth is cracking apart!” cried the little rabbit, and he ran as fast as he could away from the sound.
Another rabbit saw him running, and said, “What’s going on?”
“The earth is cracking apart!” cried the little rabbit.
The second rabbit ran after him, shouting, “The earth is cracking apart!” Soon, all the rabbits in the neighborhood were running with them.
When the other animals saw all the rabbits running, they said, “What’s going on?”
“The earth is cracking apart!” cried the rabbits, “Run for your lives!”
The other animals began to run, too: the wild pigs, the deer, the buffaloes, the rhinoceroses, the tigers, and even the elephants all began to run, shouting, “The earth is being destroyed!”
Ad lib comment during service: Perhaps this story will
remind you of a story in the news yesterday and today.
Now, in another part of the forest there lived a good and kind lion. She saw all the animals running, and heard them shouting, “The earth is being destroyed! Run for your lives!” The lion was wise, and immediately saw that the earth was not being destroyed. She could also see that the animals were so frightened that if they didn’t stop they would run into the Western Ocean and drown. She ran as fast as she could and got in front of all the animals. She roared three times.
When the animals heard the good and kind lion roaring, they call came to a stop.
The lion said, “Why are you all running?”
“The earth is being destroyed,” said the animals.
The lion said, “How do you know the earth is being destroyed?”
One animal said, “The elephants saw it.”
But the elephants said, “It wasn’t us. The tigers saw it.”
But the tigers hadn’t seen anything. “It was the rhinoceroses,” they said.
But the rhinoceroses said, “The water buffaloes gave the alarm,” they said.
But the buffaloes hadn’t given the alarm. Nor did the deer know anything. The wild pigs said they started running when they saw the rabbits running. One by one, each of the rabbits said that they hadn’t seen anything, until at last the little rabbit said, “I was the one who heard the earth breaking into pieces.”
The lion said, “Where were you when you saw this?”
“I was at home in the beautiful grove of trees,” said the little rabbit, “next to my house at the foot of the Bengal quince tree. I was sitting near my favorite little palm tree nibbling grass, when I heard the earth start to break up behind me. So I ran away.”
The lion knew that the Bengal quinces were starting to ripen, and she suspected that one of the fruits had fallen from the tree and hit the ground behind the little rabbit. “Stay here for a while,” she said to the animals. “I will take the little rabbit with me, and we will see what is happening there.”
The kind lion had the little rabbit jump up onto her broad back, and off she ran to where the little rabbit had been sitting nibbling grass. When they got to the Bengal quince tree, the little rabbit pointed in terror and said, “There! There it is! That’s where the earth is breaking up!” And he closed his eyes in terror.
“Little rabbit,” said the lion in a kind voice, “open your eyes and you will see that the earth is not breaking up. I can see just where you were crouching under the little palm tree nibbling on some grass, and right behind that a large fruit from the Bengal quince tree is lying on the ground. What you heard was the sound of that big quince hitting the ground behind you. It must have made a loud sound, and no wonder you got scared, but there really is nothing to fear.”
The good lion went back and told the other animals what she had found. The animals all sighed in relief, and everything returned to normal.
“That’s the story,” said the Buddha.
One of the bhikkus said, “Those animals should not have listened to the little rabbit without checking for themselves that the earth was breaking up. Common sense should have told them that the earth wasn’t breaking up.”
Another bhikku said, “I guess those men who lie naked on the thorns are like the animals in the story. They didn’t pay attention to their common sense.”
A bhikku added, “The lion was truly wise and compassionate. If it had not been for her, all the animals would have drowned.”
Then, because Buddha and his followers all believed that they had lived many different lives, the Buddha said that in one of his previous lives he had been the lion in the story: a wise and compassionate being who helped others.
Did you notice what happened in this story? — or I should say, in each of these stories: the story about the animals, and the story about Buddha’s followers?
In the story about the animals, a Bengal quince, a piece of fruit, falls to the ground. The little rabbit hears the sound and thinks the world is cracking apart! When the wise lion hears the little rabbit’s story about what he thought had happened, she figures out what really happened, and she helps the little rabbit to retell the story in a better way. In the story about Buddha’s followers, they see some holy men lying on thorns and baking themselves in intense heat, and they’re trying to make sense out of what they see. Buddha tells them a story to help them understand what they already knew — lying on thorns and baking in intense heat are not going to make you any more holy.
We have our educational goals, and there are the Seven Principles printed on those wallet cards you can get outside the main door to this room; as important as these are, they are not nearly as important to our religious community as the stories we tell to one another.
At the beginning of the service, Jack Hardy told us: “When I listen to stories at church I imagine what the person in the story is feeling and thinking what I would do in that situation.” So when Buddha tells the story about the little rabbit to his followers, his followers imagine that they are the little rabbit, and they imagine that they are the wise lion, and they realize that it is better to be the wise lion than the little rabbit. And in listening to the story, and using their imaginations, Buddha’s followers are changed, transformed for the better.
At the beginning of the service, Heather Chen told us how our congregation is a unique community for kids. Now even though she didn’t start with “Once upon a time” and end with “they lived happily ever after,” Heather was really telling us a kind of story about how our kids experience our congregation: she is telling us that while our kids are learning a lot, more importantly they are becoming a part of the community that is our congregation. We are constantly telling each other little stories about who we are and what’s important to us, and these little stories shape us, transform us for the better.
The writer Ursula K. LeGuin once wrote, “We shape each other to be human.” 2 This is why we tell each other stories — big formal stories that may begin with the words “Once upon a time…” and informal little stories and conversations that reveal what is in our hearts and souls. Story by story, conversation by conversation, bit by bit, we shape each other, transform each other into better human beings.
The story in the sermon is Jataka tale number 322, Duddubha Jataka. My source was The Jataka: Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births, ed. E. B. Cowell, vol. III, trans. H. T. Francis and R. A. Neil (1895; rpt., Pali Text Society: Oxford, 2005) pp. 49-52.
Ursula K. LeGuin, “Coming of Age in Karhide,” in New Legends, ed. Greg Bear, (Tor, 1995).