Stories

Stories for liberal religious kids, drawn from a wide variety of religious and spiritual traditions.

The stories on this page were originally written for a variety of purposes — worship services, classes, or just for fun. Adapt them to whatever situation you want to use them in.

Copyright: Please respect copyright. For just one example, if you use one of my copyright-protected stories in a webcast or recording, I ask that you give me credit for the story (e.g., “This story comes from Dan Harper”). You do not have to give me credit in educational settings or at home.

Cultural appropriateness: When I wrote these stories, I worked from the most culturally appropriate sources I could find, and I attempted to retain the distinctive flavor of the original religion/culture of each story. You will have to decide how you want to present other religious traditions where they conflict with Unitarian Universalist sensibilities, whether you will cover over religious differences or not. Some examples of what I mean: Will you ignore that Buddhists affirm that Buddha had 500+ previous lives? Will you adhere to Western understandings of gender, or acknowledge diverse understandings of gender? Will you acknowledge that most Christians believe Jesus is divine? Again, you will have to judge for yourself, based on the needs of your local congregation. Also note that some of these stories were written 25 or more years ago. You may want to revise older stories to match your current understandings of gender, race, cultural diversity, etc.

Table of Contents


DAOIST STORIES

The Bird Called P’eng

Many years ago in ancient China, the Emperor T’ang was speaking with a wise man named Ch’i.

Ch’i was telling the Emperor about the wonders of far off and distant places. Ch’i said:

“If you go far, far to the north, beyond the middle kingdom of China, beyond the lands where our laughing black-haired people live, you will come to the lands where the snow lies on the ground for nine months a year, and where the people speak a barbaric language and eat strange foods.

“And if you travel even farther to the north, you will come to a land where the snow and ice never melts, not even in the summer. In that land, night never comes in the summer time, but in the winter, the sun never appears and the night lasts fro months at a time.

“And if you go still farther to the north, beyond the barren land of ice and snow, you will come to a vast, dark sea. This sea is called the Lake of Heaven. Many marvelous things live in the Lake of Heaven. They say there is a fish called K’un. The fish K’un is thousands of miles wide, and who knows how many miles long.”

“A fish that is thousands of miles long?” said the Emperor. “How amazing!”

“It is even more amazing than it seems at first,” said Ch’i. “For this giant fish can change shape and become a bird called P’eng. This bird is enormous. When it spreads its wings, it is as if clouds cover the sky. Its back is like a huge mountain. When it flaps its wings, typhoons spread out across the vast face of the Lake of Heaven for thousands of miles. The wind from P’eng’s wings lasts for six months. P’eng rises up off the surface of the water, sweeping up into the blue sky. The giant bird wonders, ‘Is blue the real color of the sky, or is the sky blue because it goes on forever?’ And when P’eng looks down, all it sees is blue sky below, with the wind piled beneath him.”

A little gray dove and a little insect, a cicada, sat on the tree and listened to Ch’i tell the Emperor about the bird P’eng. They looked at each other and laughed quietly. The cicada said quietly to the dove, “If we’re lucky, sometimes we can fly up to the top of that tall tree over there. But lots of times, we don’t even make it that high up.”

“Yes,” said the little dove. “If we can’t even make it to the top of the tree, how on earth can that bird P’eng fly that high up in the sky? No one can fly that high.”

Ch’i continued to describe the giant bird P’eng to the Emperor. “Flapping its wings, the bird wheels in flight,” said Ch’i, “and it turns south, flying across the thousands of miles of the vastness of the Lake of Heaven, across the oceans of the Middle Kingdom, heading many thousands of miles towards the great Darkness of the South.”

A quail sat quietly in a bush beside the Emperor and Ch’i. “The bird P’eng can fly all those thousands of miles from the Lake of Heaven in the north across the Middle Kingdom, and into the vast ocean in the south?” said the quail to himself. “Well, I burst up out of the bushes into flight, fly a dozen yards, and settle back down into the bushes again. That’s the best kind of flying. Who cares if some big bird flies ninety thousand miles?”

The Emperor listened to Ch’i, and said, “Do up and down ever have an end? Do the four directions ever come to an end?”

“Up and down never come to an end,” said Ch’i. “The four directions never come to an end.

“That is the difference between a small understanding and a great understanding,” continued Ch’i. “If you have a small understanding, you might think the top of that tree is as high up as you can go. If you have a small understanding, you might think that flying to that bush over there is as far as you can go in that direction. But even beyond the point where up and down and the four directions are without end, there is no end.”

But the quail did not hear, for she had flown a dozen yards away in the bushes. The cicada did not hear because it was trying to fly to the top of a tree. And the little dove did not hear because he, too, was flying to the top of the nearby elm tree.

Source: From the Chuang-tzu [Zhuangzi], chapter 1, translations by Lin Yutang, Burton Watson, and James Legge. The closing paragraph is my adaptation of a line that may not have been part of the original text.

Frog in a Well

Once upon a time, Kung-sun Lung was talking to Prince Mou of Wei.

Kung-sun Lung said, “When I was just a boy, I learned all the teachings of the great kings of old, and I learned how to be good, kind, and righteous. I studied the wisdom of ancient philosophers; I learned all the arguments about being and the attributes of being; I learned what was true and correct, and what was false and incorrect. I thought I understood every subject under the sun.

“But when I heard the teachings of Chuang-tzu,” said Kung-sun Lung, “I get all confused. Maybe I’m not as good at arguing as he is. Or maybe I don’t know as much as he does. But now that I have heard the teachings of Chuang-tzu, I feel like I don’t even dare open my mouth. What is wrong?”

Prince Mou leaned forward on his stool. He drew a long breath, looked up to heaven, and smiled. “Have you ever heard the story of the frog of the broken-down well?” he said.

Kung-sun Lung shook his head.

“Well, then,” said Prince Mou, “Let me tell you the story.”

***

Once upon a time, there was a frog that lived in a broken-down well. Ordinarily, this frog would not want to live in a well, because once he got into the well, he wouldn’t be able to get out again. But the broken-down sides of the well allowed the frog to climb in and out of the well as if he were climbing a ladder, or a broken-down staircase.

One day, the frog climbed out of the well, and as he walked around, he happened to fall into a conversation with the Turtle of the Eastern Sea. She asked the frog how he enjoyed living where he did.

The little frog said he enjoyed it very much. “I hop onto the edge of my broken-down well,” said the frog, “and from there I climb down into the water, using the broken-down sides of the well as a grand staircase to the water. When I get close to the water, I dive into it. I draw my legs together, and keep my chin up, and swim around the well. I dive down to the bottom of the well, down and down until my feet are lost in the mud. I come back up for air, and I look around at everyone else who lives in the well — the little crabs, the insects, the tadpoles — and I see that there is no one who match me. I am in complete command of the water of my whole little valley. It is the greatest pleasure to enjoy myself in my broken-down well. You should come with me and try it yourself.”

With that, the little frog led the way to his broken-down well. The Turtle of the Eastern Sea tried to follow him. But her front right foot got stuck in the well, before she had even manage to move her front left foot forward. At this, she drew back, saying that it would be better if she didn’t try to get into the well.
Instead, the Turtle of the Eastern Sea tried to tell the little frog he she enjoyed living where she did.

“The Eastern Sea where I live,” said the turtle, “is thousands of miles across, so far I can’t even measure it. It is more than a mile deep, so deep that I cannot find the bottom. If your valley got flooded, and hundreds more valleys like yours also got flooded, and if they all drained into the Eastern Sea, it is so huge that the level of the sea would not rise. If there were to be a drought, so that no rain fell for seven out of eight years, it is so huge that the level of the sea would not fall. The waters of the Eastern Sea do not rise or fall for any cause, great or small. And this is the greatest pleasure of living in the Eastern Sea.”

When the little frog from the broken-down well heard the turtle describe how big the Eastern Sea was, he was amazed and frightened. His mouth opened, and he was lost in surprise.

***

When Prince Mou finished telling this story, he said to Kung Sung-lung, “Do you understand how this story answers your question? Someone who isn’t yet able to understand the true difference between truth and falsehood can’t possibly understand Chuang-tzu. It would be like asking a mosquito to carry a mountain on its back.

“Chuang-tzu is like like the Turtle of the Eastern Sea, able to reach the deepest depths of the earth, and able to rise to the highest heights of sky. With freedom he launches out in any direction, and starting from what is confusing, he always comes back to what is understandable. Yet you think you are going to understand what he’s talking about by making lots of arguments! It is if you are trying to look at the whole sky through a small tube. You are like a frog in a broken-down well.”

Upon hearing this, Kung-sun Lung’s mouth fell open in surprise. He felt like his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. He slunk away, and when he was out of sight of Prince Mou, he ran away home.

Source: “Frog in a Well”: from the Chaung-tzu [Zhuangzi], 17.10, adapted from the James Legge translation.

The Useless Tree

A certain carpenter named Zhih was traveling to the Province of Ch’i. On reaching Shady Circle, he saw a sacred tree in the Temple of the Earth God. It was so large that its shade could cover a herd of several thousand cattle. It was a hundred yards thick at the trunk, and its trunk went up eighty feet in the air before the first branch came out.

The carpenter’s apprentice looked longingly at the tree. What a huge tree! What an enormous amount of timber could be cut out of it! Why, there would be enough timber in that one tree to make a dozen good-sized boats, or three entire houses.

Crowds stood around the tree, gazing at it in awe, but the carpenter didn’t even bother to turn his head, and kept walking. The apprentice, however, stopped to take a good look, and then had to run to catch up with his master.

“Master, ever since I have handled an adze in your service,” said the apprentice, “I have never seen such a splendid piece of timber. How was it that you did not care to stop and look at it?”

“That tree?” said the Master, “It’s not worth talking about. It’s good for nothing. If you cut down that tree and made the wood it into a boat, it would sink. If you took the wood to build a house, the house would break apart and rot. See how crooked its branches are! and see how loose and twisted is its grain! This is wood that has no use at all. Not only that, if you try to taste one of its leaves, it is so bitter that it would have taken the skin off your lips, and the odor of its fruit is enough to make you sick for an hour. It is completely useless, and because it is so useless, the tree has attained a huge size and become very old.”

The carpenter told his apprentice to dismiss the tree from his thoughts, and they continued on their way. They arrived home late at night, and both of them went straight to bed.

***

While the carpenter was asleep, the spirit of the tree came and spoke to him.

“What did you mean when you spoke to your apprentice about me?” said the spirit of the tree. “Of course I am not like the fine-grained wood that you carpenters like best. You carpenters especially like the wood from fruit trees and nut trees — cherry, pear-wood, and walnut.

“But think what happens! As soon as the fruits or nuts of these trees have ripened, you humans treat the trees badly, stripping them of their fruits or nuts. You break their branches, twist and break their twigs. And then you humans cut down the trees in their prime so you can turn them into boards and make them into furniture.

“Those trees destroy themselves by bearing fruits and nuts, and producing beautiful wood,” said the spirit of the tree. “I, on the other hand, do not care if I am beautiful. I only care about being useless.

“Years ago, before I learned how to be useless, I was in constant danger of being cut down. Think! If I had been useful, your great-grandfather, who was also a carpenter, would have cut me down. But because I learned how to be useless, I have grown to a great size and attained a great age.

“Do not criticize me, and I shan’t criticize you,” the spirit of the tree said. “After all, a good-for-nothing fellow like yourself, who will die much sooner than I will — do you have any right to talk about a good-for-nothing tree?”

***

The next morning, the carpenter told his dream to his apprentice.

The apprentice asked, “But if the goal of the tree is to be useless, how did it become sacred tree living in the Temple to the Earth God?”

“Hush!” said the master carpenter. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. And I should never have criticized the tree. The tree is a different kind of being than you and I, and we must judge it by different standards. That’s why it took refuge in the Temple — to escape the abuse of people who didn’t appreciate it.

“A spiritual person should follow the tree’s example, and learn how to be useless.”

Source: from Chuang-tzu [Zhuangzi] 1.16, based on translations by Lin Yutang, Burton Watson, and James Legge.

The Yellow Emperor

Thousands of years ago, Huang-ti, the Yellow Emperor, reigned for a hundred years in the country of Ch’i.

For the first fifteen years of his reign, he took great pleasure in his position. He rejoiced that all the people in the Empire looked up to him as their emperor. He took great care of his body. He ate well, and took the time to enjoy beautiful sights and sounds. But in spite of this, he became sad and depressed, and his face looked haggard and ill.

So Huang-ti decided to change his ways. He saw that the Empire faced great trouble and disorder. For the next fifteen years of his reign, he worked night and day to rule the people with wisdom and intelligence. But in spite of all his efforts, he remained sad and depressed and his face still looked haggard and ill.

At the end of this second fifteen year period, Huang-ti sighed heavily. “I was miserable in the first fifteen years of my reign, when I devoted all my attention to myself and my own needs, and paid no attention to the Empire. I was miserable in the second fifteen years of my reign when I devoted all of my time and energy to solving the problems of the Empire and paid no attention to myself.

“I see now that all my efforts have not succeeded in establishing good government,” he said. “I see now that all my efforts have not succeeded in making myself happy. I have only succeeded in ruining my spiritual life.”

So he left beautiful rooms he lived in within the palace and dismissed all his servants and attendants. He went to live in a small building off to one side of the palace. He stopped eating all the rich food they served in the palace, and began to eat just ordinary food. He sat by himself for three months purifying his mind.

Then one day, he took a nap in the middle of the day. While he was asleep, he dreamt that he traveled to the kingdom of Hua-hsü, a place which was tens of thousands of miles from the country of Ch’i. The kingdom of Hua-hsü could not be reached by ship, or by any vehicle, or even traveling by foot. Only a soul could make the journey….

There was no ruler in the kingdom of Hua-hsü. Everything simply went on of its own accord. The people who lived in Hua-hsü did not feel joy in living, nor did they fear dying, so they never died before their time. They were not attached to themselves, and they were not indifferent to other people, so they felt neither love nor hatred. They did not refuse to act in one way, nor did they pursue another course of action, so profit and loss did not exist in their country. They simply followed their natural instincts. Water had no power to drown them, nor fire to burn; cuts and blows caused them neither injury nor pain, tickling could not make them laugh.

They could walk through the air as though they were walking on solid earth. They slept lying in the middle of the air as though resting in a bed. They could see through clouds and mist, thunder did not deafen them, physical beauty did not affect them, steep mountains and deep valleys could not slow them down. They moved about like gods and goddesses….

Huang-ti awoke from the dream. He called for his three advisors and told them what he had seen. “For the last three months, I have been sitting here thinking about how I could take care of my own needs while also ruling the lives of my subjects fairly and wisely,” Huang-ti said. “It is impossible to take care of myself, and it is impossible to rule others fairly and wisely. I could not find the Perfect Way.

“When these thoughts tired me out, I fell into a deep sleep and dreamed this dream. Now I know that the Perfect Way cannot be found through the senses. Now I know the Perfect Way, but I cannot tell you about it, because you cannot use your sense to learn the Perfect Way.”

That was all the Yellow Emperor said.

For the rest of his life, everything in the country of Ch’i was calm and orderly, almost as calm and orderly as in the kingdom of Hua-hsü. And when at last Huang-ti died, the people in the country of Ch’i mourned his death for more than two hundred years.

Sources: Daoist teachings translated from the Book of Lieh-Tzü [Liehzi], Book II “The Yellow Emperor,” trans. Lionel Giles, 1912. Supporting source: Alchemists, Mediums, and Magicians: Stories of Taoist Mystics, trans. and ed. Thomas Cleary, p. 8 n. 29. N.B.: This could be a troubling story for some religious liberals. The notion that the best leaders are those who do no work will be anathema to religious liberals who have come out of Protestantism, and who, while they might have become post-Christian in theology, have not abandoned the Protestant work ethic. Yet a documentary approach to telling religious stories should not soften the essential foreignness of other religions, when such foreignness is present.

Planting a Pear Tree

One day in the marketplace, a farmer was selling pears he had grown. These pears were unusually sweet, so the farmer asked a high price for them. A Daoist priest stopped at the barrow in which the farmer had displayed these lovely pears.

“May I have one of your pears?” he said.

The farmer said, “Move aside, so paying customers can buy my pears.” The farmer knew the priest expected a pear for free. When the priest did not move, the farmer began to curse and swear at him.

The priest said, “You have several hundred pears on your barrow. I ask for a single pear. Why get angry?”

Some people nearby told the farmer to give the priest a pear that was bruised, which he couldn’t sell anyway. But the farmer was stubborn, and refused. The constable of the town came over to see what was going on. Seeing that things were getting out of hand, he bought a pear and gave it to the Daoist priest.

The priest bowed to the constable, and thanked him. Then the priest turned to the townspeople and said, “We Daoist priests give up all money and possessions. When we see selfish behavior, it’s hard for us to understand it. I have some pears with a very fine flavor, and unselfishly I would like to share them with you.”

Someone in the crowd called out, “If you have pears of your own, why did you want one of the farmer’s pears?”

“Because,” said the priest, “I needed a seed to grow my pears from.” He ate up the pear that the constable had given him. He took a seed, unstrapped a pick from his back, and made a hole in the ground. He dropped the seed in the hole and covered it with earth. Then he said, “Could someone bring me a little hot water, please, with which to water the seed?”

Someone ran into a neighboring shop and brought some steaming water. The priest poured the water over the seed. Everyone watched closely, for though it seemed like a joke, Daoist priests were supposed to have knowledge of mystical arts.

Suddenly green sprouts began shooting out of the ground. They grew until they became a pear tree. The tree sprouted green leaves, and put forth white flowers. Bees buzzed among the flowers, the petals dropped, and soon tiny green fruits grew and ripened into fine, large, sweet-smelling pears on every branch.

The priest picked the pears and gave one to everyone in the crowd. Then the priest turned and hacked at the tree with his pick until he cut it down. Picking up the tree and throwing it over his shoulder, leaves and all, he walked quietly away.

The farmer had been standing in the crowd the whole time, forgetting all about his own business. When the priest walked away, he turned back to his barrow and discovered that every one of his pears was gone. He then knew that the pears that old fellow had been giving away were really his own pears. And when the farmer looked more closely at his barrow, he saw that one of its handles had been newly cut off.

Boiling with anger, the countryman set off after the Daoist priest. But as he turned the corner where the priest had disappeared, there was the lost wheel-barrow handle lying next to a wall. It was, in fact, the very pear tree that the priest had cut down.

But there was no trace of the priest. The townspeople watched the farmer’s anger as they finished eating their sweet, juicy pears.

Source: Pu Songling, trans. Herbert A. Giles, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (London: Thomas De La Rue & Co., 1880).

A woodcut illustration of a Daoist priest
A Daoist priest (adapted from a public domain image from Hampden C. DuBose, The Dragon, Image, and Demon [New York: Armstrong & Son, 1887]).

CONFUCIAN STORIES

The Miracle Birth of Confucius

Once upon a time, in a place called Tsou, there lived a man named Shu-liang Ho, who was also called K’ung Ho. He had been a soldier, now retired, and he was so tall that people said he was ten feet tall. He lived in China some two thousand five hundred years ago, at about the time when Gautama Buddha lived in India.

K’ung Ho was an older man, perhaps 70 years old. His first wife had died, and leaving him the father of nine daughters. But K’ung Ho also hoped to have a son. So he went to the head of the noble house of Yen, and asked for one of their daughters in marriage. The youngest daughter, Yen Ching-tsai, said that she would be willing to marry this older man.

The two were married, and not long thereafter Yen Ching-tsai traveled to Ni-ch’iu Mountain, one of the mountains that Emperor Shun had dedicated to the worship of its guardian spirit. There she offered up prayers, hoping that she might give birth to a boy-child. That night, she dreamed that a spirit came to her and said, “You shall have a son, who will be a great sage and prophet, and you must bring him forth in the hollow mulberry tree.” Not long after this dream, she became pregnant. (1)

While she was pregnant, she fell into a dreamy state, and five old men came up to here, leading behind them a unicorn (this was a Chinese unicorn, or K’e-lin, was the size of a small cow, had one horn, and was covered in scales). The unicorn carried in its mouth a tablet made of green jade. On the tablet was carved a prophecy: “The son of the essence of water shall soon succeed to the withering Chou, and be a throneless king”; which meant that her baby would grow up to become wise and valued leader, even though he would never hold political power. She tied a silk scarf around the unicorn’s horn, upon which the animal disappeared. (2)

Soon it came time for Yen Tching-tsai to give birth. She told her husband that she must give birth in the “hollow mulberry tree,” wherever that was, and her husband said that there was a dry cave in a hill nearby that went by that name. So even though she was near to giving birth, they travelled to the dry cave that was named “The Hollow Mulberry.” (3)

On the night the child was born, two dragons appeared in the sky to keep watch; one to the right of the hill where the cave was, the other to the left of the hill. Then two spirits appeared in the air above the hill, two women who poured out fragrant drafts, as if to bathe Ching-tsai in beautiful aromas as she was giving birth. (4)

And within the cave, Ching-tsai heard music, and a voice saying to her: “Heaven is moved at the birth of your son, and sends down harmonious sounds.” A spring of water bubbled up within the dry cave, so that Ching-tsai could bathe her new baby; and to confirm the prophecy that the new baby was the “son of the essence of water.” (5)

Five venerable men came from afar to pay their respects to the new baby. (6) Some people said they were the five old men of the sky, the five immortals who never die, and they had come down from the five planets to celebrate the birth of this great child.

This little baby grew up to be a great human being, a prophet and sage who was known as K’ung-fu-tzu, the Master or Teacher K’ung; or here in the Western world, he is best known to us by the name Confucius.

Confucius said that by the age of fifteen, he knew that he wanted to spend the rest of his life learning how to master one’s own self, and learning how we can live harmoniously with brothers and sisters, with our parents and children, with all those with whom we come into contact. He learned these things, and he began to teach others how to live wisely and well. Confucius grew so famous that leaders of nations invited him to come and teach them how to govern their nations fairly and wisely. Even today, some two thousand five hundred years after he was born, millions of people around the world still follow his teachings.

Sources:
(1) Confucius, the Great Teacher: A Study, by George Gardiner Alexander. pp. 33 ff. The Chinese Classics: Life and Teachings of Confucius, vol. 2, trans. James Legge, p. 58. Confucius: His Life and Thought, by Shigeki Kaizuka (Dover reprint, 1956/2002), pp. 42-44.
(2) Sages and Filial Sons: Mythology and Archaeology in Ancient China, by Julia Ching and R. W. L. Guisso (Chinese University Press, 1991), p. 143. Legge, p. 58 n.
(3) Legge, p. 58 n.
(4) Ibid.
(5) The Dragon, Image, and Demon: The Three Religions of China: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, by Hampden C. DuBose (New York: A.C. Armstrong, 1887), pp. 91-92.
(6) Ibid.

OTHER CHINESE TALES

Pangu and the beginning of the universe

At the beginning, there was little difference between heaven and earth. All was chaos, and heaven and earth had no distinct forms, like the inside of a chicken’s egg. Within this chaos, the god Pangu was born inside the egg.

Pangu grew and grew inside the egg. After 18,000 years, the egg somehow opened up. Some say that Pangu stretched himself inside the egg, and shattered the egg’s shell into pieces.

Once the egg had shattered open, the lightest part of it, the part that was like the white of a chicken’s egg, rose upwards, and became the heavens. The heavier part of the egg, like the yolk of a chicken’s egg, sank downwards and became the earth. Pangu took a hammer and an adze, and cut the connections between earth and the heavens. Then to keep earth and the heavens from merging together once again, Pangu stood between them, serving as the pillar that kept them apart.

Pangu lived within earth and the heavens, standing between them. And one day he began to transform. He became more sacred than the earth, and he became more divine than the heavens. The heavens began to rise, going up one zhang, or about ten feet, each day. The earth began to grow thicker, thickening by one zhang each day. And as the heavens rose, so too Pangu grew; he grew one zhang taller each day. And this continued for 18,000 years: each day, the earth grew thicker, and the heavens rose higher, and Pangu grew taller.

At the end of 18,000 years, the heavens had grown very high, the earth had grown very thick, and Pangu had grown into a giant. He was now 90,000 li (or 87,000 miles) tall, the distance between earth and the heavens. Finally, all had become stable. The heavens had stopped rising. The earth had stopped growing thicker.

Not everyone agrees what Pangu looked like. Some say he had a dragons’ head and the body of a serpent. But most say he looked like human beings, except that he was a giant, and he had a horn on his head.

After uncounted years, Pangu felt that he was dying. As he was dying, his body began to transform itself.

His left eye became the sun, his right eye became the moon, and his hair and beard became the sky and the stars. His breath became the winds and clouds, and his voice became the thunder. His arms and legs became the four extremes or borderlines of the earth, and his head and torso became the Five Mountains. His blood became the rivers, his teeth and bones became the rocks and minerals, and his flesh became the fields and the soil. His skin became plants, and his sweat became the rain and the dew.

So it was that when he died, the body of Pangu became the whole universe and everything in it.

Source: The first part of the story is from the Sanwu Liji; and the second part of the story is from the Wuyun Linianji. Translation and retelling from Handbook of Chinese Mythology, Lihui Yang and Deming An (Oxford University, 2005), pp. 64-66, 170-176; with reference to Classical Chinese Myths, Jan Walls and Yvonne Walls (Hong Kong: Joint Publishing, 1984); and Chinese Myths and Legends, Lianshan Chen (Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 6-7. See also Asian Mythologies, ed. Yves Bonnefoy (University of Chicago, 1993), pp. 234 ff.

Pangu, as imagined by a Chinese artist. Redrawn from the Sancia Tuhui (1607), as reprinted in Li Ung Bin, Outlines of Chinese History (Shanghai, 1914).

The Land of the Great

In the year 684, the scholar T’ang Ao and his friend Lin Chih-yang grew disgusted with the behavior of Empress Wu, ruler of their home land of China. These two friends thought the empress was both foolish and aggressive, and they also felt that under her reign anything might be bought or sold, including a person’s honor.

They decided they would travel the world and see how other nations were ruled, and so they found a guide, a man named Toh Chiu-kung who seemed to know everything and to have traveled everywhere, and then they got on board a ship and sailed over the sea.

After visiting several nations, they came at last to the Land of Great People. In fact, they almost passed by this small nation except that T’ang had heard that in the Land of the Great, no one walked but instead everyone had their own personal cloud which carried them where they wanted to go. Toh warned that they would have to leave the ship and walk a long way inland to really see this country. But T’ang must go see the Land of the Great, so they began to walk inland over some steep hills.

Soon they became lost in a maze of trails, and did not know which way to turn. They were very glad when at last they saw a small temple hidden in among bamboos. Out of the temple came an old man who looked perfectly ordinary except for two things. First, he was riding on a cloud. Second, while in their country anyone who lived in a temple would have to be a priest who shaved their head, did not eat meat, did not drink wine, and was not married — well, this old man had long hair, carried a glass of wine in one hand, a plate of meat in the other hand, and through the door they could see his wife seated at a table.

It is hard to say which shocked the two friends more — a man floating upon a cloud, or a long-haired, meat-eating, wine-drinking, married priest! However, they remained polite. The old man smiled at them, put down his wine and meat, and invited them into the temple. T’ang, speaking for his friends, bowed low and asked what the name of the temple. The old man replied that it was the temple of the goddess of mercy, and that he was the priest of the goddess.

Upon hearing this, Lin asked, “But, respected sir, how can it be that you are a priest but do not shave your head?” Lin decided not to ask about the wine or the meat, or the man’s wife.

“My wife and I have lived here and been the priests ever since we were young,” said the old man. “Every day, we burn incense and candles before the shrine. Here in our country, when we heard that China had accepted the Law of the Buddha, and that priests with shaved heads had become common there, we too decided to accept the Law of the Buddha, but we decided to do away with the usual promises of a priest. Thus we can grow our hair, get married, eat meat, and drink wine.”

When the old man learned that his visitors were from China, he urged them to stay with him. But no, they said they must go on to see the chief city of the Land of the Great.

“But could you please answer one question,” said T’ang. “Could you please explain the reason why the people of your country all have clouds underneath their feet? Is this something that you are born with?”

“Yes, we are born with these clouds,” said the old man. “The clouds come in various colors, and colors change depending on the character of each person. The best clouds have stripes like a rainbow. The second-best clouds are yellow in color. The worst clouds have no color at all, and look dark, as if there is nothingness, or a hole, underneath the person’s feet.”

T’ang asked the old man to show them the way to the city so they could see more of these clouds, and the old man explained which trail to follow.

Soon they were in the great city. There were throngs of people in the city streets, each moving around on a small cloud. They saw clouds of many different colors: red, yellow, orange, green, and so on.

Person on a yellow cloud

Person on a green cloud

Above: Two people from the Land of the Great, riding on clouds (based on Ch’ing dynasty portraits, public domain images on Wikimedia Commons).

At last they saw a homeless man, who obviously hadn’t taken a bath in weeks, whose cloud looked like a brilliant rainbow.

“Why, the priest told us that a rainbow cloud was best of all,” said T’ang, “and here we see a filthy, dirty homeless person with a rainbow cloud!”

“You may remember,” said Lin, “that that priest had a rainbow cloud himself. Yet how could a wine-drinking, meat-eating, long-haired, married priest be considered to be a good person? Just so, how could a homeless person be considered to be a good person? There is something here I do not understand.”

“As you know,” said Toh, their guide, “I have been to this country before. What I learned then was that good and virtuous people have clouds of the best colors, no matter what other people may think. A priest who does not follow all the rules may have a good cloud, if they are a good person. A homeless person may have a good cloud, if they are a good person. The only way to change the color of your cloud to a better color is to become a better person.

“Because of this fact,” continued Toh, “there are poor people who ride on rainbow clouds, as we have just seen, and there are rich and powerful people whose ride on clouds that lack all color at all, and look like holes of darkness. Of course, everyone avoids the people who have a cloud of darkness. On the other hand, the people of this country get the greatest pleasure from seeing acts of kindness, and everyone is always trying to become a better person.”

“Is this why this is called the Land of the Great?” asked T’ang.

“Yes,” said Toh. “It is called the Land of the Great, not because because people are big and tall, and not because they are rich and powerful. This is called the Land of the Great because here everyone is trying to become a better person.”

Suddenly they noticed that the people around them were pushing back to the sides of the street, leaving the center of the street to a person of great wealth and power, who looked almost exactly like a wealthy powerful person in their own land, with a red umbrella over his head, with assistants in front and behind carrying official documents and beating gongs, and so on. The difference was that this wealthy person was riding on a cloud that was carefully and completely covered by a red silk cloth.

“Obviously,” said T’ang, “in this country, the wealthy and powerful do not need to ride on horses, for they can move about on these convenient clouds. But one thing I do not understand — why is this man’s cloud mysteriously covered by a red silk cloth?”

“The fact is,” said Toh, lowering his voice so he could not be heard except by the two friends, “this man, like too many other people with lots of money and a high social position, has a cloud of a bad color. His cloud is not exactly one of those horrible clouds of dark nothingness. But his cloud is the color of charcoal and ashes. This means he is not completely bad, but it does mean — as we like to say — that his hands are not so clean as they ought to be.”

“In other words,” said Lin, “he is not exactly a wicked person, but he most certainly is not a good person.”

“That is a good way of putting it,” said Toh. “His cloud takes on the color of his inmost mind. He is not a good man, and so his cloud a bad color. He tries to cover up his bad-colored cloud with red silk, but red silk does not change the color of his cloud. Nothing will change the color of his cloud until his heart becomes good again, until all his actions are once again good. But still, he covers his cloud with red silk, because at least that way no one is quite sure just how bad he really is.”

“How unjust this is!” cried Lin.

“But why do you think this is unjust?” asked T’ang.

“It is unjust that these clouds exist only here, in the Land of the Great,” said Lin. “It would be very useful if we had these clouds in our own nation, for if every wicked person rode about upon a marker of their wickedness, why, that would make good people’s lives easier.”

“My dear friend,” said Toh, “though wicked people in our nation do not ride about on colored clouds, nevertheless you can tell from a person’s looks what the color of their heart is. Someone with a bright, shining look in their eyes surely must have a rainbow-colored heart. And we all know people who have a blankness in their looks that shows an emptiness in their hearts.”

“That may be so,” answered Lin, “but I for one have been fooled by a person’s looks. I would rather we could see the color of the cloud they ride about on.”

Source: Visits to Strange Nations [Ching Hua Yüan], an anonymous Chinese work of the 17th century, from Gems of Chinese Literature, 2nd ed., trans. Herbert A Giles (Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh, 1923).

Line drawing of two people standing on small clouds.
Copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. After a Chinese original.

STORIES FROM THE HEBREW BIBLE

The Garden of Eden

These are the beginnings of the heavens and the earth, when they were created.

In the day that Yahweh made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up — for Yahweh had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground — then Yahweh formed a man (in Hebrew, “formed a man” is said adam), from the dust of the ground (which in Hebrew is said adamah). Yahweh breathed into the man’s nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

And Yahweh planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground Yahweh made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; and there are precious stones there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

Yahweh took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it (the name “Eden” means “pleasure and delight”). And Yahweh commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Then Yahweh said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” So out of the ground Yahweh formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not a helper to be his partner.

So Yahweh caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept. Then Yahweh took one of the man’s ribs out, and closed up its place with flesh. Yahweh made the rib that had been taken from the man into a female human being, a woman, and brought her to the man.

The man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman (which in Hebrew is said ishshah), for out of a man (which is Hebrew is said ish) this one was taken.”

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that Yahweh had made. He said to the woman, “Did Yahweh say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but Yahweh said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’”

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for Yahweh knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like Yahweh, knowing good and evil.”

Eve and the serpent
Eve talking with the serpent, as imagined by the artist Gustav Dore. (Public domain image.)

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

They heard the sound of Yahweh walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of Yahweh among the trees of the garden.

But Yahweh called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”

The man said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”

Yahweh said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”

Then Yahweh said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”

Yahweh said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”

To the woman, Yahweh said, “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

And to the man, Yahweh said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living (in Hebrew, “Eve” resembles the word for living). And Yahweh made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.

Then Yahweh said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.”

Therefore Yahweh sent the man forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, who were angelic guardians of fearsome appearance, wielding swords that flamed and turned to guard the way to the tree of life.

Source: Hebrew Bible, Genesis 2.4-3.24. With reference to the feminist interpretation of Rev. Ellen Spero.

David and Goliath

Once upon a time there was a shepherd named David. His three older brothers went off to fight in the army of Israel, under the command of King Saul. But David stayed behind with their father, Jesse, in the town of Bethlehem.

One day after his brothers had been gone for forty days, David’s father said to him, “Go take this bread and cheese and corn to the camp where your brothers and the rest of the army are, and give all this to the captain of their company.”

When David got to the place where the army of Israel was, they were just getting ready to go to battle with the army of the Philistines.

A champion came out of the camp of the Philistine army, a man named Goliath. He was over nine feet tall. He had a helmet of brass on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail, and he wore brass armor on his legs, and brass armor on his back. He carried a long spear, with an iron tip that weighed six hundred shekels.

He stood in the valley between the two armies, and called out to army of Israel. “Why are ye come to set your battle in array?” he shouted. “Am not I a Philistine, and ye servants of Saul? Choose a man from among you, and let him come down to me. If he be able to fight with me, and to kill me, then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him, and kill him, then you shall all be our servants, and serve us.”

When Saul and the army of Israel heard Goliath’s challenge, they were greatly afraid.

David came up to the army of Israel right after Goliath has issued his challenge. All the men in the army were talking about it. “Have you seen this man who has come up from the army of the Philistines?” they said. “King Saul has promised that if any man dares to take Goliath’s challenge, and also manages to kill Goliath, the king will give that man great riches, and give him the princess in marriage.”

Eliab, David’s eldest brother, saw David just then. “What are you doing here?” said his brother angrily. “I know your pride, and the naughtiness of your heart. You just came down so that you could watch the battle.”

David told Eliab that their father had sent him. “And now that I’m here,” he said, “I will go and fight this Goliath.”

Saul heard that David said he would fight Goliath. So Saul sent for David. But when he saw how young David was, he said, “You are not able to fight Goliath.”

“I have watched my father’s sheep,” said David, “and when a lion and a bear came and took a lamb from the flock, I went after them. I took the lion by his beard and killed him; and I killed the bear; and I can kill this Goliath too.”

Saul gave David a helmet made of brass, and a sword to buckle around his waist. But David took off the helmet and the sword. He took his shepherd’s staff, and he took five smooth stones from the brook, and he took his sling.

When Goliath, the Philistine, saw David, the shepherd, he laughed. “Come to me,” said Goliath, “and I will give leave you dead for the vultures to feed upon.”

“You come with a sword and a shield,” said David. “But I come in the name of Adonai, the god of Israel. Adonai will deliver you into my hand, and I will leave you dead for the vultures to feed upon.”

Goliath arose and started walking forward to meet David. David put his hand in his bag and took one of the five smooth stones. He ran ahead to meet Goliath, put the stone in his sling, and using his sling hit Goliath right in the forehead, and Goliath fell down dead.

When David returned, he was taken to Saul, and Saul adopted him as one of his own sons. And David became best friends with Saul’s own son, Jonathan.

Source: Hebrew Bible, 1 Samuel 18.

Saul and David

Once upon a time there lived a good and holy man named Samuel. Samuel lived in the land of Israel, and he knew that Israel needed a good and strong leader. Samuel decided that Saul, son of Kish, would be the best person to rule over Israel, and so he anointed Saul king, and then served Saul as a holy man and an advisor.

Saul was a handsome man. There was not a man among all the people of Israel who was as handsome as he, and he was so tall that he stood head and shoulders over everyone else.

Saul was a likeable man. When he was a boy, he was easy-going and treated his parents with respect. When he became a man, he remained easy-going and friendly.

But even though he was handsome and likeable, every once in a while Saul would fall into a dark mood; more than just a bad mood, when Saul fell into one of these dark moods, the light went out of hid eyes. When he was in one of his dark moods, he didn’t want to talk with anyone, he just wanted to stay by himself in his throne room. When he was in one of his dark moods, sometimes he would do things that were dangerous or foolish.

One day Samuel sent Saul off to do battle with the evil tribe of the Amakelites. Samuel warned Saul that if he won the battle, he must slaughter all the Amakelites’ cattle. For their cattle was diseased, and if Saul brought the diseased cattle back to Israel, all the cattle of Israel would grow sick and soon die.

Saul fought the battle, and he won. But alas, after the battle he fell into one of his dark moods. He forgot what Samuel had told him, and he brought all the diseased cattle back to Israel.

Samuel met him, and cried out, “What is all this lowing of cattle that I hear?”

Suddenly Saul remembered what Samuel had him — but it was too late. Saul worried that Samuel could no longer trust him, and his mood grew even darker.

Samuel saw that Saul kept falling into these dark moods. He feared that Saul’s moods were growing worse and worse, and might some day overcome Saul entirely. So he decided to find a successor for Saul.

Samuel found David, the son of Jesse. David was a shepherd, he was short and cheerful, with red hair and bright eyes. Samuel anointed David in secret, and told David that soon he be the next king of Israel.

Saul knew none of this. But soon he fell into one of his dark moods again. His servants said, “One of your dark moods has come again! Command us to go and find someone to come an play beautiful music for you. The music will ease your pain and lighten your mood.”

One of the servants said, “I know a young man named David, the son of Jesse. He plays beautifully on the harp. He is also a warrior, and he doesn’t gossip.”

“Fetch him here,” said Saul.

So David came to live with King Saul, and his music helped to soothe the king when one of his dark moods came upon him.

But Saul’s dark moods got worse and worse, and they came more and more frequently. Sometimes Saul wouldn’t recognize David, and several times he tried to kill him. Finally, it got so bad that David had to leave the king, and go live in the wilderness….

Source: Hebrew Bible, 1 Samuel 10-16, 31; 2 Samuel 1-3. The notion that Saul’s dark moods might have been a form of mental illness comes from lectures given by Carole Fontaine, professor of Hebrew Bible, at Andover Newton Theological School in 1997.

Abigail and David

Once upon a time, long before he became a king, when David was still running away from King Saul, afraid that Saul would kill him, he and his six hundred followers travelled to the wilderness of Paran.

In Carmel, which was near the wilderness of Paran, there lived a rich man named Nabal, who owned three thousand sheep and a thousand goats. Nabal was married to a woman named Abigail, who was clever and beautiful. Nabal himself, however, was rude and ill-natured; his name meant “The Fool.”

In the wilderness, David heard that Nabal was shearing his sheep. He decided to send ten young men to Nabal. David said to them, “Go to Carmel, find Nabal, and give him my greetings. Say to him, ‘Peace be upon your peace be upon your household, peace to all you have.’ Tell him that we have been living here among his shepherds, and we have not attacked them, nor have we stolen anything from them;— we have only the best intentions towards him and all those who work for him. You will arrive at his household on a feast day, and ask him if he would please give whatever food and drink he might have on hand to me and all of us.” David knew that anyone who lived in that land would feel compelled by the laws of hospitality to give at least some food to a band of men living in the wilderness.

David’s ten young men went to see Nabal the Fool, and they politely passed on David’s greetings, and his request for hospitality. But Nabal spoke to them harshly.

“Who is this David?” he said. “There are many servants who try to run away from their masters. Why should I take bread and meat and water away from the people who have been shearing my sheep, and give it to people who come from I know not where?”

When the ten young men came back to David and told him what had happened, he told four hundred of his men to strap on their swords.

“I protected his shepherds and everything else Nabal had in the wilderness, but for this good I did, he returned to me only evil,” said David. “Now we will go and kill every male in his household.”

They followed David towards Nabals’ house, while the remaining two hundred men stayed to guard the animals and the camp.

Meanwhile, one of the young men who worked for Nabal went to tell Abigail, Nabal’s wife, what had happened. The young man said that David had sent messengers to bring greetings to Nabal, but Nabal had only hurled insults at them. But, the young man said, when they had been out in the fields with Nabal’s sheep, David’s men had been good to them, and had even helped to protect them. And now David had decided to attack the household of Nabal, because Nabal was so bad-natured that no one can talk to him.

Abigail thought quickly. She ran and got two hundred loaves of bread, five sheep that had been butchered, one hundred clusters of raisins, two hundred cakes of figs, some grain, and some wine. She got her young men to load everything onto donkeys, and, without telling Nabal where she was going, she went along the mountain along the way she knew David would be taking.

When Abigail saw David, she got down from her donkey and hurried towards him. She fell to her knees, and bowed down before him.

“The guilt is mine alone,” she said. “My lord, please don’t take the words of ill-natured Nabal seriously. He is what his name says he is, a fool. I should have seen the young men you sent to our household, and then none of this would have happened.

“Now that I am here, there is no need to take vengeance, there is no need to shed blood. Please take all this food I have brought to you from Nabal’s household, and give it to your men.”

David listened to Abigail, and then said, “Blessed be your good sense, and blessed be you. If you hadn’t come to meet me, by the end of this morning my men and I would have killed every male in your household, and I would have incurred bloodguilt. Only Adonai, the God of the Israelites, is allowed to take vengeance. You have saved me from trying to take vengeance into my own hands.”

David and his men took everything Abigail brought to them. “See, I have done what you asked,” David said to her. “Go in peace.”

So Abigail went back to Nabal’s house. He was holding a feast, and he was very drunk, and acting very merry. Abigail waited until the next morning to tell him what had happened: that he had mortally insulted a band of six hundred warriors, warriors who had protected his shepherds, six hundred men to whom he at least owed ordinary hospitality. She told him how she had brought food to David and his men, and had intercepted them.

Nabal realized what a fool he had been, and his heart died within him. He became like a stone, and ten days later he died.

When David heard that Nabal had died, he sent messengers to Abigail, and asked her to marry him. And she agreed that she would marry him, and went off to live with David.

***

There is much more to the story of David, more than we have time for here….

At long last Saul was killed in battle, along with his son Jonathan. David cried when he heard that Saul had died, and that his best friend Jonathan had died, too. When Saul was killed, Samuel had died, too, and no one remembered that David was supposed to be the next king after Saul.

But eventually David did become king of Israel, and sat, as he was meant to do, in the throne once occupied by his old friend Saul. He was not only a warrior and a musician, he is said to have written many great poems, some of which were collected in a book known as the Psalms. And although he made mistakes, David ruled so wisely that we still tell stories about him today.

Source: Hebrew Bible, 1 Samuel 25.2-42.

How Moses Gained Freedom from the Pharaoh

The God of Israel came down to speak to Moses, and told Moses to go to the Pharaoh king of Egypt, and say to Pharaoh, “Let my people go, let them go free.” Moses didn’t want to do this, but God said he had to, and he did.

Moses said to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” But Pharaoh was a hard-hearted man, and wouldn’t let the Israelites, the Jews, go free. So with God’s help, Moses took his staff while Pharaoh was watching, lifted it up, and struck the water of the Nile River. Immediately all the water in the river turned to blood, and that made all the fish in the river die. It did not smell good. And because the Egyptians got their water from the Nile, they had a hard time getting enough water to drink, or to wash with.

Well, you think that would have been enough to convince Pharaoh not to fool around with Moses — and to not fool around with the God of the Israelites. But the Pharaoh was a hard-hearted man. Moses came to Pharaoh, and said, “Now will you let my people go?” But Pharaoh said no.

This time Moses stretched out his staff over the river, the ponds and lakes and all the water, and with God’s help he let loose a plague of frogs. There were frogs everywhere! There were frogs in Pharaoh’s palace, frogs in everyone’s houses, frogs in people’s beds, so many frogs that the bakers put them into bread by mistake. Yuck! Bread with frogs in it. It tasted horrible.

Well, you think Pharaoh would have learned his lesson, but the Pharaoh was a hard-hearted man. Moses said, “Let my people go!” and Pharaoh just said, no.

This time Moses stretched out his staff and struck the dust of the earth, and with God’s help released a horde of gnats. Do you know what gnats are? They are little insects that bite you just like mosquitoes and when they bite you it’s just like a mosquito bite which swells up and itches, but gnats are so small you can’t see them. There were gnats everywhere, a plague of gnats, biting everyone all the time. It was most unpleasant.

Well, you think Pharaoh would have learned his lesson, but that Pharaoh was a hard-hearted man. Moses said, “Let my people go!” and Pharaoh just said, no.

So with God’s help, Moses sent a swarm of flies to plague the land. (If you’re keeping count, that’s the fourth plague Moses let loose on Egypt.) Flies everywhere! — on your food, in your eyes, everywhere.

But when Moses said, “Let my people go,” Pharaoh just said, no. So with God’s help Moses made all the cows and chickens and other livestock get sick. No milk to drink! No eggs to eat! (That’s number five.) Everyone got very hungry.

But when Moses said, “Let my people go,” Pharaoh just said, no. So with God’s help Moses made everyone in Egypt get pimples and boils that hurt like the dickens and looked nasty. (That’s number six.)

But when Moses said, “Let my people go,” Pharaoh just said, no. So with God’s help Moses let loose thunder and hail, big hailstones that damaged all the crops. (That’s number seven.)

But when Moses said, “Let my people go,” Pharaoh just said, no. So with God’s help Moses brought locusts into the country of Egypt. The locusts covered every inch of the land, and if there was anything left in the fields that the hail had not damaged, the locusts ate it up. (That’s number eight.) Now there was basically no food left to eat in all of Egypt.

But when Moses said, “Let my people go,” Pharaoh just said, no. So with God’s help Moses brought a dense darkness over the entire land of Egypt, except for little bits of light that were in the houses of the Israelites. (That’s number nine.)

But when Moses said, “Let my people go,” Pharaoh just said, no. This time, God said, “Moses, go tell Pharaoh that I, God, will make every first-born child die throughout the land of Egypt.” But God also told Moses that all the Jews should make a mark over their doors with the blood of a lamb, and that way God would know that God should pass over those houses, and not make the firstborn child die. That’s why it’s called Passover — God passed over the houses of the Israelites. (And that was the tenth, and the very worst, of the ten plagues.)

This time, when Moses went to Pharaoh and said, “Let my people go,” Pharaoh said, “Go! Go! You bring nothing but disaster to me and my kingdom.” But of course, it was all Pharaoh’s fault, because he should have set the Israelites free from slavery long before.

Source: Hebrew Bible, Exodus 7-11.

Moses and the Golden Calf

Moses and all the Israelites escaped from mean old Pharaoh, and Moses led them into the desert. They had to cross the desert, hot and dry, in order to get to the Promised Land, the place where they could live in peace and freedom.

They walked and they walked, day after day, for three whole months, until at last they reached Mount Sinai. They decided to camp there for a while, so they set up their tents.

Moses climbed up Mount Sinai, up to the very top, and while he was up there, the god sometimes known as Yahweh spoke to him. This god said to Moses, “All of you Israelites are going to be my special, chosen people. I will take care of you, and all you have to do is promise to obey me over all the other gods and goddesses.”

Moses agreed, and went back down Mount Sinai to tell the Israelites. All the Israelites had to do was to obey the god Yahweh, and Yahweh would take care of them. It’s always good to have a god looking out for you, so the Israelites agreed to obey this god.

Moses went back up Mount Sinai to report to the Yahweh. “They all promised to obey you,” Moses reported.

“Well, just to make sure,” said the god who was now the god of the ancient Israelites, “I’m going to appear at the top of this mountain as a dense dark cloud, filled with thunder and lightning. You come back up the mountain, I’ll talk with you, and then all the Israelites will know that I talk to you directly. That way they will trust you and listen to you.”

So Moses went back down Mount Sinai, and sure enough, the god of the Israelites appeared at the top of the mountain as a dense cloud. Moses went back up the mountain to talk with the god of the Israelites. All the other Israelites watched from the foot of the mountain.

Moses climbed up and up, and at last entered the dense cloud at the top of the mountain. The god of the Israelites started telling him about all the rules and laws the Israelites would have to obey. First of all, the god of the Israelites made ten laws against stealing, against murdering people, against lying. There was also a law saying the Israelites weren’t allowed to worship any other god or goddess. These first ten laws are sometimes called the “Ten Commandments.” Most of these laws still make sense, even today. And Moses went back down the mountain bringing those first ten laws to the Israelites.

Next day, Moses climbed back up the mountain for more laws. Yahweh gave him lots of laws. Some of these other laws sound strange to us today, like the law that said if one ox hurts another ox, the owner of the first ox has to sell it and divide the money with the owner of the second ox, and the owner of the second ox has to butcher it and divide the meat with the owner of the first ox. Yahweh had lots and lots of laws and rules for Moses to bring to the Israelites. Moses had to climb up and down that mountain quite a few times.

Then came a time when Moses stayed on top of the mountain for a really long time. The rest of the Israelites finally deicded Yahweh had abandoned them, and Moses wasn’t coming back. The Israelites decided to make a new god. They took gold and made it into the shape of a calf — a golden calf. They thought their new calf looked pretty cool, and they invented new worship services for their new religion, and had a big party to celebrate.

Just as the party was really getting going, Moses came back down the mountain with more laws.

“What’s going on here?” Moses said. “Don’t you remember that you promised not to worship any other gods? And here you all are, having a party, and worshipping some new god. You guys broke your promise!”

The Israelites looked a little shamefaced at first, but then some of them pointed out that Moses had been gone for a long time. For all they knew, Moses’s god had given up on the Israelites and gone somewhere else with Moses.

“Who’s on my side?” said Moses angrily. “If you still like Yahweh better than the golden calf, come with me!” A few people joined him. Moses made sure they all had swords, and then told them to go and kill anyone who was still worshipping that golden calf.

And they did.

Source: Hebrew Bible, Exodus 32.

STORIES FROM THE TALMUD

The Backwards Alphabet

One day, a man came to Rabbi Shamai to ask about becoming a Jew. Rabbi Shamai told him that if he wanted to become a Jew, he would have to learn the Torah, or the Jewish law.

The man asked, “Well then, how many types of Torah do you have?”

“We have two types of law, or Torah,” replied Rabbi Shamai. “We have the written Torah, and we have the oral Torah, the law as passed down by oral tradition.”

“I believe in the written Torah,” said the man. “But I don’t trust laws that are passed on by word of mouth. If laws aren’t written down, they are worthless. I will still become a Jew, on one condition: that you only teach me the written laws, but not the oral laws, not the spoken laws.”

Upon hearing this, Rabbi Shamai said that the man could never become a Jew, that he was disrespectful, and then Rabbi Shamai told the man to leave.

But the man still wanted to know about becoming a Jew, so he went to Rabbi Hillel.

Rabbi Hillel told him that if he wanted to become a Jew, he would have to learn Jewish laws — for example, he would have to learn the laws about eating kosher foods, and so on.

The man asked, “Well then, how many types of Torah do you have?”

“We have two types of law, or Torah,” replied Rabbi Shamai. “We have the written Torah, and we have the oral Torah, the law as passed down by oral tradition.”

“I believe in the written Torah,” said the man. “But I don’t trust laws that are passed on by word of mouth. If laws aren’t written down, they are worthless. I will still become a Jew, on one condition: that you only teach me the written laws, but not the oral laws.”

“Then I will accept you as a student,” said Rabbi Hillel. “First, you must learn how to read Hebrew, so I will teach you the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Repeat after me: aleph, bet, gimel, dalet, he, vav, zayin, khet, tet, yod, khaf, lamed, mem, nun, samekh, ayin, pe, tsadi, kuf, resh, shin, tav.”

The man repeated the entire Hebrew alphabet after Rabbi Hillel — “Aleph, bet, gimel, dalet,….” — until he had all the letters memorized.

The next day, the man came back to learn the written law from Rabbi Hillel. Rabbi Hillel said, “Let’s make sure you remember the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Repeat after me: tav, shin, resh, kuf, tsadi, pe, ayin, samekh, nun, mem, lamed, khaf, yod, tet, khet, zayin, vav, he, dalet, gimel, bet, aleph.”

The man looked confused. “But that’s not the way you taught them to me yesterday,” he said.

“Yes, that’s true,” said Rabbi Hillel, “and as you can see, you must learn to rely upon me and my teaching. In just the same way, you must learn to rely upon the spoken law.”

Source: Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sabbath 31a.

Standing on One Foot

A man came to talk with Rabbi Shamai, one of the most famous of all the rabbis, nearly as famous as Rabbi Hillel.

“I would like to convert to Judaism and become a Jew,” said the man. “But I don’t have much time. I know I have to learn the entire book you call the Torah, but you must teach it to me while I stand on one foot.”

The Torah is the most important Jewish book there is, and this crazy man wanted to learn it while standing on one foot? Why, people spent years learning the Torah; it was not something you can learn in five minutes! Rabbi Shamai grew angry with this man, and he pushed the man away using a builder’s yardstick he happened to be holding in his hand.

The man hurried away, and found Rabbi Hillel. “I would like to convert to Judaism and become a Jew,” said the man. “But I don’t have much time. I know I have to learn the entire book you call the Torah, but you must teach it to me while I stand on one foot.”

“Certainly,” said Rabbi Hillel. “Stand on one foot.”

The man balanced on one foot.

“Repeat after me,” said Rabbi Hillel. “What is hateful to you, don’t do that to someone else.”

The man repeated after Rabbi Hillel, “What is hateful to me, I won’t do that to someone else.”

“That is the whole law,” said Rabbi Hillel. “All the rest of the Torah, all the rest of the oral teaching, is there to help explain this simple law. Now, go and learn it so it is a part of you.”

Source: Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sabbath 31a.

The Rabbi and the Basket of Grapes

The Rabbis taught that if you are going to judge a case between two people, you must not accept any kind of money or gift from either person, you must not accept anything that might look like a bribe. You must show everyone that you will remain completely neutral, and completely honest.

Obviously, a judge should not accept money from either person in a lawsuit. But the rabbis taught that a judge must be so honest that he or she does not accept anything, no gifts, no favors, not even a kind word.

To show what they meant, they told this story:

Once upon a time, Rabbi Ishmael rented part of his land to a tenant-farmer. The tenant-farmer paid part of the rent by bringing fruits and vegetables to Rabbi Ishmael every Friday, the day before the Sabbath day.

But one week, the tenant-farmer brought some fruit to Rabbi Ishmael on a Thursday — a big basket full of luscious, ripe grapes. Rabbi Ishmael loved grapes, but before he took the basket he said, “Thank you for bringing the grapes, but why do you bring me grapes on a Thursday, instead of your regular day, Friday?”

“It’s like this, Rabbi,” said the tenant-farmer. “I have a lawsuit, and I would like you to be the judge for this lawsuit. And as long as I was coming up here to talk to you about being the judge, I thought I’d bring your regular weekly delivery of fruit. So I brought you your basket of grapes.”

“No, no,” said Rabbi Ishmael, “I cannot be your judge. Take the grapes back to your house, and I will go find two other rabbis to act as judge for you.”

Confused, the tenant-farmer took the basket of grapes back to his house, even though they were really Rabbi Ishmael’s grapes.

Rabbi Ishmael went out to find two other rabbis to act as judge in the lawsuit, and brought them to meet the tenant-farmer. The two other rabbis began to ask the tenant-farmer about the lawsuit, and the tenant-farmer answered as best he could.

Rabbi Ishmael stood to one side, watching and listening, and he thought to himself, “Why doesn’t the tenant-farmer give better answers?” At one point, Rabbi Ishmael was on the point of breaking in and telling the tenant-farmer what to say, but he caught himself in time.

“Look at what has happened to me,” said Rabbi Ishmael to himself. “Here I am, secretly hoping that the tenant-farmer will win his case, and I didn’t even accept a bribe. I didn’t even accept the grapes that were really mine, but came a day early. What would I have done if I had accepted a real gift, a real bribe!”

Source: Babylonian Talmud, Kethuboth 105b

The Fox and the Fish

Once upon a time, the wicked Roman government issued a decree: no more would the Jews be allowed to study the Torah and the law.

But Rabbi Akiva seemed to ignore the decree. He gathered people together quite openly, and taught them the Torah and the law. Pappas, the son of Judah, took him aside and said, “Rabbi Akiva, do know what could happen to you? Aren’t you afraid the Romans will punish you?”

“Let me tell you a story,” said Rabbi Akiva, and he told this story:

***

Once upon a time, there were many small fish who lived in a stream. One day, fox walked alongside the stream, and noticed that all the fish were darting to and fro, as if they were afraid of something.

“O fish, o fish,” said the fox, “why are you swimming around so? What is it that you are trying to escape?”

“We are trying to escape the nets that the humans have put in the stream to catch us,” said the fish.

“Oh, ho,” said the fox. “Then perhaps you should come up here and walk on dry land alongside me, just as your ancestors used to walk beside my ancestors years and years ago. That way you can escape from the nets of the humans.”

“What, go up on dry land!” said the fish indignantly. “You have a reputation for being smart, but that is a stupid thing to say. We may be afraid of what’s going on here in the water where we feel comfortable, but it would be much worse for us up in the thin air where we would surely die.” And so the fish stayed in the water, and did not try to walk beside the fox on dry land.

***

Rabbi Avika said, “Now you can see that we are just like the fish in the stream.”

Pappas asked the rabbi to explain.

“It’s like this,” said Rabbi Avika. “If we neglect the Torah, if we neglect what is central to our religion, we would be like fish out of water, and we would die. It is written in the Torah, ‘For that is your life and the length of your days.’ Perhaps we will suffer if we do study the Torah, but we know we will surely die if we don’t.”

Not long after that, the wicked Romans arrested Rabbi Akiva for teaching and studying the Torah. He was roughly thrown into the Roman prison, and there to his surprise he found Pappas.

“Pappas, what are you doing here?” asked Rabbi Akiva.

“O rabbi,” said Pappas, “you were right. I have been thrown into prison for nothing important. At least you have been thrown in prison for something worth dying for.”

And when Rabbi Akiva was killed by the Romans, he died in peace with the words of the Torah on his lips.

Source: Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakoth 61b

STORIES FROM THE CHRISTIAN SCRIPTURES

The Empty Jar

Jesus and his followers were traveling from village to village in Judea so that Jesus could teach his message of love to whomever would hear it. They had spent the day in a village where some people wanted to hear what Jesus had to say, and many others didn’t seem to care. That evening, they stayed on the outskirts of the village, and as they were eating dinner, Jesus said, “Let me tell you what it will be like when the kingdom of heaven is finally established….”

Once upon a time [said Jesus], there was a woman, just an ordinary woman who happened to live in a very small village that had no marketplace of its own. At the harvest season, the crops having been gathered in, the woman decided to walk to a larger village, two or three miles away, where there was a market.

She started off early in the morning. She brought along some things her family had grown to sell in the market, and she brought along a large pottery jar with two big handles. Since she was an ordinary villager, or course she did not have fancy bronze jars, nor did she even have well-made pottery jars with pretty decorations. The potter who lived in her village was not very good at what he did, so her jars were without decoration, and not very well made.

She arrived at the marketplace, and sold everything she had brought. Then she purchased a large amount of meal, or coarsely-ground flour. She filled her jar with the meal, tied the handle with a strap of cloth, and slung the jar over her back.

The path home was steep and rough, and by now the day was hot. She walked along, putting one foot in front of the other, and she did not notice anything besides the heat and the rough path.

But one of the handles to the jar broke off, and the jar slowly tipped to one side. Bit by bit, the coarsely-ground flour spilled out on the path behind her. Bit by bit, the jar tipped even further. Before she reached home, all the flour in that jar had spilled out.

At last the woman reached home. She put the jar down, and discovered that it was empty. That is what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like.

Source: Adapted from the Gospel of Thomas, chapter 97.

How To Feed Five Thousand People

Once upon a time, Jesus and his disciples (that is, his closest followers) were trying to take a day off. Jesus had become very popular, and people just wouldn’t leave him alone. Jesus and the disciples wanted a little time away from the crowds that followed them everywhere, so they rented a boat and went to a lonely place, far from any village.

But people figured out where they were going, and by the time Jesus and his friends landed the boat, there were five thousand people waiting there for them. So Jesus started to teach them, and he talked to them for hours.
It started getting late, and the disciples of Jesus pulled him aside and said, “We need to send these people to one of the nearby villages to get some food.”

“No,” said Jesus. “The villages around here are too small to feed five thousand people. You will have to get them something to eat.”

“What do you mean?” his disciples said. “We don’t have enough money to go buy enough bread for all these people, and even if we did, how would we bring it all back here?”

“No, no,” said Jesus. “I don’t want you to go buy bread. Look, how many loaves of bread have we got right here?”

The disciples looked at the food they had brought with them. “We got five loaves of bread, and a couple of fried fish. That’s it.”

“That’ll be enough,” said Jesus.

His disciples looked at him as if he were crazy. There was no way that would be enough food for five thousand people!

But Jesus had spent the whole day teaching people about the Kingdom of God, teaching them that everyone is dependent on someone else. And while he was sitting up in front of the crowd teaching, he looked out and saw that many of the five thousand people had brought their own food with them. He watched them as they surreptitiously nibbled away at their own food, ignoring the fact that many of the people around them had no food at all.

Jesus told everyone to sit down on the grass. All five thousand people sat down. Jesus brought out the five loaves of bread. Being a good Jew, he blessed the bread using the traditional Jewish blessing: “Blessed are you, O Holy One, Creator of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” Then, so everyone could see, Jesus broke the bread, and cut up the fish, and divided it up, so the disciples could hand it around.

Everyone saw that even though Jesus and his disciples had barely enough food for themselves, they were going to share it with everyone. From where he sat, Jesus could see the truth dawning in people’s eyes. All day long, Jesus had been teaching them that the Kingdom of Heaven existed here and now, if only people would recognize it. Now Jesus was giving them a chance to show they understood, and to act as if the Kingdom of Heaven truly existed.

The disciples began to pass around the bread and the fried fish, shaking their heads because they knew there wasn’t going to be enough food for everyone. Yet, miracle of miracles, there was plenty of food to go around. People who had food put some of their food into the baskets so it could be shared. People who hadn’t brought food with them took some food from the baskets. By the time the followers of Jesus had passed the baskets to all five thousand people, everyone had gotten enough to eat, and there was so much food left over that it filled twelve baskets.

And that’s the story of how Jesus fed five thousand people with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fried fish. Many people believe that Jesus performed a magical miracle when he blessed the bread and fish, and that somehow God turned a dozen loaves of bread and two fish into thousands of loaves of bread and thousands of fried fish.

It’s easier to believe that God performed the miracle, than to believe that humans could perform the same miracle. Because if humans performed the miracle, that means we could do the same thing today: to share with those who need it, and to live as if the Kingdom of Heaven existed here and now.

Source: Christian scriptures, Mark 6.32-44. Theological interpretation inspired by Bernard Loomer, Unfoldings (Berkeley, Calif.: 1985), pp. 3 ff.; and Latin American liberation theology.

Two Miracle Birth Stories of Jesus of Nazareth

Although the story of the miracle birth of Jesus is usually told as one story, actually we have two different stories about his birth, stories that are quite different from each other. The first story tells about the miraculous star and the visit of the Magi; the second tells of angels, shepherds, and the stable.

1. The Star and the Magi

The birth of Jesus happened in this way:

When Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be pregnant with a child. Then Joseph, being a just man, and not wanting to make a public example of her, was minded to put her away from him quietly.

But while he thought about it, an angel of Adonai, the God of the Israelites, appeared to him in a dream, and said, “Joseph, you son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife; for her child is from the Holy Spirit. She will bring forth a son, and you shall call him ‘Jesus,’ for he will save his people from their sins.”

All this happened to fulfill that which God said through the ancient prophet: “A virgin shall be with child, and she shall bring forth a son, and they shall call him ‘Emmanuel’,” which means, “God is with us.”

When Joseph awakened, he did as the angel of God had bid him do: he took Mary as his wife, but did not sleep with her until she had given birth to her firstborn son. And they named the baby “Jesus.”

Traditionally, the next part of the story happens on the holiday of Epiphany, which is on January 6, twelve days after Christmas. But most people include it with the Christmas story, so we will tell it here:

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the king, Magi came to Jerusalem from the east. They said, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and have come to pay him homage.”

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem was frightened with him. He called together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, and he demanded of them where this Messiah was to be born.

They said to him, “In Bethlehem, in the land of Judea, for the prophet said: ‘And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.'”

Herod secretly called the wise men, and asked them what time the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search for the young child, and when you have found him, bring me word again, that I too might go and pay him homage.”

When they heard the king, the wise men departed. And the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced. They went into the house, and saw the young child with Mary, his mother. They knelt down, and paid him homage. When they had opened their treasure chests, they gave him gifts: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

God came to them in a dream, and warned them that they should not return to Herod. So they departed to their own country by another road.

Source: Christian scriptures, Matthew 1.18-2.12, using the beautiful original language of the King James Version translation whenever possible; checked against the more accurate New Revised Standard Version translation.

2. What Angels Told to Shepherds

A decree went out from the Emperor, Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be registered and taxed. This happened while Cyrenius was the governor of Syria.

Everyone went to be registered and taxed, each one into his own city. Joseph also went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee, into the city of David called Bethlehem in Judea; he went there because he was of the family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was betrothed to be married; and Mary was great with child.

And so it was, that, when they were in Bethlehem, it came time for Mary to deliver her child. She gave birth to her firstborn son, and she wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and she laid him in a manger; they had to stay in a stable because there was no room for them in the inn.

In that same country there were shepherds in the fields, keeping watch over their flock at night. An angel of Adonai, the God of the Israelites came upon them, and the glory of Adonai shone around them, and they were very afraid.

The angel said to them, “Fear not: for see, I bring you good tidings of great joy for all people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is the Messiah. This shall be a sign to you: you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and good will toward all people.”

When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go into Bethlehem, and see this thing which has happened, which God has made known to us.”

They went with haste, and they found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. When they had seen this, they told everyone what had been told to them about this child; and everyone who heard it wondered at the things which the shepherds told them.

Mary treasured what they told her, and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned to their fields, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, as it had been told to them.

Source: Christian scriptures, Luke 2.1-52, using the beautiful original language of the King James Version translation whenever possible; checked against the more accurate New Revised Standard Version translation.

The Story of Palm Sunday

Perhaps you have heard of Palm Sunday, but aren’t quite sure what Palm Sunday is. This is the story of Palm Sunday as I learned it when I was a Unitarian Universalist child. This story took place two thousand years ago, and today different people tell many different versions of this story. But this is the story as I heard it.

***

Once upon a time, there was a Jewish teacher named Jesus. Jesus lived in a land called Judea, and he went from town to town teaching about religion. Jesus wasn’t an official Jewish religious leader, as the Pharisees were. Many people listened to his teachings anyway, probably because he treated everyone with respect, even people who were poor or homeless or sick. People also liked to listen to Jesus because what he said made so much sense. He said religion was simple:— love your God with all your heart and all your mind, and treat other people the way you would like to be treated.

Jesus taught in the countryside, not in the great city of Jerusalem. But at last he and his followers (who were called the disciples) decided they would go to Jerusalem for Passover. Just as it is now, Jerusalem was the most important city for Jews, and celebrating Passover in Jerusalem was especially meaningful for anyone who was Jewish.

They left the town they were in, a town called Jericho, and began to walk to Jerusalem. There were no cars or planes or trains in those days (even if there had been they would have been too poor to take them), so Jesus and his disciples had to walk all the way to Jerusalem. But Jesus was tired. He had been teaching and healing sick people and he was just plain worn out. He was so tired that when they all got close to Jerusalem, Jesus asked his disciples to see if they could find an animal for him to ride. The disciples managed to find someone who loaned them a foal for Jesus to ride.

There were crowds and crowds of people on the way in to Jerusalem for Passover. Quite a few of the people had seen Jesus before, and had heard his teachings about religion. Some of these people thought Jesus was the greatest religious teacher and leader around. They began to point at Jesus, and call out to him.

All these people were pouring in to Jerusalem for Passover, one of the most sacred days of the year for Jews. Someone began to sing a hymn that seemed to fit what they were doing, and other people joined in. They sang:

Enter into the gates with thanksgiving
And into the courts with praise.
Serve God with gladness,
Come before God’s presence with singing.
Blessed are those who come in the name of Adonai, our god!

People were in a happy, festive mood. They gathered flowers, and picked leaves from palm trees, and carried them along. Someone started singing again:

Hosanna! Hosanna!
Enter into God’s gates with thanksgiving,
And into God’s courts with praise.
Blessed are those who come in the name of Adonai, our God!

All these people singing and walking into Jerusalem together! Someone who thought Jesus was a great religious teacher and leader gave him flowers, and suddenly lots of people were giving him flowers, and lots more people were waving palm leaves over him.

I think at this point Jesus became uncomfortable. He didn’t mind that people liked him. He didn’t mind that they thought that he was a good religious teacher. But the singing, and people giving him flowers and waving palm leaves over him,— those were the kinds of things that people did for new kings of Jerusalem, back in the olden times, hundreds of years before Jesus lived. In Jesus’ time, the Romans were the rulers of Jerusalem. It was dangerous for these people to treat Jesus like one of the kings of old. Could some of the people hope that Jesus would stand up to the Romans, or even rebel against them? Jesus knew that it was dangerous for them to even think about such things. Would the Romans believe that someone was planning a rebellion? As Jesus rode into Jerusalem with all the people waving palm leaves over him, he began to think about how the Romans might react.

***

Now you know why Palm Sunday is called Palm Sunday: it celebrates the day that Jesus entered Jerusalem while the crowds waved palm leaves over him.

Source: Christian scriptures, Mark 14-16, with reference to Matthew and Luke.

Jesus in Jerusalem

On the first day after he arrived in Jerusalem, Jesus did little more than look around in the great Temple of Jerusalem; the Temple that was the holiest place for Jesus and for all other Jews. Jesus couldn’t help but see that around the edges of the Temple there were people selling everything from goats to pigeons, and other people who would change money for you, for a fee. Besides that, Jesus saw all kinds of people coming and going, taking shortcuts by going through the Temple, carrying all kinds of gear and equipment and baskets. But on that first day, he and his followers just watched all this, and then left.

The next day, Jesus returned to the Temple. He walked in, chased out the people selling things, and upset the tables of the moneychangers. Needless to say, he created quite a commotion! and a crowd gathered around to see what this stranger, this traveling rabbi, was up to. Once the dust had settled, Jesus turned to the gathered crowd, and quoted from the Hebrew scriptures, the book of Isaiah where God says, “My Temple shall be known as a place of prayer for all nations.” Jesus said it was time that the Temple went back to being a place of prayer. How could you pray when there were people buying and selling things right next to you? How could you pray with all those pigeons cooing?

His followers and many other people thought Jesus did the right thing in chasing the pigeon-dealers, the moneylenders, and the other salespeople out of the Temple. But the way he did it managed to annoy the powerful people who ran the Temple. It made them look bad. They didn’t like that.

In the next few days, Jesus taught and preached all through Jerusalem. He quoted from the Hebrew scriptures, the book of Leviticus where it says, “You are to love your neighbor as yourself.” He encouraged people to be genuinely religious, to help the weak and the poor. Jesus also got into heated discussions with some of Jerusalem’s religious leaders, and he was so good at arguing that once again, he made those powerful people look bad. Once again, they didn’t like that.

Meanwhile, other things were brewing in Jerusalem. The Romans governed Jerusalem, and they became concerned about Jesus. They realized that when Jesus rode into the city, he was welcomed by a crowd of people who treated him as if he were one of the long-lost kings of Israel. That made the Romans worry. Was Jesus planning some kind of secret religious rebellion? How many followers did he have? What was he really up to, anyway?

Jesus continued his teaching and preaching from Sunday until Thursday evening, when Passover began. Since Jesus and his disciples were all good observant Jews, after sundown on Thursday they celebrated a Passover Seder together. They had the wine, the matzoh, the bitter herbs, all the standard things you have at a Seder.

After the Seder, even though it was after dark Jesus and his followers went to a garden to sit for a while. All his followers fell asleep, but Jesus himself was restless and depressed and stayed awake. He had a strong sense that the Romans or the powerful religious leaders were going to try to arrest him for stirring up trouble, for agitating the people of Jerusalem. He didn’t regret anything he had said or done, for after all what he had said was the truth; but he was restless. He didn’t know how or when he might be arrested, but he was pretty sure it would happen sometime soon.

As it happened, Jesus was arrested just a few hours after the Seder while he sat in the garden, while his followers were still sleeping. Jesus was put on trial that same night, and he was executed the next day. The Romans put him to death using a common but very unpleasant type of execution known as crucifixion. He died on Friday, when the sun was about to go down.

Because the Jewish sabbath started right at sundown, and Jewish law of the time did not allow you to bury anyone on the Sabbath day, Jesus’ friends couldn’t bury him right away. There were no funeral homes back in those days, so Jesus’ friends put his body in a tomb, a sort of cave cut into the side of a hill, where the body would be safe until after the Sabbath was over.

First thing Sunday morning, some of Jesus’ friends went to the tomb to get the body ready for burial. But to their great surprise, the body was gone, and there was a man there in white robes who talked to them about Jesus!

This whole story happened two thousand years ago, so we’ll never know quite what happened. But what might have happened is that some of Jesus’ other friends had already come along buried the body. Jesus’s followers must have been disorganized and confused that morning, and though they all were upset Jesus was dead, they also worried that one or more of them might be arrested, too, and even put to death. The burial must have taken place in secret, and probably not all the followers got told when and where the burial was.

So by the time some of Jesus’ followers had gotten to the tomb, others had already buried his body. Some of Jesus’ followers began saying that Jesus had risen from the dead, and after that several people even claimed to have spoken with him. All of his friends were so sad, and missed him so much, that they wanted to believe that he was alive again.

But you could say that Jesus did live on through his teaching. What he taught about the power of love has changed the world. He taught that we should love all people as we love ourselves; and if you can really live your life that way, you’ll find that your world will be changed, too.

Source: Christian scriptures, Mark 16, with reference to Matthew and Luke.

STORIES FROM AFRICAN PEOPLES

See also: “The Doctor Who Rode a Hyena to Mecca” in Islamic Stories.

The Golden Chain

The Yoruba peoples have lived in West Africa for more than fifteen hundred years. They were perhaps the most advanced civilization in Africa for much of their history; both their art and technology were superior to their neighbors.

During the years when West African peoples were captured and sold into slavery, there were many Yoruba people who were sold into slavery in North and South America and in the Caribbean islands. The Yoruba people brought their religious traditions to the Americas, and continued to worship their own gods and goddesses.

The Yoruba religions adapted some parts of Christianity, which was the religion of their masters, into their own religion. They may have done this to help keep their own religion secret from their masters.

Over time, the Yoruba religion came to be known by different names in different places. It is called Santeria in the Caribbean, Vodoun in Haiti, Candomble in Brazil, and Oyotunji in the United States. But all these different traditions give devotion to the orishas. An orisha is a heavenly being, like a god or goddess. Each orisha is identified with a Roman Catholic saint.

Olorun is the highest god, but human beings do not have direct contact with Olorun. Instead, human beings find ways of contacting the orishas, who in turn can contact Olorun. When a person needs help, she or he will visit a diviner who will offer advice on what to do. Often, the diviner will read the palm nuts, a traditional way of connecting with the orishas. Human beings also “make ebo” — offer sacrifices — at the shrine of one of the orishas, seeking the support and help of that ebo.

The following story is one of many creation stories told by the followers of the orishas.

***

Long ago, well before there were any people, all life existed in the sky. Olorun lived in the sky, and with Olorun were many orishas. There were both male and female orishas, but Olorun transcended male and female and was the all-powerful supreme being. Olorun and the orishas lived around a young baobab tree. Around the baobab tree the orishas found everything they needed for their lives, and in fact they wore beautiful clothes and gold jewelry. Olorun told them that all the vast sky was theirs to explore. All the orishas save one, however, were content to stay near the baobab tree.

Obatala was the curious orisha who wasn’t content to live blissfully by the baobab tree. Like all orishas, he had certain powers, and he wanted to put them to use. As he pondered what to do, he looked far down through the mists below the sky. As he looked and looked, he began to realize that there was a vast empty ocean below the mist. Obatala went to Olorun and asked Olorun to let him make something solid in the waters below. That way there could be beings that Obatala and the orishas could help with their powers.

Touched by Obatala’s desire to do something constructive, Olorun agreed to send Obatala to the watery world below. Obatala then asked Orunmila, the orisha who knows the future, what he should do to prepare for his mission. Orunmila brought out a sacred tray and sprinkled the powder of baobab roots on it. He tossed sixteen palm kernels onto the tray and studied the marks and tracks they made on the powder. He did this eight times, each time carefully observing the patterns. Finally he told Obatala to prepare a chain of gold, and to gather sand, palm nuts, and maize. He also told Obatala to get the sacred egg carrying the personalities of all the orishas.

Obatala went to his fellow orishas to ask for their gold, and they all gave him all the gold they had. He took this to the goldsmith, who melted all the jewelry to make the links of the golden chain. When Obatala realized that the goldsmith had made all the gold into links, he had the goldsmith melt a few of them back down to make a hook for the end of the chain.

Meanwhile, as Orunmila had told him, Obatala gathered all the sand in the sky and put it in an empty snail shell, and in with it he added a little baobab powder. He put that in his pack, along with palm nuts, maize, and other seeds that he found around the baobab tree. He wrapped the egg in his shirt, close to his chest so that it would be warm during his journey.

Obatala hooked the chain into the sky, and he began to climb down the chain. For seven days he went down and down, until finally he reached the end of the chain. He hung at its end, not sure what to do, and he looked and listened for any clue. Finally he heard Orunmila, the seer, calling to him to use the sand. He took the shell from his pack and poured out the sand into the water below. The sand hit the water, and to his surprise it spread and solidified to make a vast land. Still unsure what to do, Obatala hung from the end of the chain until his heart pounded so much that the egg cracked. From it flew Sankofa, the bird bearing the sprits of all the orishas. Like a storm, they blew the sand to make dunes and hills and lowlands, giving it character just as the orishas themselves have character.

Finally Obatala let go of the chain and dropped to this new land, which he called “Ife”, the place that divides the waters. Soon he began to explore this land, and as he did so he scattered the seeds from his pack, and as he walked the seeds began to grow behind him, so that the land turned green in his wake.

After walking a long time, Obatala grew thirsty and stopped at a small pond. As he bent over the water, he saw his reflection and was pleased. He took some clay from the edge of the pond and began to mold it into the shape he had seen in the reflection. He finished that one and began another, and before long he had made many of these bodies from the dark earth at the pond’s side. By then he was even thirstier than before, and he took juice from the newly-grown palm trees and it fermented into palm wine. He drank this, and drank some more, and soon he was intoxicated. He returned to his work of making more forms from the edge of the pond, but now he wasn’t careful and made some without eyes or some with misshapen limbs. He thought they all were beautiful, although later he realized that he had erred in drinking the wine and vowed to not do so again.

Before long, Olorun dispatched Chameleon down the golden chain to check on Obatala’s progress. Chameleon reported Obatala’s disappointment at making figures that had form but no life. Gathering gasses from the space beyond the sky, Olorun sparked the gasses into an explosion that he shaped into a fireball. He sent that fireball to Ife, where it dried the lands that were still wet and began to bake the clay figures that Obatala had made. The fireball even set the earth to spinning, as it still does today. Olorun then blew his breath across Ife, and Obatala’s figures slowly came to life as the first people of Ife.

Source: This creation story comes from the Yoruba people of Nigeria, Togo and Benin. In the religion of the Yoruba, the supreme being is Olorun, and assisting Olorun are a number of heavenly entities called orishas. This story was written down by David A. Anderson/ Sankofa, who learned it from his father, who learned it from his mother, and so on back through the Yoruba people and through time. See: The Origin of Life on Earth: An African Creation Myth. by David A. Anderson/Sankofa (Mt. Airy, Maryland: Sights Productions, 1991), 31 p. [Folio PZ8.1.A543 Or 1991].

Spider and Nzambi Mpungu’s Heavenly Fire

First you must understand who Nzambi Mpungu is. He is the father of all things, and lives a happy life above the sky, where he has a many wives and beautiful children. He spends very little time thinking about us people here on earth, and since he is a good being there is no use in offering him worship or sacrifices. True, there are lesser gods and goddesses who can hurt us people here on earth, and to them we might offer worship and sacrefice, but Nzambi Mpungu will not mind, for he is not in the least jealous.

Now you may question whether Nzambi Mpungu actually exists. But there is a man still living, near the town of Loango, who says that one day, when it was thundering and lightning and raining very heavily, and when all the people in his village, being afraid, had hidden themselves in their houses, he alone was walking about. Suddenly, and at the moment of an extraordinarily vivid flash of lightning, after a very loud peal of thunder, he was seized and carried through space until he reached the roof of heaven, when it opened and allowed him to pass through to where Nzambi Mpungu lives.

There the man met Nzambi Mpungu, who cooked some food for him. Then Nzambi Mpungu showed the man his great plantations and rivers full of fish. Then Nzambu Mpungu left the man, telling him to help himself whenever he felt hungry. The man stayed there two or three weeks, and never had he had so much good food to eat. At last Nzambi Mpungu came to again, and asked the man whether he would like to remain there always, or whether he would like to return to the earth. The man said that he missed his friends, and would like to return to them, and Nzambi Mpungu sent him back to his family. So you see, Nzambi Mpungu does indeed live above the sky.

Nzambi, on the other hand, is Mother Earth. Some say she is Nzambi Mpungu’s first child. She is the great princess, a mighty ruler who governs all on earth. She has the spirit of rain, lightning, and thunder for her own use. She is a stern judge, and a fearsome ruler.

Now we can begin the story of how Spider almost married Nzambi’s daughter.

For Nzambi had a most delightful daughter whom anyone would have wanted to marry. But Nzambi swore that no earthly being should marry her daughter, unless they could bring her the heavenly fire from Nzambi Mpungu, who kept it somewhere in the heavens above the blue roof of sky.

The people all wondered who could ever bring the heavenly fire down to earth.

Then Spider said, “I will bring the heavenly fire to earth, but I will need help.”

“We will gladly help you,” said all the people, “if you will reward us for our help.”

So Spider climbed up to the blue roof of heaven, and dropped down again to the earth, leaving a strong silken thread firmly hanging from the roof to the earth below. Then he called to Tortoise, Woodpecker, Rat, and Sandfly, and bade them climb up the thread to the blue roof of sky.
When they got there, Woodpecker pecked a hole through the roof, and through this hole they all entered into the realm of Nzambi Mpungu, who, as it happens, was very badly dressed. Nzambi Mpungu received them courteously, and asked them what they wanted up there.

“O Nzambi Mpungu of the heavens above, great father of all the world,” they said, “we have come to fetch some of your terrible fire, to bring it down to Nzambi who rules upon earth.”

“Wait here then,” said Nzambi Mpungu, “while I go to my people and tell them of the message you bring.” But Sandfly followed Nzambi Mpungu without being seen, and heard all that was said.

While Sandfly was gone, the others talked among themselves, wondering if it were possible that someone who went around so badly dressed could be so powerful.

At last Nzambi Mpungu returned to them. “My friend,” he said to Spider, “how can I know that you have really come from the ruler of the earth, and that you are not impostors?”

“Nay,” said Spider and all the others, “put us to some test so we may prove our sincerity to you.”

“I will,” said Nzambi Mpungu. “Go down to this Earth of yours, and bring me a bundle of bamboos, so I can make myself a shed.”
Tortoise climbed all the way down to Earth, leaving the others where they were, and soon returned with the bamboo.

Nzambi Mpungu then said to Rat, “Get beneath this bundle of bamboo, and I will set fire to it. If you escape I shall surely know that Nzambi sent you.”

Rat did as he was told, and hid under the bundle of bamboo. Nzambi Mpurigu set fire to the bamboo, and lo! when they were entirely consumed, Rat came from amidst the ashes completely unharmed.

“Ah!” said Nzambi Mpungu. “You are indeed sent from Nzambi on Earth. I will go and consult my people again.”

Spider, Rat, Woodpecker, and Tortoise sent Sandfly after him, bidding him to keep well out of sight, to hear all that was said, and if possible to find out where the lightning was kept. Sandfly soon returned and told them all that he had heard and seen.

When Nzambi Mpungu came back a little later, he said, “Yes, I will give you the heavenly fire you ask for. But only if you can tell me where it is kept.”

Spider said, “Give me then, O Nzambi Mpungu, one of the five cases that you keep in the hen-house.”

“Truly, you have answered me correctly, O Spider!” said Nzambi Mpungu. “Take this case, and give it to your Nzambi.”

Tortoise carried the heavy case containing the heavenly fire down to the earth. When they got to Nzambi’s house, Spider presented the fire from heaven to her. True to her word, Nzambi agreed to let Spider marry her delightful daughter.

But Woodpecker grumbled, saying, “Surely your daughter is mine, for I was the one who pecked the hole through the roof, without which the others never could have entered the kingdom of the Nzambi Mpungu.”

“No, she is mine,” said Rat. “For I risked my life among the burning bamboo.”

“Nay, O Nzambi, she is mine,” said Sandfly. “For without my help the others would never have found out where the fire was kept.”
And Tortoise complained that he was the one who had to return to Earth to fetch the bamboo, and then had to carry the heavy case down to Earth, so of course the daughter should be married to him.

After listening to them all, Nzambi said: “Nay, Spider was the one who planned how to bring me the heavenly fire, and he has indeed brought it. By rights, my daughter should be married to him. But I know you others will make her life miserable if I allow her to marry Spider. Since she cannot marry all of you, I will not allow her to marry any of you. But I will give you her value” — for the people Nzambi ruled customarily gave presents when one of their children married.

Nzambi then paid fifty bolts of cloth each to Tortoise, Rat, Woodpecker, Sandfly, and Spider.

As for the daughter, she never married, and stayed with Nzambi for the rest of her days.

Adapted from Richard Edward Dennett, Notes on the Folklore of the Fjort (French Congo), London: Folk-lore Society, 1898, pp. 74-76 and 131-135.

Drawing of a deity
Nzambi Mpungu, drawn from an African sculpture

JATAKA TALES FROM THE BUDDHIST TRADITION

While the Jataka Tales have appeared in many children’s books, those who retell them rarely include the framing story. The framing story typically tells an incident from the community that gathered around Gautama Buddha. Then the Buddha tells a tale from one of his previous lives, which is always designed to teach his followers an ethical lesson. After the Buddha has told the tale from one of his previous lives, his followers try to guess which of the characters in the story was the Buddha.

Where there is a framing story, I’ve included it here. These framing stories help children (and adults) understand something of Buddhist values and beliefs, and also something of the early Buddhist community.

Where noted, the material below is adapted The Jataka, or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births, ed. E. B. Cowell (Oxford, 1895-1911).

The Frightened Rabbit

One day in the town of Savatthi, some of Buddha’s followers went out to beg for their food, as was their custom. (These followers of Buddha were known as bhikkus.)

Each day when the bhikkus went out to beg, they went to a different part of the town. On this particular morning, their path led them past some holy men. These holy men lay naked on beds of thorn-plants, in the hope that this would help them become more holy.

The bhikkus looked at these holy men, and kept walking. Then their path led them past more holy men. These 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 this would help them become more holy.

The bhikkus walked by these men, too, and continued on their way, stopping at each house and begging for food. When at last each of their begging bowls was filled with food, they returned to where they lived with Buddha and all the other bhikkus.

As they sat and ate, the bhikkus talked about the holy men that they had seen. They talked and they talked, and finally they decided to ask Buddha about these holy men.

“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, “when we were out getting our food this morning, we walked past some holy men who were sitting next to a blazing fire, out under the blazing hot sun.” He paused for a moment. “Will do this make them any more holy?”

“No,” said Buddha. “Lying on thorns will not make you more holy. Baking yourself under the sun and next to a hot fire will not make you more holy. Such things are just like the horrible noise that was heard by the timid rabbit.”

The bhikkus looked at each other. One of them said, “Buddha, we have never heard about the timid rabbit and the noise he heard.”

“Well,” said Buddha, “it is a story that took place long, long ago, in the far distant past.” And then he told this story:

***

Once upon a time, there was a little rabbit who lived in a forest by the Western Ocean. This little rabbit went to live in a beautiful grove of trees. He made his home 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.

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 being destroyed!” cried the little rabbit, and he immediately started running as fast as he could away from the sound.

Another rabbit saw him running with terror in his eyes, and said, “What’s going on?”

“The earth is being destroyed!” cried the little rabbit, and kept running.

The second rabbit ran after him, shouting, “The earth is being destroyed!” Soon, all the rabbits in the neighborhood were running with them.

When the other animals saw all the rabbits running, they asked, “What’s going on?”

The rabbits cried out, “The earth is being destroyed! 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!”

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 enough to see that the earth was not being destroyed, and she could also see that the animals were so frightened that they would run right into the Western Ocean and drown. She ran as fast as she could and got in front of all the animals, and stopped them by roaring 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 all the animals together.

The lion said, “How do you know the earth is being destroyed?”

One of the animals said, “The elephants must have seen it.”

But the elephants hadn’t seen anything. “We think the tigers saw it,” they said.

But the tigers hadn’t seen anything. “We think the rhinoceroses know what happened,” they said.

But the rhinoceroses didn’t know anything. “We think it was the buffaloes who 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 saw the earth starting to break into pieces.”

The lion said, “Where were you when you saw this?”

“I was at home in the little grove of trees,” said the little rabbit, “next to my house at the foot of the Bengal quince tree. I was sitting under my favorite little palm tree nibbling grass, when I heard the earth start to break behind me. So I ran away.”

The lion knew then that the Bengal quinces were starting to ripen, and she knew that one of the fruits had fallen from the tree and hit the ground behind the little rabbit. But she said to all the animals, “Stay here for a while. I will take the little rabbit with me to this place, and we will see what is happening back there.”

The kind lion had the little rabbit jump up onto her broad back, and ran off to where the little rabbit thought he had heard the earth breaking up. 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 the little rabbit closed his eyes in fear.

But the lion said kindly, “Little rabbit, 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. You heard was the sound of that piece of fruit hitting the ground behind you. It must have made a loud sound, and now 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.

***

“So it is,” said the Buddha, “that you should not listen to rumors, and you should not listen to the fears of other people. You should try to find out the truth for yourselves.”

A bhikku said, “The lion was truly wise and compassionate. If it had not been for her, all the animals would have drowned.”

Another one of the bhikkus said, “Buddha, were you the lion in that story?”

“Yes,” said the Buddha. “I was the lion who stopped the animals from harming themselves for no reason at all.”

After that, the bhikkus no longer needed to ask questions about people who lay on thorns or sat next to a bonfire on a blazing hot day.

Source: Duddubha Jataka, Jataka tale no. 322, from the Cowell translation (1911). It’s interesting to note that the fruit tree that the little rabbit lives under is the same kind of fruit tree that Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, is said to have lived under, and perhaps there is some implicit criticism of Hinduism in this story.

The Quails and the Net

Gautama Buddha was a great holy man who lived long, long ago in India. He was so wise that people came from far and wide to learn from him. Many of these people stayed with him, and became his bhikkus, or his followers.

Once upon a time, Buddha noticed that several of his bhikkus were spending a great deal of time arguing among themselves. As a result, these bhikkus began to disturb the other people who had come to learn from Buddha. Not only that, but Buddha felt that because of their arguing, they were not making any progress toward becoming truly enlightened beings.

That evening, Buddha sat all his followers down together, and he told them this story:

***

“Once upon a time, long, long ago, there lived a large flock of quails in a forest. Now in near this very same forest there lived a hunter who made his living from capturing quails and selling them to people who wanted to eat them. Every day this hunter would slip quietly into the forest and sit hidden behind a big bush. Then he would imitate the call of a quail. He did it so perfectly that the quail thought the hunter was one of them.

“Upon hearing the hunter’s call, the quail would come out of the safe places where they had been gathering food. Once the quail came out into the open, the hunter would leap out from his hiding place and throw a big net over as many quails as he could reach. He would bundle up the net and take all the quail away to the marketplace to be sold to people who wanted to eat them for dinner.

“As you might expect, this state of affairs did not please the quail at all. In fact, they were scared silly because this hunter was capturing so many of them.

“The quail decided to hold a meeting to discuss the problem. One wise quail brought up a good point. She said:

“‘You know, that net the hunter throws over us isn’t very heavy. If we all agreed to work together, we could escape. As soon as he throws the net over us, if we all fly up together at the same time, we can lift the net up with us and get away.’

“The other quails thought this was a good plan. They all agreed to work together to escape the next time the hunter threw the net over them.
“The very next day, the hunter came back to the forest. He imitated the call of a quail so perfectly that all the quail were fooled again. Then he threw the net over as many quail as he could reach, expecting to bundle them up as always.

“But this time the quail who were caught under the net knew what to do. Instantly, before the hunter could bundle them up, they all flew up in the air together. They lifted the net up with them, and settled down together into a nearby rose bush. The net got tangled up in the thorns of the rose bush, and the quail scurried away to safety.

“The hunter was left to pick his net out of the sharp thorns. After hours of work, he finally untangled his net, and walked home, tired and discouraged.

“The next day, the hunter came back to try his luck again. He gave his imitation of the quail’s call. All the quail came running. When they felt the net settle over them, they instantly began to fly to a nearby patch of brambles. They settled down into the brambles leaving the net caught on the sharp thorns. Once again, the hunter was left to untangle his net from the sharp thorns.

“This went on for some days. The hunter was growing more and more discouraged. Finally, one day the hunter came back into the forest, gave his perfect imitation of the quail’s call, and threw his net over the quail when they came out into the open.

“But this time, when it came time for all the quail to fly up together, one quail happened to step on the foot of another quail.
“‘Hey,’ said the second quail, ‘who kicked me?’

“‘Nobody kicked you,’ said a third, ‘It’s just your imagination.’

“Yet a fourth quail said, ‘Oh, he’s just complaining because he’s lazy; he never lifts his share of the net.’

“Still another quail said, ‘And who are you to talk? Yesterday I noticed that you did very little of the flying, leaving all the hard work to the rest of us.’

“As the quail fought and bickered among themselves, the hunter bundled them up in his net and carried them off to market. They were all fat, plump quails, and the hunter got a very good price for them.”

***

The followers of Buddha all believed that they had lived many lives in the past, sometimes as animals and sometimes as humans. The Buddha told them that the story of the quails was really a story of them in one of their past lives.

“When you were on this earth as quails,” said the Buddha, “you argued among yourselves, and were caught by the hunter, and were eaten for dinner that very night. You are no longer quails. Is it not time for you to stop arguing among yourselves?”

The bhikkus who had been arguing so much grew embarrassed and ashamed, and from that day on, so it is told, they no longer engaged in silly arguments.

Source: Jataka tale no. 33, Cowell translation. A well-known Jataka tale, but in the West the story is rarely told with the framing story.

The Little Tree-Spirit

One day, some of Buddha’s followers, or bhikkus, were sitting in the Hall of Truth. They were talking about three other bhikkus, Kokalika and his friends Sariputta and Moggallana. The three friends didn’t seem to know how to get along with each other. Just that day, Kokalika had asked his two friends to travel with him back to his own country, and they had refused — rather rudely, too.

Buddha came and and heard the bhikkus talking about the three Kokalika, Sariputta, and Moggallna. One bhikku said, “That Kokalika can’t live without his two friends, but he can’t live with them, either.”

“That reminds me of a story,” said Buddha, joining the conversation….

***

Once upon a time, two tree-spirits lived in a forest. One of the tree-spirits lived in a small, modest tree; the other tree-spirit lived in a huge old tree that towered over the other trees.

Now in that same forest there lived a ferocious tiger and a fearsome lion. This lion and this tiger used to kill and eat every large animal they could get. Because of this, no human beings dared set foot in the forest, nor were there very many other animals left. Worse yet, the lion and the tiger were very messy eaters, leaving chunks of meat on the forest floor to rot. The whole forest was filled with the smell of their rotting food.

The smaller tree-spirit had no common sense, and got the idea that the lion and the tiger had to leave the forest. He said to his neighbor, the great tree-spirit, “I have decided to drive the ferocious tiger and the fearsome lion out of our forest!”

“My friend,” said the great tree-spirit, “don’t you see that it is because of these two creatures that our beloved forest is protected? If the tiger and the lion leave the forest, human beings will come and cut all the trees down.” And the great tree-spirit recited part of an old poem:

When you feel a friend
Might bring an end
To your peace of mind,
Watch what you say,
Remain kind.

One day, that friend might prove
Worth the love
That you should offer anyway
To all living beings
In every way.

But the little tree-spirit didn’t listen to the great tree spirit, and the very next day assumed the shape of a large and terrible monster, and drove the ferocious tiger and the fearsome lion out of the forest.
Within two weeks, the human beings who lived close by began to realize that the tiger and the lion had left for good. They moved into the forest, and cut down half the trees.

The little tree spirit was frightened, and cried out to the great tree spirit, “Oh, you were right, I should never have driven the tiger and the lion out of our forest, for now the human beings are cutting us down. Oh, great tree spirit, what can we do?”

“Go find the tiger and the lion,” said the great tree-spirit. “Apologize for your harsh treatment of them, and invite them to return to the forest. That is our only hope.”

The little tree spirit ran off and found the tiger and the lion living nearby. He greeted them, and said, “Lion and Tiger, I’m sorry I chased you out of your old home by assuming the shape of a large and terrible monster. Please come back to live in the woods once again, for once you left the human beings started to cut down the trees, and soon your old home will be gone for good.”

But the tiger and the lion just growled at the little tree spirit, and rudely said that they would never return. Within a few days, the human beings had cut down the rest of the trees, and the forest was gone.

***

When Buddha finished telling the story, he said, “As you might have guessed, the little tree-spirit in the story was Kokalika, the lion was Sariputta, and the tiger was Moggallana.” And the bhikkus knew that Buddha himself was the great tree-spirit in the story.

Source: Vyaggha-Jataka, Jataka tale no. 272, from the Cowell translation (1911). This little-known tale is unusual in that Buddha is incarnated as a tree. An essay on Jataka tales in the book Buddhism and Ecology, part of the Harvard University series on ecology and religions of the world, mentioned this story as having implications for a Buddhist ecological theology.

The Two Friends

Once there were two friends, one of whom was a follower of Buddha, and the other of whom was an old person who lived nearby. The follower of Buddha used to go every day to the house of the elder, where they would eat together. Then the follower of Buddha returned to the community of people that lived with Buddha.

Some of Buddha’s other followers were talking about these two friends, and Buddha overheard them. “Ah yes,” said the Buddha. “Those two were great friends in a past life.” (For all of Buddha’s followers believed that they had had many past lives.) And then the Buddha told this story of the past:

***

Once upon a time a Dog used to go into the stable where the king’s Elephant lived. At first the Dog went there to get the food that was left after the Elephant had finished eating.

Day after day the Dog went to the stable, waiting around for bits to eat. But by and by the Elephant and the Dog came to be great friends. Then the Elephant began to share his food with the Dog, and they ate together. When the Elephant slept, his friend the Dog slept beside him. When the Elephant felt like playing, he would catch the Dog in his trunk and swing him to and fro.

Neither the Dog nor the Elephant was quite happy unless the other was nearby.

One day a farmer saw the Dog and said to the Elephant-keeper: “I will buy that Dog. He looks good-tempered, and I see that he is smart. How much do you want for the Dog?”

The Elephant-keeper did not care for the Dog, and he did want some money just then. So he asked a fair price, and the farmer paid it and took the Dog away to the country.

The king’s Elephant missed the Dog and did not care to eat when his friend was not there to share the food. When the time came for the Elephant to bathe, he would not bathe. The next day again the Elephant would not eat, and he would not bathe. The third day, when the Elephant would neither eat nor bathe, the king was told about it.

The king sent for his wisest advisor, saying, “Go to the stable and find out why the Elephant is acting in this way.”

The wise advisor went to the stable and looked the Elephant all over. Then he said to the Elephant-keeper: “There seems to be nothing the matter with this Elephant’s body, but why does he look so sad? Has he lost a playmate?”

“Yes,” said the keeper, “there was a Dog who ate and slept and played with the Elephant. The Dog went away three days ago.”

“Do you know where the Dog is now?” asked the wise advisor. 

“No, I do not,” said the keeper. 

Then the wise advisor went back to the king and said, “The Elephant is not sick, but he is lonely without his friend, the Dog.” 

“Where is the Dog?” asked the king. 

“A farmer took him away, so the Elephant-keeper says,” said the wise advisor. “No one knows where the farmer lives.” 

“Very well,” said the king. “I will send word all over the country, asking the man who bought this Dog to turn him loose. I will give him back as much as he paid for the Dog.” 

When the farmer who had bought the Dog heard this, he turned him loose. The Dog ran back as fast as ever he could go to the Elephant’s stable. The Elephant was so glad to see the Dog that he picked him up with his trunk and put him on his head.

Then he put him down again. When the Elephant-keeper brought food, the Elephant watched the Dog as he ate, and then took his own food.

All the rest of their lives the Elephant and the Dog lived together.

Buddha’s followers knew that when he told one of these stories, he was also telling about one of his past lives. And the Buddha said, “My follower was the dog of those days, the aged Elder was the elephant, and I myself the wise advisor.”

Source: Main story adapted from “The Elephant and the Dog,” from  More Jataka Tales by Ellen C. Babbitt (New York: Appleton-Century, 1922). Illustrations by Ellsworth Young from this same book. Framing story adapted from Abhinha-Jataka, Jataka tale no. 27, in the Cowell translation (1911).

The Miracle Birth of Buddha

The people of the city of Kapilavatthu were celebrating a spring festival, and the queen of the city, Queen Maya, celebrated with them. One day, she arose early, gave money to many beggars, ate a delicious meal, and then went back to the palace to sleep.

As she slept, she dreamed that the four Guardian Angels of the world lifted her up and took her to the highest mountains in the Himalayas. They set her down under a huge Sala tree. Four more angels came forth, clothed Queen Maya in heavenly garments, and led her to a silver mountain. Inside the silver mountain was a house of gold, and there the queen lay down to rest. It was not long before a great and gentle white elephant came into the silver mountain, carrying a white lotus flower in his trunk. The elephant trumpeted, walked around the bed where the queen lay, and gave her the lotus flower.

When the queen awakened the next morning, she told her dream to her husband, King Suddhodana. The king called sixty-four wise brahmins. After serving them food in gold and silver bowls, the king told them the dream and asked them what it meant. The brahmins told the king, “Do not worry, great king. This dream means that Queen Maya will soon give birth to a baby boy. If this child chooses life at home he will become the greatest king the world has seen; but if instead he chooses to forsake home life and become a hermit, then he will become a great religious teacher.”

When it came time for Queen Maya to give birth, she told King Suddhodana that she wanted to go to the city where her parents were the king and queen. King Suddhodana called a thousand officers to carry the queen and escort her on the journey. Along the way was a beautiful place called Lumbini Park, and at that time of year the trees were covered with blossoms, and flocks of singing birds flew among the flowers. The queen asked to stop to enjoy the beauty. She got down from the palanquin, and as she reached up to grasp a blossom of a Sala tree, she knew it was time for her to have her baby. The officers set up a curtain around her for privacy. As she stood there holding the branch of the Sala tree, the queen gave birth.

Immediately, the four great Brahmas appeared with a fine golden net, and they carefully laid the new baby into this net. Presenting the child to Queen Maya, they said, “Be joyful, O Queen, for a great son is born unto you.” The four Brahmas prepared a soft antelope skin, and placed the child on it. The baby stood up and looked towards the east. Voices were heard saying, “O Great One, there is no other like you!” The baby gazed in all directions, and then took seven steps towards the north, while the Great Brahma held a white umbrella over him. And when her baby was born thirty two miraculous things happened as signs that this baby was unique.

Queen Maya brought the baby home. The king rejoiced to see his new son, and they named their baby Siddhartha Gotama. Now a hermit who lived nearby, a man with great spiritual wisdom, heard about this new baby. He came down to the palace and said to King Suddhodana, “O King, I have heard that a child is born to you, and I would like to see him.” They brought the child out, and upon seeing him the hermit knew the baby would grow up to be a great man, and he stood and paid homage to the baby. Then the hermit smiled, and proclaimed that the baby would become the Buddha when he was 35 years old.

And that is exactly what happened. Although King Suddhodana tried to convince his son to become a king, when Siddhartha Gotama was old enough to decide what to do with his life, he left the palace and went out into the world. He got his food by begging, and he went to learn from the greatest spiritual teachers. At last, he sat down beneath a tree to meditate, and he achieved enlightenment, and became the Buddha, the Enlightened One, the one who awakened to the Truth of the ages. Buddha spent the rest of his life teaching others how they, too, could calm themselves and awaken to the truth. And even today, thousands of years after he lived, there are still millions of people who follow the Buddha’s teachings.

Source: The Story of Gotama Buddha: Jataka-nidana, trans. N. A. Jayawickrama (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 2002 corrected edition), pp. 66-72.

King Usinara and the Huge Hound

One day, the followers of Buddha were sitting in the Hall of Truth talking with one another.

“Isn’t it amazing,” one of them said, “that the Buddha gave up a beautiful home, and now lives only for the good of the world?”
“Yes,” said another, “isn’t it amazing that he has attained supreme wisdom, yet rather than making himself rich, he goes about teaching goodness?”

Buddha came into the Hall and heard them talking. “Yes, it is true,” said the Buddha. “Even in my previous lives, even then when I had not attained supreme wisdom, I still always tried to live for the good of the world. Let me tell you the story of one of my previous lives.” This is the story the Buddha told:

***

Once upon a time, there reigned a king named Usinara. In the land of this king, the people had given up doing good, given up all religion, and instead they followed the paths of evil-doing. Sakka, the ruler of all the gods, looked upon this, and saw that people were suffering because they did evil.

“What shall I do, now?” he said to himself. “Ah, I have it! I will scare and terrify humankind. And when I see they are terrified, I will comfort them, I will tell them the universal Law of life, I will restore the religion which has decayed!”

So Sakka made the god Matali into the shape of a huge black hound, with four tusks each as big as a plantain, with a hideous shape and a fat belly. Sakka fastened this horrible dog with a chain, and turned himself into a hunter. Together they walked to King Usinara’s city.

“The world is doomed to destruction!” the hunter cried out, so loudly that he terrified everyone within earshot. He repeated this cry as he walked up to the very gates of the city.

The people of the city saw the huge dog and heard the hunter’s cries, and hurried into the city to tell the king what had happened. The king ordered the city gates to be closed. But the hunter and the huge dog leaped over the wall.

When they saw that the hunter and the dog had gotten inside the city, everyone ran away to find a place to hide. Those who could not get to their houses in time ran to the king’s palace to find safety.

The hunter and the dog came to the palace. The dog raised itself up, put its paws on the window of the room where the king was hiding, and barked. Its bark was a huge roaring noise that seemed to go from the depths of the earth to the highest heaven. Upon hearing this bark, the people were terrified and horrified, and no one could say a word.

At last the king plucked up his courage, and went to the window. He called out to the hunter: “Ho, huntsman! why did your hound roar?”

“The hound is hungry,” said the hunter.

“Well,” said the king, “I will order some food to be given to it.”

The king told his servants to give all the food in the palace to the dog. The huge dog gulped all the food down in one mouthful, then roared again.

Again the king called out the window: “Huntsman! Why does your dog still roar?”

“My hound is still hungry,” said the hunter.

Then the king had all the food for all his elephants and all his horses and all his other animals brought and given to the huge dog. Once again, the dog swallowed it in one gulp. So the king had all the food in the entire city brought. The huge dog swallowed all that in one gulp, and then roared again.

The king then said to himself, “This is no hound. I will ask him wherefore he is come.” Terrified with fear, he said to the hunter: “Why does this huge hound, with sharp white fangs as big as plantains, come here with you?”

“The dog comes to eat my enemies,” said the hunter.

“And who are your enemies?” said the king.

“All those people who are smart and educated, but who use their skill only to acquire money. All those who do not take care of their parents, once their parents get old. All those who betray their friends or spouses or siblings. All those who pretend to follow religious principles, but who actually do whatever they want. All those who are criminals, and kill and rob. All those who have hearts filled with evil, and who are evil and deceitful.

“These,” said the hunter, “all these are my enemies, O king!”

And the hunter made as though he would let the hound leap forth and devour all those who did the deeds of enemies. But as all the multitude was terror-struck, he held in the hound by the leash.

The Sakka shed his disguise of a hunter. By his power he rose and poised himself in the air, and said: “O great king, I am Sakka ruler of the gods! Seeing that the world was about to be destroyed by evil, I came hither. Religion had become corrupt and humans were suffering because they were doing evil. From henceforth I will know how to deal with the wicked, but you had better remain vigilant, lest I have to return.”

So King Usinara and all the people saw how they must stop doing evil, and return to the ways of virtue. They must stop doing evil, or the huge dog would remain hungry, and would keep roaring!

And when they saw that humankind had turned away from evil, and once again was following the paths of good — then Sakka and Matali returned to their own place.

***

When the Master had finished telling this story, he went on to say: “So you see, in my former lives I lived for the good of the world.”

Buddha and his followers all believed that they had had many previous lives, and had been reincarnated many times. And his followers knew that one of the characters in the story had been Buddha. But which one?

At last Buddha told them: “At that time, my follower and friend, Ananda, was Matali,” said the Buddha. “And I was Sakka.”

Source: Maha-Kanha Jataka, Jataka tale no. 469, in the Cowell translation [1911]. This story has been widely retold (by, e.g., Paul Carus, Sophia Fahs, etc.), but usually in a way that removes the specifically Buddhist elements from it.

The Tale of the Dhak Tree

One day, four of Buddha’s followers came up to him and asked how they might learn to meditate and rise above earthly things. Buddha explained to the four bhikkus how they might do so, and each of the four went off to learn a different kind of meditation. The first bhikku learned the Six Spheres of Touch. The second bhikku learned the Five Elements of Being. The third bhikku learned the Four Principal Elements. The fourth bhikku learned the Eighteen Constituents of Being. And each one of these four bhikkus learned how to meditate so well that they each achieved Enlightenment and became a holy person.

Now one day all four of these bhikkus came back to tell the Buddha what they had done, and each of them claimed that their way was the best form of mediation. At last one of them said, “Buddha, each of us has achieved Enlightenment, but we each used a different type of meditation. How could this be?”

And Buddha said, “It is like the four brothers who saw the dhak tree.”

***

Once upon a time Bramadatta, the King of Benares, had four sons.

One day, the four sons sent for a charioteer and said to him, “We want to see a dhak tree [butea frondosa]. Show us one!”

“Very well, I will,” the charioteer replied. “Let me begin by showing the eldest son.”

The charioteer took the eldest to the forest in the chariot. It was springtime, and eldest son saw the dhak tree at the time when the buds had not yet begun to swell, and the tree looked dead.

But the charioteer told them he could not return right away. After two or three weeks had gone by, the charioteer brought the second son to see the dhak tree, but now it was entirely covered with reddish-orange flowers.

Again, the charioteer told them he could not return to the tree right away. After two or three weeks had gone by, the charioteer brought the third son to see the dhak tree, but now the flowers were gone and the tree was covered with leaves.

Again, the charioteer told them he could not return to the tree right away. The fourth son waited and waited until at last he could wait no more. The charioteer brought him to see the dhak tree when it was covered with long brown seed-pods.

When at last all the brothers had seen the dhak tree, they sat down together, and someone asked, “So what is the dhak tree like?”

The first brother answered, “It is like a bunch of dead twigs!”

And the second brother said, “No, it is reddish-orange like a big piece of meat!”

And the third brother said, “No, it has leaves like a banyan tree!”

And the fourth brother said, “No, it looks just like the acacia tree with its long seed pods!”

None of them liked the answers the other gave. So they ran to find their father.

“Father,” they asked, “tell us, what is the dhak tree like?”

“You have all seen the tree,” the king said. “You tell me what it’s like.”

And the four brothers gave the king four different answers.

“You have all seen the tree,” said the king. “But when the charioteer showed you the tree, you didn’t ask him what the tree looked like at other times of the year. This is where your mistake lies.”

And the king recited a poem:

Each one of you has gone to view the tree,
And yet you are in great perplexity.
But you forgot to ask the charioteer
What forms the dhak tree takes throughout the year.

***

Buddha then spoke to the four bhikkus. “These four brothers did not ask themselves what the tree looked like in different times of the year, and so they fell into doubt. So the four of you have fallen into doubt about what is true and right.” Then the Buddha gave another stanza for the king’s poem:

If you know truth, but with deficiency,
You’ll be unsure, like those four and their tree.

Source: Kimsukopama-Jataka, Jatka tale no. 248, in the Cowell translation (1911).

OTHER BUDDHIST STORIES

Prince Gotama and the Four Sights

Once upon a time, a prince named Gotama lived in a royal palace in the land of Kapilavastu, which was on the border between the countries we now call India and Nepal. Gotama’s family was very wealthy. As he grew up, the prince had everything money could buy. He had servants to take care of every need. He had the finest food. He had all the toys he could wish for.

The story is told that while Gotama was still young, a sage came to visit his parents, the King and the Queen. This sage was very wise. He looked at the young boy and said, “This child will grow up to be either a great king, or a great spiritual leader.”

Now his father wanted Gotama to become king after the father died. Therefore, the King decided that the young prince must never see anything that might raise spiritual questions in him. The King instructed everyone in the palace that Prince Gotama must never be allowed to go outside the palace grounds by himself, lest he fall into conversation with a wandering spiritual person. The King also ruled that Prince Toama must not see anyone who was ill, or disabled in any way, nor anyone who was old. The King also ruled that if someone died, the prince should hear nothing of it. Thus the King hoped to keep the prince from asking any spiritual questions.

To keep Gotama happy, the King and Queen gave him everything he could want, so that he would want to stay inside the palace grounds. And when he was old enough, they found the kindest and most beautiful young woman in all the kingdom to marry the Prince. Both the prince and his new wife were vary happy, and they became even more happy when they had their first child together. The King and Queen hoped that the prince had forgotten his wish to leave the palace on his own.

One day, when he was twenty nine years old, Gotama went out of the palace to go hunting, accompanied by his servant Channa. As they were riding along on their two horses, they came upon a man lying beside a rock, groaning in pain.

“What is wrong with this man?” asked Gotama.

“He is ill,” said Channa.

“But why is he in such pain?” said Gotama.

“It is the way of life,” said Chana. “It is just what happens when people are ill.” And they rode on.

When he was back at the palace, he tried to ask the wise men there about illness, but they would not answer his questions.

Gotama and Channa went out hunting again. As they rode along, they passed a woman whose hair was white and whose skin was wrinkled, and who used a cane to walk.

“What is wrong with this woman?” asked Gotama.

“She is old,” said Channa.

“But what do you mean by ‘old’?” said Gotama.

“It is the way of life,” said Channa. “It happens to anyone who lives a long time.”

Back at the palace, Gotama tried to ask the wise men there about being old, but they would not answer his questions.

Gotama and Channa went out hunting again. As they rode along, they came across man lying as if asleep. But Gotama could not wake him.

“What is wrong with this man?” asked Gotama.

“He is dead,” said Channa. “This is the way of life, people must one day die.”

Gotama and Channa went out hunting a fourth time and saw a wandering holy person. Gotama asked Channa who he was.

“He is a wandering holy person,” said Channa. “He wanders around the world begging for his food, and seeking spiritual enlightenment.”

This was something Prince Gotama had never heard of before. That night, Gotama could not sleep. He remembered both the suffering he had seen, and the holy man seeking enlightenment. Gotama realized that he himself would one day face illness, old age, and death.

“I must leave the palace where I’m always protected,” he thought to himself. “I must find answers to my questions.”

He got up, and told Channa to saddle his horse. The he looked in at the bedroom where his wife and their child lay sleeping. If he left the palace, he worried that his his wife and son would not be safe. He didn’t want to make them go with him.

He stood looking at them, wondering what to do. Should he stay? Or should he go?

As it happens, we know what Prince Gotama did. He left his wife and child behind, went out into the wide world, and after many hardships he became the Buddha, the Enlightened One, one of the greatest spiritual leaders the world has ever known. Knowing that, what would you do? Would you stay and become a great king, or leave and become a great spiritual leader? Would you give up the chance of being enlightened to stay with your family?

Source: Heavily adapted from Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists, Ananda K Coomaraswamy and Sister Nivedita (Margaret E. Noble) of Ramakrishna-Vivekananada (London: George G. Harrap & Co., 1914).

Visakha’s Sorrow

Once upon a time, the Buddha was staying in the city of Savatthi, in the Eastern Grove. He was staying as a guest in the mansion owned by Visakha. Now Visakha had a granddaughter whom she loved very much; this granddaughter was her darling and her delight. While Buddha was staying in her mansion, Visakha’s granddaughter died after a long illness. When Visakha heard that her granddaughter had at long last died, it was very early in the morning. Visakha was overwhelmed with grief when she heard the news. Even though it was very early in the morning, she went to see the Buddha.

She approached the Buddha, greeted him politely, and went to sit down at his side. The Buddha looked at her, and could see she had been crying. He said quietly, “Well, Visakha, what is it that brings you here at a very early hour, with your hands and hair all wet from tears?”

“Forgive me, Buddha, but my granddaughter has just died,” she said. “My granddaughter was my darling and my delight, and that is why I come to you at this early hour with my hands and hair all wet with my tears.”

The Buddha looked kindly at Visakha. “Would you like to have many grandchildren who were as darling and as delightful as your granddaughter?” he said.

“Oh, yes, I would like to have as many darling grandchildren as there are people in Savatthi.”

“But Visakha,” said the Buddha, “how many people die in the city of Savatthi each day?”

“Ten or a dozen people die each day in our city,” she said. “I know my granddaughter is no different from any other human being, and I know she is no different from any of the dozen people who must die each day in our city.”

“So what do you think, Visakha,” said the Buddha sympathetically. “In all the households where someone has died, do you think that in that same household there will also be people whose hands and hair are all wet with tears?”

“Yes,” she said, “wherever someone has died, that will be so.”

“Visakha, if you hold something dear to your heart, then you will have a sorrow,” said the Buddha. “If you hold a hundred people dear, you will have a hundred sorrows. If you hold fifty people dear, you will have fifty sorrows. If you hold twenty people dear, you will have twenty sorrows. If you hold one person dear, you will have one sorrow. But those people who hold nothing dear will have no sorrow; those people will be free from grief, they will be free from passion, and they will be free from despair. Do you wish to be free from grief?”

Visakha nodded.

The Buddha went on. “In this world, whatever grief or sorrow or sadness there may be, exist because we hold on to something too tightly. The only people who are truly happy, the only people who are free from grief, are those who do not try to hold anything too tightly. If you wish to be free from grief and free from passion, you must hold nothing dear that is on this earth.”

Source: The Udana, viii. 8. I used the following translations: Eugene Watson Burlingame, Buddhist Parables, pp. 107-108; and The Udana: or the Solemn Utterances of the Buddha, trans. from the Pali by Dawsonne Melanchthon Strong (Luzac/India Company: London, 1902), pp. 126-127.

Buddha Teaches Meditation

After he had reached Enlightenment, Buddha taught many other men and women how to meditate. He lived with four hundred of his followers, or bhikkus, in the middle of Eastern Park, which was a beautiful open space, dotted with trees, located in the city of Savatthi.

Every day, Buddha and all his followers (who were called bhikkus) got up and sat together to meditate. The more experienced bhikkus, the people who had lived with Buddha the longest, helped teach the newer bhikkus how to meditate. After the meditation time was over, all the bhikkus would take a bowl and head into town to beg for food. They would all come back to the retreat center before noontime. Before they ate, some of the older, more experienced bhikkus would give a lecture to any townspeople who came by. Then everyone would eat.

After lunch, Buddha and all the bhikkus would go find a cool shady grove of trees. They would all sit together in the shade of the trees, and Buddha would give a talk, telling them how to be better people. Sometimes, when the moon was full, they would all stay up late and Buddha would give another talk in the moonlight.

One day, hundreds more of Buddha’s followers traveled to the retreat center in Eastern Park in the town of Savatthi. Soon there were over a thousand bhikkus, over a thousand followers of Buddha, all gathered together. It was the time of the full moon, and that evening, all the bhikkus gathered together outside to hear Buddha tell them how to meditate. Of course, all the bhikkus were already learning how to meditate, and practicing meditation every day. But for the first time, Buddha described his whole system of meditation from start to finish.

Here’s what Buddha said:

“When it’s time for you to meditate, go out and sit at the foot of a tree; or if you can’t find a good tree, just find a nice quiet place where you won’t be disturbed.

“Then sit down on the ground. Sit in the lotus position, that is, sit with your left foot on your right thigh, and your right foot on your left thigh. Be sure you hold your body straight.

“As you sit, pay attention to your breathing. When you breathe in, know that you are breathing in. When you breathe out, know that you are breathing out.”

Buddha kept talking in his calm, peaceful voice, describing what to do when you meditate. He said:

“Breathe in and out, and be aware of your whole body.
“Breathe in and out, and let your breathing make your whole body calm and at peace.
“Breathe in and out, and let yourself be joyful.
“Breathe in and out, and be aware that your mind is full of thoughts.
“Breathe in and out, and let your mind become calm and peaceful.
“Breathe in and out, and let your mind become happy and peaceful.
“Breathe in and out, and concentrate so you can free your mind.”

Buddha kept talking in his calm, peaceful voice for over an hour. Everyone sat in stillness in the moonlight and listened. Everyone, all Buddha’s followers, felt calm and peaceful. This is how Buddha taught his followers how to meditate.

There are many people in the world today who still follow Buddha’s teachings; they are called Buddhists. We are not Buddhists, we are Unitarian Universalists; but we Unitarian Universalists have learned a lot about meditation from Buddha. Many Unitarian Universalists meditate every day, so they can feel peaceful and happy.

Source: based on Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation and exegesis of Anapanasati Sutta, as set forth in his book The Full Awareness of Breathing; with reference to other modern translations of the suttra.

The Shattered Tea Cup

Once upon a time in the land of Japan, there lived a man named Sheng-yen who was both a Zen master and a professor at a university. One day, in order to explain to his students how they might become enlightened, he told how his own teacher had reached enlightenment.

Once upon a time, there lived a Zen Master. The Zen Master was small and quiet, with gray hair and many lines on his face. He often smiled. He lived in a monastery that stood near the banks of a rushing river. There, he watched over all the monks who lived at the monastery, teaching them about Zen Buddhism and helping them reach enlightenment.

The monks chopped wood for the fireplace. They hauled buckets of water from the well to use in the kitchen. They listened to the teaching of the Zen Master, sitting in the great hall while the Zen Master gave Dharma Talks. But the most important thing that the monks did was to meditate. Every day, they sat on the floor of the great hall of the monastery, meditating in silence. No one said a word all day long.

It was hard for the young monks to sit in silence for such long periods of time, but the Zen Master could sit for days on end, meditating in silence. One of the younger monks asked him, “How can you sit for so long in silence?”

The Zen Master replied, “Stop thinking so much. Just sit.”

At that time, the man who later became my teacher came to learn at this monastery. This young monk did what he was supposed to do: he learned the sutras by heart, he learned to sit in silence for hours while he meditated, he learned everything he was supposed to know. But try as he might, he could not reach enlightenment.

One day, the Zen master invited the young monk to come talk to him. While the Zen Master prepared tea, the young monk said, “Zen Master, I have not been able to reach enlightenment.”

“Do you think I can help you?” said the Zen Master.

“I don’t know,” said the monk.

The Zen Master began to pour the hot tea. He slipped, and some scalding water flowed onto the young monk’s hands. The young monkstarted in surprise, the delicate cup flew out of his hands, and shattered on the floor beside him.

Upon hearing the cup shatter, the young monk reached enlightenment.

“And that,” said Sheng-yen, “is how my own teacher reached enlightenment. Just as the cup shattered, so must your mind shatter if you want to reach enlightenment.”

Source: A dharma talk by Master Sheng-yen (b. 1931), who tells the story of how one of his Zen masters, Xu Yun, achieved enlightenment: Xu Yun was holding a cup into which someone else was pouring tea. By mistake, the other person spilled some tea onto Xu Yun’s hand, he dropped the cup, and upon hearing it shatter he reached enlightenment. Master Sheng-yen says that just as the cup shatters, the mind must shatter to become “no-mind.”

NATIVE AMERICAN STORIES

The Creation of the World: a story of the Ohlone people

This is one of the stories about the beginning of the world that were told by the Northern Ohlone Indians, who once lived around San Francisco Bay.

Once upon a time, there were no human beings, but there were two spirits, one good and one evil. The two spirits made war upon each other, and at last the good spirit overcame the evil spirit. At that time, the entire world was covered with water, except for two islands, one of which was Monte Diablo and the other of which was Mount Tamalpais.

There was a Coyote on Mount Tamalpais. He was the only living thing there. One day Coyote saw a feather floating on the water, and, as it reached the island, is suddenly turned into an Eagle. Spreading its broad wings, the Eagle flew up onto the mountain.

Coyote liked his new friend very much, and they lived together in great harmony. Sometimes they would from one island to the other island, Coyote swimming while Eagle flew overhead. This went on for some time.

Then, after talking with each other, they decided to make something new in the world. Together they made the first human beings.

Soon the first human beings had children, and the level of the water went down so that there was more land for the human beings.

Soon the children of the first human beings had children, and the level of the water went down some more.

Then the grandchildren of the first human beings had children, and so on, and the more human beings there were, the more the waters decreased, until at last where there was dry land in most of the places where we have dry land now. But what we call San Francisco Bay was still under water. It was not a bay, but a deep lake.

At that time, there was no opening in the mountains that ran along the coast. What we now call the Golden Gate was a chain of mountains, and you could walk from one side to the other side without getting your feet wet. The water that came down from the east had to go out through other rivers to the north and to the south.

Then a great earthquake struck, and chain of mountains was cut in two, forming what we now call the Golden Gate. Then the waters of the Great Ocean and the Bay could at last come together, and the land became as we now know it.

Source: adapted from “Tradition of the California Indians,” by H. B. D., in Hesperian Magazine, vol. 2-3, (ed. F. H. Day, San Francisco, vol. III, no. 1, September, 1859), p. 326. H. D. B. says this tale came “from the lips of one of our most venerable pioneers, and I give it as I heard it.” This tale is cited by Hubert Howe Bancroft in his Native Races, vol. 3, (History Company: San Francisco, 1886), p. 88; and by Alfred Louis Kroeber in his “Myths of South Central California,” American archaeology and ethnology: Shoshonean Dialects of California, vol. 4, no. 3 (Berkeley: University of California, 1907), pp. 188-189. I have made a few changes in the H. B. D. version based on Kroeber’s commentary.

The Diné: An origin myth of the Navajo

These stories were told to Sandoval, Hastin Tlo’tsi hee, by his grandmother, Esdzan Hosh kige. Her ancestor was Esdzanata’, the medicine woman who had the Calendar Stone in her keeping. Here are the stories of the Four Worlds that had no sun, and of the Fifth, the world we live in, which some call the Changeable World. Sandoval told these stories to Aileen O’Bryan at Mesa Verde in 1928, and she wrote them down.

The First World

The First World, Ni’hodilqil — which was also called Red Earth, One Speech, Floating Land, and One Tree — was black as black wool. It had four corners, and over these appeared four clouds. These four clouds contained within themselves the elements of the First World. They were in color, black, white, blue, and yellow.

The Black Cloud represented the Female Being. For as a child sleeps when being nursed, so life slept in the darkness of the Female Being. The White Cloud represented the Male Being or Substance. He was the Dawn, the Light-Which-Awakens, of the First World.

In the East, at the place where the Black Cloud and the White Cloud met, First Man, Atse’hastqin, was formed; and with him was formed the white corn, perfect in shape, with kernels covering the whole ear. Dolionot i’ni is the name of this first perfect seed corn, and it is also the name of the place where the Black Cloud and the White Cloud met.

The First World was small in size, a floating island in mist or water. On it there grew one tree, a pine tree, which was later brought to the present world for firewood.

But human beings had not yet evolved to their present form. The creatures of the First World were the Mist People. They had no definite form, but evolved to change to humans, beasts, birds, and reptiles of this world. There was a male and a female being who were to become man and woman.

Now on the western side of the First World, in a place that later was to become the Land of Sunset, there appeared the Blue Cloud, and opposite it there appeared the Yellow Cloud. Where they came together First Woman was formed, and with her the yellow corn. This ear of corn was also perfect. With First Woman there came the white shell and the turquoise and the yucca.

First Man stood on the eastern side of the First World. He represented the Dawn and was the Life Giver. First Woman stood opposite in the West. She represented Darkness and the End of Life.

First Man burned a crystal for a fire. First Woman burned her turquoise for a fire. They saw each other’s lights in the dis-tance. When the Black Cloud and the White Cloud rose higher in the sky First Man set out to find the turquoise light. He went twice without success, and again a third time; then he broke a forked branch from his tree, and, looking through the fork, he marked the place where the light burned. And the fourth time he walked to it and found smoke coming from a home.

“Here is the home I could not find,” First Man said.

First Woman answered: “Oh, it is you. I saw you walking around and I wondered why you did not come.”

Again the same thing happened when the Blue Cloud and the Yellow Cloud rose higher in the sky. First Woman saw a light and she went out to find it. Three times she was unsuccessful, but the fourth time she saw the smoke and she found the home of First Man.

“I wondered what this thing could be,” she said.

“I saw you walking and I wondered why you did not come to me,” First Man answered.

First Woman saw that First Man had a crystal for a fire, and she saw that it was stronger than her turquoise fire. And as she was thinking, First Man spoke to her. “Why do you not come with your fire and we will live together.” The woman agreed to this. So instead of the man going to the woman, as is the custom now, the woman went to the man.

About this time there came another person, the Great-Coyote-Who-Was-Formed-in-the-Water, and he was in the form of a male being. He told First Woman and First Man that he had been hatched from an egg. He knew all that was under the water and all that was in the skies. First Man placed this person ahead of himself in all things.

The three began to plan what was to come to pass; and while they were thus occupied another being came to them. He also had the form of a man, but he wore a hairy coat, lined with white fur, that fell to his knees and was belted in at the waist. His name was Atse’hashke’, First Angry, or Coyote.

He said to the three: “You believe that you were the first persons. You are mistaken. I was living when you were formed.”

Then four beings came together. They were yellow in color and were called the tsts’na or wasp people. They knew the secret of shooting evil and could harm others. They were very powerful.

This made eight people.

Four more beings came. They were small in size and wore red shirts and had little black eyes. They were the naazo’zi or spider ants. They knew how to sting, and were a great people.

After these came a whole crowd of beings. They were dark colored with thick mouths and dark, protruding eyes. They were the wolazhi’ni, the black ants. They also knew the secret of shooting evil and were powerful; but they killed each other steadily.

By this time there were many people. Then came a multitude of little creatures. They were peaceful and harmless, but the odor from them was unpleasant. They were insects called That-Which-Emits-An-Odor.

And after the wasps and the different ant people there came the beetles, dragonflies, bat people, the Spider Man and Woman, and the Salt Man and Woman, and others that rightfully had no definite form but were among those people who peopled the First World. And this world, being small in size, be-came crowded, and the people quarreled and fought among themselves, and in all ways made living very unhappy.

The Second World

Because of the strife in the First World, First Man, First Woman, the Great-Coyote-Who-Was-Formed-in-the-Water, and the Coyote called First Angry, followed by all the others, climbed up from the First World, the World of Darkness and Dampness, to the Second World, Ni’hodotl’ish, or the Blue World.

When they came to the Second World, they found a number of people already living there: Bluebirds, Blue Hawks, Blue Jays, Blue Herons, and all the blue-feathered beings.

The powerful Swallow People lived there also, and these people made the Second World unpleasant for those who had come from the First World. There was fighting and killing.

The First Four found an opening in the World of Blue Haze; and they climbed through this and led the people up into the Third or Yellow World.

Arriving in the Third World

The Bluebird was the first to reach the Third or Yellow World. After him came the First Four and all the others.

A great river crossed this land from north to south. It was the Female River. There was another river crossing it from east to West, it was the Male River. This Male River flowed through the Female River and on; and the name of this place is tqo al-na’osdli, the Crossing of the Waters.

There were six mountains in the Third World. In the East was Sis na’ jin, the Standing Black Sash. Its ceremonial name is Yolgai’dzil, the Dawn or White Shell Mountain. In the South stood Tso’dzil, the Great Mountain, also called Mountain Tongue. Its ceremonial name is Yodolt i’zhi dzil, the Blue Bead or Turquoise Mountain. In the West stood Dook’oslid, and the meaning of this name is forgotten. Its ceremonial name is Dichi’li dzil, the Abalone Shell Mountain. In the North stood Debe’ntsa, Many Sheep Mountain. Its ceremonial name is Bash’zhini dzil, Obsidian Mountain. Then there was Dzil na’odili, the Upper Mountain. It was very sacred; and its name means also the Center Place, and the people moved around it. Its ceremonial name is Ntl’is dzil, Precious Stone or Banded Rock Mountain. There was still another mountain called Chol’i’i or Dzil na’odili choli, and it was also a sacred mountain. (1)

There was no sun in this land, only the two rivers and the six mountains. And these rivers and mountains were not in their present form, but rather the substance of mountains and rivers as were First Man, First Woman, and the others.

Now beyond Sis na’ jin, in the east, there lived the Turquoise Hermaphrodite, Ashton nutli, who was then neither a boy nor a girl. Later he was also known as the Turquoise Boy. And near this person grew the male reed. Beyond, still farther in the east, there lived a people called the Hadahuneya’nigi, the Mirage or Agate People. Still farther in the east there lived twelve beings called the Naaskiddi. And beyond the home of these beings there lived four others — the Holy Man, the Holy Woman, the Holy Boy, and the Holy Girl.

In the West there lived the White Shell Hermaphrodite, who was then neither boy nor girl; later they became White Shell Girl, and still later she entered the Moon and became Moon Bearer. And with her was the big female reed which grew at the water’s edge. It had no tassel. Beyond her in the West there lived another stone people called the Ha-dahunes’tqin, the Ground Heat People. Still farther on there lived another twelve beings, the Corn Maidens, all of whom were females. And again, in the Far West, there lived four Holy Ones.

Within this land there lived the Kisa’ni, the ancients of the Pueblo People. On the six mountains there lived the Cave Dwellers or Great Swallow People. The Great Swallow People lived in rough houses of mud and sticks. They entered them from holes in the roof. On the mountains lived also the light and dark squirrels, chipmunks, mice, rats, the turkey people, the deer and cat people, the spider people, and the lizards and snakes. The beaver people lived along the rivers, and the frogs and turtles and all the underwater people in the water. So far all the people were similar. They had no definite form, but they had different names because they were different inside.

Now the plan was to plant.

First Man called the people together. He brought forth the white corn which had been formed with him. First Woman brought the yellow corn. They laid the perfect ears side by side; then they asked one person from among the many to come and help them. The Turkey stepped forward. They asked him where he had come from, and he said that he had come from the Gray Mountain. The Gray Mountain is the home of the Gray Yei, Hasch ei’ba’i, whose other name is Water Sprinkler. The turkey is connected with water and rain.

The Turkey danced back and forth four times, then he shook his feather coat and there dropped from his clothing four kernels of corn, one gray, one blue, one black, and one red. An-other person was asked to help in the plan of the planting. The Big Snake came forward. He likewise brought forth four seeds, the pumpkin, the watermelon, the cantaloupe, and the musk-melon. His plants all crawl on the ground.

They planted the seeds, and their harvest was great.

Note for this section: (1) Today these six mountains have English names: Sis na’ jin is Mount Baldy near Alamos, Colorado; Tso’dzil, Mount Taylor, New Mexico; Dook’oslid, San Francisco Mountain, Arizona; Debe’ntsa, San Juan Mountains, Colorado; Dzil na’odili, El Huerfano Peak, New Mexico; and Choli, El Huerfano Peak, New Mexico.

The Men and Women Live Apart

Now at that time there were four chiefs: Big Snake, Mountain Lion, Otter, and Bear. And it was the custom when the black cloud rose in the morning — as there was no sun, and no true division of night and day, time was counted by the black cloud rising and the white cloud rising — for First Man to come out of his dwelling and speak to the people. After First Man had spoken, the four chiefs told them what they should do that day. They also spoke of the past and of the future.

But after the harvest, the Turquoise Boy from the East had come and visited First Woman. When First Man had returned to his home, he found his wife with this boy. First Woman told her husband that Turquoise Boy was of her flesh and not of his flesh. She said that she had used her own fire, the turquoise, and had ground her own yellow corn into meal. This corn she had planted and cared for herself.

When First Man found his wife with Turquoise Boy, he would not come out to speak to the people. The black cloud rose higher, but First Man would not leave his dwelling; neither would he eat or drink. No one spoke to the people for four days. All during this time First Man remained silent, and would not touch food or water. Four times the white cloud rose, and still he would not come out.

Then the four chiefs went to First Man and demanded to know why he would not speak to the people. The chiefs asked this question three times, and a fourth, before First Man would answer them.

He told them to bring him an herb which was an emetic. He made a hot brew from the herb, and drank it, and it caused him to vomit, and in this way he purified himself. First Man then asked them to send Turquoise Boy to him.

When Turquoise Boy came, First Man asked him if the stone for grinding corn, and the brush, belonged to him. Both these things were usually used by women, but not by men. Turquoise Boy said that they were. First Man asked him if he could cook and prepare food like a woman, if he could weave, and brush the hair. And when Turquoise Boy had assured First Man that he could do all manner of woman’s work, First Man said: “Go and prepare food and bring it to me.” After he had eaten, First Man told the four chiefs what he had seen, and what his wife had said.

At this time the Great-Coyote-Who-Was-Formed-in-the-Water came to First Man and told him to cross the river. They made a big raft and crossed at the place where the Male River followed through the Female River. And all the male beings left the female beings on the river bank; and as they rowed across the river they looked back and saw that First Woman and the female beings were laughing.

In the beginning the women did not mind being alone. They cleared and planted a small field. On the other side of the river First Man and the chiefs hunted and planted their seeds. They had a good harvest. Turquoise Boy, the first man to become as a woman, ground the corn and cooked the food. The men had plenty and were happy.

Four seasons passed. The men continued to have plenty and were happy; but the women became lazy, and only weeds grew on their land. The women wanted fresh meat. Some of them tried to join the men and were drowned in the river.

First Woman made a plan. The women missed the men. One woman gave birth to a big stone. This stone-child was later the Great Stone that rolled over the earth killing men. Another woman brought forth the Big Birds of Tsa bida’hi; and others gave birth to the giants and monsters who later destroyed many people.

On the opposite side of the river, the men also missed the women, and they did not know what to do. Then the second chief spoke: he said that life was hard and that it was a pity to see women drowned when they tried to cross the river to join the men. He asked why they should not bring the women across the river and all live together again.

“Now we can see for ourselves what comes from our wrong doing,” he said. “We will know how to act in the future.” The three other chiefs of the animals agreed with him, so First Man told them to go and bring the women.

After the women had been brought over the river First Man spoke: “We must be purified,” he said. “Everyone must bathe. The men must dry themselves with white corn meal, and the women, with yellow.”

This they did, living apart for four days. After the fourth day First Woman came and threw her right arm around her husband. She spoke to the others and said that she could see her mistakes, but with her husband’s help she would henceforth lead a good life. Then all the male and female beings came and lived with each other again.

The Flood, and Going to the Fourth World

The people moved to different parts of the land. Some time passed; then First Woman became troubled by the monotony of life. She made a plan. She went to Atse’hashke, the Coyote called First Angry, and giving him the rainbow she said: “I have suffered greatly in the past. I have suffered from want of meat and corn and clothing. Many of my maidens have died. I have suffered many things. Take the rainbow and go to the place where the rivers cross. Bring me the two pretty children of Tqo holt sodi, the Water Buffalo, a boy and a girl.

The Coyote agreed to do this. He walked over the rain-bow. He entered the home of the Water Buffalo and stole the two children; and these he hid in his big skin coat with the white fur lining. And when he returned he refused to take off his coat, but pulled it around himself and looked very wise.

After this happened the people saw white light in the East and in the South and West and North. One of the deer people ran to the East, and returning, said that the white light was a great sheet of water. The sparrow hawk flew to the South, the great hawk to the West, and the kingfisher to the North. They returned and said that a flood was coming. The kingfisher said that the water was greater in the North, and that it was near.

The flood was coming and the Earth was sinking. And all this happened because the Coyote had stolen the two children of the Water Buffalo, and only First Woman and the Coyote knew the truth.

When First Man learned of the coming of the water he sent word to all the people, and he told them to come to the mountain called Sis na’jin. He told them to bring with them all of the seeds of the plants used for food. All living beings were to gather on the top of Sis na’jin. First Man traveled to the six sacred mountains, and, gathering earth from them, he put it in his medicine bag.

The water rose steadily.

When all the people were halfway up Sis na’ jin, First Man discovered that he had forgotten his medicine bag. Now this bag contained not only the earth from the six sacred mountains, but his magic, the medicine he used to call the rain down upon the earth and to make things grow. He could not live without his medicine bag, and be wished to jump into the rising water; but the others begged him not to do this. They went to the kingfisher and asked him to dive into the water and recover the bag. This the bird did. When First Man had his medicine bag again in his possession he breathed on it four times and thanked his people.

When they had all arrived it was found that the Turquoise Boy had brought with him the big Male Reed; and the White Shell Girl had brought with her the big Female Reed. Another person brought poison ivy. Another person, the spider, brought cotton, which was later used for cloth. First Man had with him his spruce tree which he planted on the top of Sis na’jin. He used his fox medicine to make it grow; but the spruce tree began to send out branches and to taper at the top, so First Man planted the big Male Reed. All the people blew on it, and it grew and grow until it reached the canopy of the sky. They tried to blow inside the reed, but it was solid. They asked the woodpecker to drill out the hard heart. Soon they were able to peek through the opening, but they had to blow and blow be-fore it was large enough to climb through. They climbed up in-side the big male reed, and after them the water continued to rise.

The Fourth World

When the people reached the Fourth World they saw that it was not a very large place.

The last person to crawl through the reed was the Turkey from Gray Mountain. His feather coat was flecked with foam, for after him came the water. And with the water came the female Water Buffalo who pushed her head through the opening in the reed. She had a great quantity of curly hair which floated on the water, and she had two horns, half black and half yellow. From the tips of the horns the lightning flashed.

First Man asked the Water Buffalo why she had come and why she had sent the flood. She said nothing. Then the Coyote drew the two babies from his coat and said that it was, perhaps, because of them.

The Turquoise Boy took a basket and filled it with turquoise. On top of the turquoise he placed the blue pollen, tha’di’thee do tlij, from the blue flowers, and the yellow pollen from the corn; and on top of these he placed the pollen from the water flags, tquel aqa’di din; and. again on top of these he placed the crystal, which is river pollen. This basket he gave to the Coyote who put it between the horns of the Water Buffalo.

The Coyote said that with this sacred offering he would give back the male child. He said that the male child would be known as the Black Cloud or Male Rain, and that he would bring the thunder and lightning. The female child he would keep. She would be known as the Blue, Yellow, and White Clouds or Female Rain. She would be the gentle rain that would moisten the earth and. help them to live. So he kept the female child, and he placed the male child on the sacred basket between the horns of the Water Buffalo. And the Water Buffalo disappeared, and the waters with her.

After the water sank there appeared another person. They did not know him, and they asked him where he had come from. He told them that he was the badger, nahashch’id, and that he had been formed where the Yellow Cloud had touched the Earth. Afterward this Yellow Cloud turned out to be a sun-beam.

The Diné: The Fifth World

First Man was not satisfied with the Fourth World. It was a small barren land; and the great water had soaked the earth and made the sowing of seeds impossible. He planted the big Fe-male Reed and it grew up to the vaulted roof of this Fourth World. First Man sent the newcomer, the badger, up inside the reed, but before he reached the upper world water began to drip, so he returned and said that he was frightened.

At this time there came another strange being. First Man asked him where he had been formed, and he told him that he had come from the Earth itself. This was the locust. He said that it was now his turn to do something, and he offered to climb up the reed.

The locust made a headband of a little reed, and on his forehead he crossed two arrows. These arrows were dressed with yellow tail feathers. With this sacred headdress and the help of all the Holy Beings the locust climbed up to the Fifth World. He dug his way through the reed as he digs in the earth now. He then pushed through mud until he came to water. When he emerged he saw a black water bird, the Grebe, swimming toward him. The Grebe had arrows crossed on the back of his head and big eyes.

The bird said: “What are you doing here? This is not your country.” And continuing, he told the locust that unless he could make magic he would not allow him to remain.

The black water bird drew an arrow from back of his head, and shoving it into his mouth drew it all the way through his stomach and intestines and out of hid anus.

“That is nothing,” said the locust. He took the arrows from his headband and pulled them both ways through his body, between his shell and his heart. The bird believed that the locust possessed great medicine, and he swam away to the East, taking the water with him.

Then came the blue water bird from the South, and the yellow water bird from the West, and the white water bird from the North, and everything happened as before. The locust per-formed the magic with his arrows; and when the last water bird had gone he found himself sitting on land.

The locust returned to the lower world and told the people that the beings above had strong medicine, and that he had had great difficulty getting the best of them.

Now two dark clouds and two white clouds rose, and this meant that two nights and two days had passed, for there was still no sun. First Man again sent the badger to the upper world, and he returned covered with mud, terrible mud. First Man gathered chips of turquoise which he offered to the five Chiefs of the Winds who lived in the uppermost world of all. They were pleased with the gift, and they sent down the winds and dried the Fifth World.

First Man and his people saw four dark clouds and four white clouds pass, and then they sent the badger up the reed. This time when the badger returned he said that he had come out on solid earth. So First Man and First Woman led the people to the Fifth World, which some call the Many Colored Earth and some the Changeable Earth. They emerged through a lake surrounded by four mountains, a place which is near Pagosa Springs, Colorado. The water bubbles in this lake when anyone goes near it.

Now after all the people had emerged from the lower worlds First Man and First Woman dressed the Mountain Lion with yellow, black, white, and grayish corn and placed him on one side. They dressed the Wolf with white tail feathers and placed him on the other side. They divided the people into two groups.

The first group was told to choose whichever chief they wished. They made their choice, and, although they thought they had chosen the Mountain Lion, they found that they had taken the Wolf for their chief. The Mountain Lion was the chief for the other side. And these people who had the Mountain Lion for their chief turned out to be the people of the Earth. They were to plant seeds and harvest corn. The followers of the Wolf chief became the animals and birds; they turned into all the creatures that fly and crawl and run and swim.

And after all the beings were divided, and each had his own form, they went their ways.

This is the story of the Four Dark Worlds and the Fifth, the World we live in. Some medicine men tell us that there are two worlds above us, the first is the World of the Spirits of Living Things, the second is the Place of Melting into One.

Source: Aileen O’Bryan, The Dîné: Origin Myths of the Navaho Indians, Bulletin 163 of the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution, (1956), pp. 1-13. This government publication is in the public domain. I have adapted and shortened the narrative slightly.

The Red-Cedar Sculpture of the Woman Who Had Died: a Tlingit story

This is a story of the Tlingit people of Wrangell Island, Alaska.

A young man and a young woman on the Haida Gwaii, the Islands of the Haida People, married. The young man was a chief, and the couple were very happy together. But soon after they were married, the young woman fell ill. Her husband sent around everywhere for the very best shamans, to try to cure her of her illness. He heard about a very fine shaman from another village on the island, and sent a canoe there to bring that shaman. But that shaman could do nothing. The young chief heard about another fine shaman at another village on another island, and again sent a canoe; but neither could that shaman cure the young woman. The young man sent for several fine shamans, but none of them could help his wife, and after she had been sick for a very long time she died.

The young chief felt very badly after his wife had died. He went from village to village to find the best wood-carvers in order to have them carve a sculpture of his wife. But though he asked several fine carvers, no one could make a sculpture that looked like his wife.

All this time there was a wood-carver in his own village who could carve much better than all the others. This man met the young chief one day and said, “You are going from village to village to have wood carved like your wife’s face, and you can not find anyone to do it, can you? I have seen your wife a great deal walking along with you. I have never studied her face with the idea that you might want some one to carve it, but I am going to try if you will allow me.”

The young chief agreed to try. The wood-carver found a very fine piece of red-cedar and began working upon it. When he had finished, the wood-carver had dressed the sculpture just as he used to see the young woman dressed. Then he went to the young chief and said, “Now you can come along and look.”

The young chief came to the wood-carver’s workshop, and when he got inside, he saw his dead wife sitting there just as she used to look. This made him very happy, and he said he would like to take this sculpture home. “What do I owe you for making this?” he asked the wood-carver.

The wood-carver had felt sorry to see how the young chief was mourning for his wife, so he said, “Do as you please about it. It is because I felt badly for you that I made that. So don’t pay me too much for it.”

But the young chief paid the wood-carver very well, both in slaves and in goods.

The young chief dressed this sculpture in his wife’s clothes and her marten-skin robe. When he finished, he felt that his wife had come back to him. He treated the sculpture just like her. One day, while he sat very close to the sculpture, mourning for his dead wife, he felt the sculpture move. He thought that the movement was only his imagination. Yet he knew his wife had been as fond of him as he was of her, and so each day as he ate his meals he sat close to the sculpture, thinking perhaps some time it would in fact come to life.

After a while the whole village learned the young chief had this sculpture of his wife. One by one, they all came to see it. It was so life-like that many people could not believe that it was not the woman herself until they had examined it closely and saw it was only made of wood.

One day, after the chief had had it for a long, long time, he sat down next to the sculpture, and saw that the body was just like the body of a human being. Now he was sure the sculpture was alive, and he began to treat it just as if it were his wife. Yet though he was sure the sculpture was alive, it could not move or speak.

Then one day the sculpture gave forth a sound like cracking wood. The man was sure something was wrong; perhaps the sculpture was ill. He had some people come and move it away from the place where it had been sitting, and when they had moved the sculpture they found a small red-cedar tree growing there on top of the flooring. The man left the young red-cedar tree to grow there, until it grew to be very large. (For many years afterwards, when people on the Haida Gawaii went looking for red-cedars, if they found a good one they would say, “This looks like the baby of the chief’s wife.” And it is because of the young chief’s wife that red-cedars on these islands provide the very best wood for carving.)

But to return to the red-cedar sculpture of the young woman:– The sculpture continued to grow more and more like a human being day after day. People from villages far and near heard the story, and came in canoes to look at the sculpture, and at the young red-cedar tree growing there, at which they were very much astonished. The red-cedar sculpture of the woman moved around as much as a tree trunk might move in the wind, which is to say not much at all, and the sculpture was never able to talk. Yet the woman’s husband had dreams in which she spoke to him, and even if the sculpture could not talk, it was through these dreams the husband knew his wife was talking to him.

Source: Tlingit Myths and Texts, John R. Swanton, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 39, [1909], pp. 181-182

A totem pole carved from wood.
Public domain photograph from the National Park Service.

Above: A National Park Service photograph of the Centennial Pole, dedicated in 2011 at the Sitka National Historical Park, Sitka, Alaska, showing the woman carved at the bottom of the pole. “The bottom figure…is a fascinating female portrait by Donnie Varnell, a Haida carver from…Ketchikan (Alaska). Flanked by male and female salmon, she represents Mother Earth.” (Mike Dunham, “Sitka’s Centennial Pole a showpiece of modern totemry,” Anchorage Daily News, June 6, 2014.) Since this story is a Tlingit tale of the Haida Gwaii, the homeland of the Haida people, it seemed appropriate to use a Haida sculpture to illustrate the story.

The Accursed Lake: a story of the Tigua pueblo

This is a story of the Tigua (or Tiwa) people of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, in what is now far western Texas.

Long ago there was still a village east of the Eagle-Feather Mountains, where there lived a Hunter. One day, while out hunting, he followed the trail of an antelope until the trail ended in a large lake.

Just then, a fish thrust its head from the water and said, “Friend Hunter, you are on dangerous ground!” and off it went swimming.

Before the Hunter could recover from his surprise, a Lake-Man came up out of the water and said, “How is it that you are here, where no human ever came?”

The Hunter told his story, and the Lake-Man invited him to come in to his house. They entered the house by a trap-door in the roof, and climbed down a ladder. Inside, there were doors to the east, north, west, and south, as well as the door in the roof. Soon the Lake-Man learned that the Hunter had a wife and son at home.

“Why not come live with me?” the Lake-Man said. “I am no hunter, but I have plenty of other food. We could live very well here together.” And he showed the Hunter the four other huge rooms, all filled with corn and dried squash and the like.

“I will come with my wife and son in four days,” said the Hunter, “if the leader of my village will let me.”

So the Hunter went home, and his wife thought very well of the offer. The leader of his village did not want him to go, for he was the best hunter in all the pueblo, but at last gave permission.

So the Hunter and his wife and little boy came to the lake with all their property. The Lake-Man welcomed them, and they settled in. The Hunter went out hunting and brought back great quantities of game, and his wife took charge of the household, as was their custom.

Some time passed very pleasantly. But at last the Lake-Man, who had an evil heart, pushed the Hunter into the East Room, locked the door and left him there to starve. The room was full of the bones of people whom he had tricked in the same way.

The boy was now old enough to hunt small game, and he brought home many rabbits. But the evil-hearted Lake-Man wanted to get him out of the way, too. One morning when the boy was about to start hunting, he heard his mother groaning as if about to die.

“Your mother is in terrible pain,” said the evil Lake-Man, “and the only thing that will cure her is sacred ice from the Lake of the Sun in the east.”

The boy said he would go get the ice, and started off toward the sunrise.

He walked over the brown plains until at last he came to the house of Old-Woman-Mole. She was there all alone, for her husband had gone to hunt. They lived in an old broken-down hut, and she was huddled trying to keep warm by a dying fire. But when the boy knocked, she rose and welcomed him kindly and gave him all there was in the house to eat: a tiny bowl of soup with a patched-up snowbird in it. The boy was very hungry, and picking up the snowbird bit a big piece out of it.

“Oh, my child!” cried the old woman. “You have ruined me! My husband trapped that bird these many years ago, but could never get another, and that is all we have had to eat ever since. So we never bit it, but cooked it over and over and drank the broth. And now not even that is left.” And she wept bitterly.

“Nay, Grandmother, do not worry,” said the boy, for he saw many snowbirds alighting nearby. Using his long hair, he made sanres and soon caught many snowbirds. Then the Old-Woman-Mole was full of joy. After the boy told her his errand, she said:

“I shall help you. When you come into the house of the True People, they will offer you a seat, but you must not take it. They will try you with smoking the weer, but I will help you.”

With that, the boy started away to the east. At last, he came so near to Sun Lake that medicine men and guards of the True People saw him coming, and went in to tell the True People.

“Let him be brought in,” said the True People; and the guards brought the boy in through a magnificent building, until he stood in the presence of the True People in a vast room: white-colored gods of the East, blue gods of the North, yellow gods of the West, red gods of the South, and rainbow-colored gods of Up, Down, and Center. Beyond them were the sacred animals: the buffalo, the bear, the eagle, the badger, the mountain lion, the rattlesnake, and all the others that are powerful in medicine.

The True People offered the boy a white robe to sit on; but he declined respectfully, saying that he had been taught, when in the presence of his elders, to sit on nothing save what he brought, and he sat upon his blanket and moccasins. Then he told them that he had come for the sacred ice, to save his mother’s life.

The True People gave him a sacred weer, that is, a hollow reed filled with the magical plant pee-en-hleh, from the smoke of which the rain clouds come. The boy took in the unpleasant smoke, but the Old-Woman-Mole dug a hole up to his toes, and the smoke went down through his feet into the hole so that no smoke escaped into the room of the True People.

“Surely he is our child,” said the True People to one another, “but we must test him again.” So they put him into the room of the East with the bear and the mountain lion, but he came out again unhurt. They put him into the room of the North, with the eagle and the hawk; into the room of the West, with the snakes; into the room of the South, with the Apaches and other human enemies of his people. He came forth from each room unhurt.

“Surely he is our child,” said the True People to one another, “but we must test him again.” They had a great pile of logs built up, set the boy on the top of the pile and lighted it. But in the morning, the boy sat there unharmed, saying, “I am cold and would like more fire.”

So the guards brought him inside, and the True People said: “You have proved yourself worthy of us, and now you shall have what you seek.”

They gave him the sacred ice, and he hurried home, stopping only to thank the Old-Woman-Mole.

When the evil Lake-Man saw the boy, he was very angry, for he had never expected him to return with the sacred ice. He pretended he was glad to see the boy, but said he must go to the gods of the South to get sacred ice there.

The boy walked south across the brown plains until he came to a drying lake. There, dying in the mud, was a little fish. Picking it up, the boy put it in his gourd canteen of water. After awhile he came to a good lake, and the fish in his gourd said, “Friend Boy, let me swim while you eat your lunch, for I love the water.”

So he put the fish in the lake; and when he was ready to go on, the fish came to him, and he put it back in his gourd. At three lakes he let the fish swim while he ate; and each time the fish came back to him.

Beyond the third lake began a great forest which stretched clear across the world, and was so dense with thorns and brush that no human being could pass through. The tiny fish changed itself into a great Fish-Animal with hard, strong skin, and bidding the boy mount upon its back, it went plowing through the forest, breaking down big trees like stubble, and bringing him through to the other side without a scratch.

“Now, Friend Boy,” said the Fish-Animal, “you saved my life, and I will help you. When you come to the house of the True People of the South, they will try you as they did in the East. When you have proved yourself, the leader of the True People will bring you his three daughters, from whom to choose you a wife. The two eldest are very beautiful, and the youngest is not; but choose the youngest, for she is good and the beauty of the older sisters does not reach to their hearts.”

The boy thanked the fish and went on. At last he came to the house of the True People of the South. They tried him just as the True People of the East had done. Once again he passed the tests, and they gave him the sacred ice. Then the leader of the True People brought his three daughters, and said, “You are now old enough to have a wife, and I see that you are someone who cares for those around him. Therefore, choose one of my daughters to marry.”

The boy remembered the words of his fish friend, and said, “I choose your youngest daughter.”

The leader of the True People was pleased, and the boy and the youngest daughter were married. They started home, carrying the sacred ice and many presents. With the help of the Fish-Animal, they got through the forest, and walked on.

At last they came in sight of the big lake, and over it were great clouds, with the forked lightning leaping forth. They could see the evil Lake-Man sitting at the top of his ladder, watching to see if the boy would return, and as they watched the lightning of the True People struck him dead.

So the boy and the youngest daughter found the boy’s mother, and the three of them left the house of the evil Lake-Man. They left all the belongings of the evil Lake-Man behind, and when they got to the shore of the lake, the boy stood and prayed to the True People that the lake might be accurst forever. From that day its waters turned salt, and no living thing has drunk therefrom.

Source: Charles Fletcher Lummis, Pueblo Indian Folk-Stories (New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1910), pp. 109-116.

Coyote Creates Human Beings: A Story of the Miwok People

After the coyote had finished all the work of creating the world and the animals, he called a council of animals to deliberate on the creation of human beings. The animals sat down in an open space in the forest, all in a circle, with the mountain lion at the head. On her right sat the grizzly bear, next the cinnamon bear, and so on around according to the rank, ending with the little mouse, which sat at the mountain lion’s left.

The mountain lion was the first to speak, and she declared, “I would like to see humans created with a mighty voice like myself, with which they could frighten all other animals. For the rest,” the mountain lion said, “I would like to have humans well covered with hair, with terrible fangs, and with strong claws, like mine.”

The grizzly bear said, “It is ridiculous to have such a voice as my neighbor, the mountain lion, for she was always roaring with it and scaring away the very prey she wished to capture.” The grizzly bear shook her head and went on: “Humans ought to have prodigious strength like mine, and they should be able to move about silently but very swiftly if necessary, and be able to grip their prey without making a noise, like me.” 

The deer said, “Humans would look very foolish, in my way of thinking, unless they each had a magnificent pair of antlers on their heads to fight with. And I think it is very absurd to roar so loudly. I would pay less attention to the human’s voice than to their ears and his eyes. The humans should have both excellent hearing and sight, like mine.”

The bighorn sheep protested he never could see what sense there was in such antlers. “Big antlers, branching every way, only get caught in the thickets,” he said. “If humans had horns which were mostly rolled up, they would be like a stone on each side of their heads, giving it weight, and enabling the humans to butt a great deal harder, like me.”

When it came the coyote’s turn to speak, he said, “All these are the stupidest speeches I have ever heard. I could hardly keep awake while listening to such a pack of noodles and nincompoops. Every one of you wants to make the humans like yourselves. You might just as well take one of your own cubs and call it a human.

“As for myself,” Coyote said, “I know I am not the best animal that could be made, and I could make one better than himself or any other. Of course, humans would have to be like myself in having four legs, five fingers, and so on. It was well enough to have a voice like the mountain lion, only humans need not roar all the while with it. The grizzly bear also had some good points, one of which was the shape of her feet, which enable her easily to stand erect; and I am in favor, therefore, of making the human’s feet nearly like the grizzly’s.

“The grizzly was also happy in having no tail,” Coyote went on. “I have learned from my own experience that tails are only a harbor for fleas. The deer’s eyes and ears are pretty good, perhaps better even than mine.”

Coyote thought for a moment. “Then there is the fish, which is naked, and which I envy, because having a coat of hair was too hot most of the year. Therefore, I think humans should have no hair. Their claws ought to be as long as the eagle’s, so that they can hold things in them.

“And finally,” Coyote concluded, “even with the different gifts you all have,— voice, feet, hearing and sight, and so on — you all have to admit that no animal is as cunning and crafty as I am. So I will have to make humans like me in this respect — they will have to be cunning and crafty.”

After the coyote had finished speaking, the beaver said, “I have heard such twaddle and nonsense in all my life. No tail, indeed! I would make humans with a broad, flat tail, so they could haul mud and sand on it, and build their houses with it.”

The owl said, “All you animals seemed to have lost your senses; even you, Coyote! None of you want to give wings to the humans. I could not see of what use anything on earth could be without wings.”

The mole said, “It is silly to talk about wings, for with them humans would be certain to bump their heads against the sky. Besides that, if the humans had sharp eyes and wings both, they would get their eyes burnt out by flying too near the sun. But if they were like me, with small, weak eyes, they could burrow in the cool, soft earth, and be happy.”

Last of all, the little mouse squeaked out, “I would make humans with sharp eyes, of course, so they could find good things to eat. As for burrowing in the ground, that was absurd.”

So the animals disagreed among themselves, and the council of the animals broke up in a fight. The coyote fought with the beaver, and nipped a piece out of her cheek; the owl jumped on top of the coyote’s head, and dug in her talons. And all the other animals fought, one against the other.

When the fighting stopped, every animal set to work to make humans, each according to his or her own ideas. Taking a lump of earth, each animal commenced molding it to make a creature that looked like himself or herself. But the coyote began to make a creature like the one he had described in the council: a strong voice, feet that enabled it to stand on its hind legs, no tail, good eyes and ears, no fur, long claws that could grasp things and hold them, and as cunning and crafty as the coyote himself.

It was so late before the animals starting molding their creatures out of earth that nightfall came on before any one had finished their models, and they all lay down and fell asleep. But the cunning coyote stayed awake and worked hard on his model all night. When all the other animals were sound asleep, he went around and poured water on their models, dissolving the earth, and spoiling their work.

In the morning early he finished his model of humans, and gave life to the humans long before the others could make new models. And so it was that human beings were made by the coyote.

Source: The following story of the creation of human beings is a Miwok story heard at Little Gap, California, and reported in Tribes of California by Stephen Powers and John Wesley Powell (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1877), p. 358; the version below is an adaptation of the version given by Powers and Powell. This story is included in the old Unitarian Universalist curriculum Beginnings by Sophia Fahs and Dorothy Spoerl (Boston: Beacon, 1958), pp. 103 ff., but the version in Beginnings states in the first sentence that “the Great Spirit” created the world, whereas the story reported by Powers and Powell specifically states that Coyote created the world. I have also retained some details that Fahs and Spoerl left out; and I have degenderized the language.

ISLAMIC STORIES

The Man, the House, and the Cat

In order to be considered a Muslim (that is, someone who follows the religion of Islam), you must do five things. First, you must confess that there is no God but Allah whose prophet is Mohammed; second, you must pray five times a day; third, you must fast during the month of Ramadan; fourth, if you possibly can, you must make the journey to Mecca, the most holy city of Islam; and fifth, you must give money to the poor.

The Sufi master and dervish, Sheik Nasir el-Din Shah, told this story about giving money to the poor.

***

Once there was a man who had a great many troubles. He faced such great troubles in his life that he could see no way out. Oh, his problems were so great that I dare not tell you what they were. If you heard all his problems, you would be desperately sad for a month.

His troubles kept getting worse, and he became sadder and sadder. , his friends gave up on him, his servants moved out, he had no one to talk to but his cat.

In desperation, the man prayed for an end to his troubles. Since he was a Muslim, he prayed to his god, Allah. He knew that all Muslims as supposed to help poor people, so as he prayed he promised Allah that if his troubles came to an end, he would sell his house, and give all the money he gained from selling his house to the poor people who lived in his city.

And his prayers worked! — his troubles miraculously came to an end! Within two or three days, everything was fine once again. He sighed with relief. Once again, he could enjoy living in his beautiful house — and then he remembered. He had sworn that if he ever got out of his troubles, he would sell his beautiful house, and give all the money to the poor.

He realized he did not want to sell his house. Why, if he sold his house, and gave away all that money, he would have so little money left, he would have to live in a much smaller house. That would be most unpleasant!

He wished with all his heart that he had not promised to sell his house if his troubles ended. But his troubles had ended, and he knew he should keep his promise. On the other hand, he said to himself, there was no reason for him to give away so much money. Far better he should keep the money for himself! And then he had an idea.

So he told people they could buy his house for one piece of silver. However, his cat must continue to live in the house. Everyone knows that cats don’t like to move. And the cat was such a valuable cat, he must sell it for no less than ten thousand pieces of silver.

A rich merchant bought the house for one piece of silver, and also bought the cat for ten thousand pieces of silver. The man gave all the money he gained from the sale of his house to the poor, which was only one piece of silver. But the money from the sale of the cat — ten thousand pieces of silver — that money, the man kept.

***

Sheik Nasir el-Din Shah said that many people are just like the man who sold his house for one piece of silver. Many people resolve to do the right thing, but then they change things around in their minds to make it easier, and make it be to their advantage. Nasir el-Din Shah said that until we can stop doing this, we will not learn anything at all.

Source: A Sufi tale adapted from Tales of the Dervishes, by Idries Shah (Dutton, 1967).

The Miracles at the Birth of Muhammad (peace be upon him)

Once upon a time, many many years ago, far away in the land of Arabia, there lived a man named ‘Abdel Muttalib. As this story begins, ‘Abdel Muttalib was about 70 years old, and was the foremost leader of the city of Mecca. His son ‘Abdallah was then 24 years old, a young man renowned for the beautiful light shining in his face. ‘Abdel Muttalib took his son ‘Abdallah to some distant relatives, and gave him in marriage to Amina, the daughter of Wahb. Amina was said to be pure in her thoughts and deeds. (1)

The wedding took place at the home of the bride, as was the custom. After they were married, ‘Abdallah stayed with Amina for several days. Soon Amina was pregnant, but ‘Abdallah had to set forth on a journey with a caravan of merchants traveling to the distant city of Ghazza. As the caravan returned to Mecca, while in the city of Medina, ‘Abdallah became ill. He stayed there with cousins on his father’s side.

When the caravan finally got back to Mecca, they went to ‘Abdel Muttalib to tell him that his son was ill, and had stayed in Medina. ‘Abdel Muttalib sent Harith, another of his sons, to go and take care of ‘Abdallah. But when Harith arrived in Medina, he learned that ‘Abdallah had died a month after the caravan left, and was now buried in the Bani Adi quarter of the city. Harith returned to Mecca, and ‘Abdel Muttalib and all the family mourned ‘Abdallah’s death.

Amina had not yet given birth. Abdallah had left the house in which he had lived, five camels fed on wild shrubs, a flock of goats, and a slave girl called Omm Ayman. He left nothing more than this; but Amina’s simple habits required no more; and indeed in that time and place, all those goats, and that many camels, and a slave to help care for the new baby provided a measure of prosperity and comfort to Amina. (2)

One day when Amina was pregnant with her baby, she fell into a dream. A voice said to her, “The child you bear is the best of all humankind, and he will be a leader of his people. When he is born, give him the name of Muhammad, which means ‘Highly Praised.'” This voice said that her baby’s name is Ahmad in the Torah and in the Gospels, but in the Qu’ran his name will be Muhammad. (3)

Some people say that this voice that Amina heard was the voice of the angel Gabriel. They go on to say that unlike most pregnant women, Amina felt no discomfort during her pregnancy. (4)

Now many legends have been passed down about the time when Amina was giving birth. One legend says that as Amina was in labor, a white bird came and lay its wing across her, helping her to keep her confidence; later came Birds of Paradise, with their ruby-red bills and emerald-green wings to sing to her. Some people say heavenly music came from out of the air, and a sheet of cloth came down from heaven to give Amina privacy; Amina grew thirsty, and a hand appeared, presenting her with a cup filled with a delicious drink that was white as milk and sweet as honey; beings from the heavens scattered beautiful aromas around Amina. (5)

Another legend says that at the moment that Amina gave birth, a light came from her and her baby, a light which was so bright that it lit up distant palaces, so that Amina could see the necks of the camels in Bosra. (6)

Then the baby raised himself up, saying, “There is no God but Allah, and I am his prophet.” His aunt Safia, who was there with Amina, said that she did not have to cut the baby’s umbilical cord. (7)

And some people say three personages, as bright as the sun, appeared: one presented a silver goblet to the child, one an emerald tray, and the third a silken towel; these three personages washed the baby seven times, then blessed him, calling him the Prince of Humanity. (8)

Instead of these myths and legends, many people tell a simpler tale of a special baby born to a recently widowed mother. And they would go on to finish the story like this:

After the baby was born, Amina sent to ‘Abdel Muttalib, who rejoiced upon hearing that he had a grandchild. The grandfather took the baby in his arms, and carried him to the Ka’bah, the holiest place in Mecca. ‘Abdel Muttalib walked around the Ka’bah seven times with the baby, and on the last time around he announced that the baby would be called Muhammad, just as Amina had wanted. (9)

This little baby did grow up to be the great prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, who founded the religion of Islam. He taught the importance of doing right, of giving alms to those who were poor, and of praying each day so that we may keep our minds on that which is best in the world. Today billions of people, whom we call Muslims, still follow the teachings of the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

Sources:
(1) The Life of Mahomet, vol. 2, by William Muir (London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1861] pp. xiv ff. Images of Muhammad: Narratives of the Prophet in Islam Across the Centuries, by Tarif Khalidi (New York: Random House, Inc., 2009), p. 66. Amina was said to be sexually pure, which would have been important in the Arab cultures of the time.
(2) Muir. “Mohammed,” unsigned article in Lives of the illustrious: The Biographical magazine, Volume 7, [J. Passmore Edwards,] (London: Partridge, Oakey and Co., 1855), pp. 53-54.
(3) “A Biography of the Prophet of Islam,” in The Light of the Original Sources: An Analytical Study, Volume 1, by Mahdi Rizq Allah Ahmad, trans. Syed Iqbal Zaheer (Riyadh: Darussalam, 2005), p. 99. The Life and Work of Muhammad, by Yahiya Emerick (Indianapolis: Alpha Books, 2002), p. 29.
(4) Khalidi. Katib al Wackidi, quoted by Muir. “Mohammed,” p. 54.
(5) “Biographies of Mohammed for India,” anonymous review of The Ennobled Nativity by Maulud Sharif, in the Calcutta Review, Volume 17, January-June, 1852 (Calcutta: Sanders, Cone, 1852), p. 404. The reviewer says Sharif records “traditions of a late fabrication.”
(6) Khalidi, p. 68. Muir.
(7) “Biographies of Mohammed for India,” p. 404.
(8) Muir.
(9) Emerick.

The Doctor Who Rode a Hyena to Mecca

A certain doctor, a man of great learning who wrote elegant Arabic script and who was well-versed in the complicated legal, historical, and religious learning of the Hausa people, set out to go on the Hajj. This is the pilgrimage to Mecca that all good Muslims hope to make, so that they might add to their rewards in the afterlife.

This doctor had a very thin mare. He saddled her, mounted her, and began the long journey to Mecca. He was deep into the forest when be saw a hyena. The hyena saw that the doctor’s mare was very weary.

“Doctor, where are you going?” said the hyena.

The doctor said, “I am going to Mecca.”

“But something seems to be the matter,” said the hyena.

“It is the mare,” said the doctor. “She is weary.”

“Give the mare to me,” said the hyena. “I shall kill her, and eat her up. Then you can mount me and we shall set out to Mecca.”

The doctor said, “So?”

The hyena said, “Yes, it is so.”

The doctor said, “You must not deceive me.”

She replied, “Come now, Doctor, it is because I have seen that your mare is unable to go on that I speak. For my part, if you mount me, this instant I will carry you to Mecca.”

The doctor said, “All right, catch the mare and eat it.”

The hyena seized the mare, tore it up, picked up the meat and took it home. She ate it with her children. The doctor waited and waited for her to return, but she did not come back. At last a jackal came along and saw the doctor sitting there.

“Doctor, what has happened?” said the jackal.

“I was on my way to Mecca,” said the doctor. “My mare got tired, so I sat down. The hyena came along and asked what was the matter, and I said that that I was on my way to Mecca but my mare was tired.

“And the hyena said, ‘Oh, this thing can never take you to Mecca. Give her to me to eat so I can increase my strength, then I can carry you to Mecca.’ I then said,” the doctor went on,, “‘Hyena, you must not deceive me, by eating my mare then running away.’ But she replied, ‘Why would I do that? it is the truth I told you.’ I thought what she told me was true, but after she caught the mare she went off and I haven’t seen her again.”

“Stop worrying, Doctor,” said the jackal. “I will bring her to you.”

The jackal took up all the horse tack — the saddle and saddle-cloth, the bit and halter, the spurs and whip — and off he went. On the way, he found a lump of meat and took it along as well. He dropped the tack, piece by piece, dropping the saddlecloth last of all, when he was near the mouth of the hyena’s hole.

When he got to the hyena’s hole, he stood and announced his arrival.

But the hyena had told her children, “Whoever comes here looking for me, you must say I am not here.” So when the jackal hailed, the children said, “She is not here.”

“Allah curse her, she has no luck,” said the jackal. “Here I have brought her good news, and bad luck prevents her from hearing it. For a cow has died, a very fat one, and I have come to call her and show her. But you say, she is not here. So I will leave.”

Then the hyena said, “Who is seeking me?”

“I am seeking you<” said the jackal. “A fat cow has died, but these children say you are not here. Here, I cut off a big lump of meat and have brought it to you”

“There is no God but Allah!” said the hyena. “You worthless children, I was asleep, but you say I am not here.” And the hyena came out of her hole.

The jackal offered her some of the lump of meat, saying, “Taste it.”

She swallowed the meat, giving none to her children. Then she said, “Let us be off.”

The hyena was eager to get to the fat cow, and she was a long way in front of the jackal. “Here,” said the hyena, “you cannot walk fast enough. Climb up and ride me so that we may go quickly.”

The jackal rode her, and soon they came to the saddle cloth. The jackal said, “Let me spread this thin on your back, for the hair on your back is getting ruffled.” When he had the saddle-cloth on her, he mounted once again and they rode off.

Soon they came to the bit and halter. “Let me lift up this thing and put it in your mouth,” said the jackal. “Perhaps it will be better for me to hold.”

“Put it on quickly and let us get on,” said the hyena. The jackal put on the bit, took hold of the halter, and they rode off again.

Soon they came to the spurs and whip. The jackal dismounted, took up the whip and put the spurs on his feet, and mounted again.

As they drew near where the doctor was waiting, the hyena said, “You must not take this way.” For she did not wish to meet the doctor again, so she took another path. But when they were opposite where the doctor sat, the jackal struck her with the spurs and turned the bit towards the doctor. Then the hyena sprang forward, saying, “Oou, oou.”

The jackal pulled up in front of the doctor, dismounted, and said, “Doctor, behold your debtor. Mount her, and do not get off until you reach where you are going. If you dismount, even at the water, do not take her to a stream of water.”

The doctor replied, “I have heard.” He mounted, and did not dismount until they had ridden all the way to Mecca, over a thousand miles.

When he got to Mecca, his dismounted from the hyena. He asked some children to hold her, saying, “You must not mount her, and you must not take her to the stream.” Then the doctor entered the mosque where they were praying.

But the children did not listen. They mounted they hyena, and rode her to a nearby stream. As soon as she got out of the town, she began to gallop into the bush. She threw them off, and ran away. So when the doctor came out of the mosque, he saw neither the children, nor the hyena.

That is all.

Source: This story comes from Hausa Folklore, stories told by Maalam Shaihua and translated by R. Sutherland Rattray (Clarendon Press, 1913). The Hausa, who live in what is now Nigeria, were one of North Africa’s major trading powers. By the 14th century, many Hausa people had converted to Sunni Islam, and eventually Hausaland became a Caliphate. Traditional Hausa religion (called “Bori” or “Maguzanci”) persisted in the countryside, and still does today. The present story appears to combine elements from older Hausa folklore (talking animals) with Islamic elements (trip to Mecca). This story reminds us that Islam has been a feature of West Africa for centuries.

UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST STORIES

John Murray’s Miracle

John Murray lived in England, with his wife and his baby. John Murray and his wife had started out going to an ordinary Christian church, and people in that church believed that if you were bad, when you died you would go to a very unpleasant place called Hell.

But John Murray’s wife, Eliza, found a Universalist church where she learned that love is the most powerful force in the universe, and therefore no one would ever go to Hell after they died. Soon, she brought her husband to that church, too, and they became enthusiastic about their new Universalist religion. John even became a Universalist preacher. But just as all seemed to be going well in their lives, Eliza and their baby got sick, so sick that they both died. John was so sad that he decided to give up preaching Universal-ism. He decided to leave England, and go to America to start a new life. He bought passage on a ship that was going to sail across the ocean to America.

The ship sailed for many days, and at last they saw the shores of America. But as they got close to shore, the ship suddenly stopped moving — it had gone aground on a sandbar. Try as they might, the sailors could not get the ship off the sandbar. At last the captain sent John Murray ashore to fetch back some food and water.

The ship had grounded far from any town, and at first John Murray saw nothing but fields and forests as he walked along. But then he came to a strange sight. There was a small farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere, and next to it stood a church. What was a church doing in such a lonely place?

John Murray introduced himself to Thomas Potter, the man who lived in the lonely farmhouse. John asked him why there was a church next to his farmhouse.

Thomas Potter answered that he had built the church, and he was waiting for a preacher to come along, someone who would preach about a loving God, and who would preach that there was no such thing as Hell.

“I used to preach just exactly that,” said John Murray. “I used to be a Universalist preacher. But I don’t preach any more.”

Thomas Potter grew excited. “You’re the preacher I’ve been waiting for,” he said. “Come preach to me and my neighbors in my church!”

“No,” said John Murray. “I have to get back on my ship, which has run aground on a sandbar.”

“If your ship is still aground on the sandbar on Sunday,” said Thomas Potter, “will you come preach in my church?”

“Yes,” said John Murray, “I will.” But he was sure that the ship would be free of the sandbar by then.

The next few days flew by. The captain and the crew tried again and again to float the ship off the sandbar. But when Sunday came around, the ship was still aground. Thomas Potter was overjoyed, because he knew that John Murray would keep his promise and preach Universalism in his small church.

And that’s exactly what happened. John Murray came ashore, and preached a sermon on Universalism to everyone in that neighborhood. Everyone who came to hear him said that he was such a good preacher, he should keep on preaching Universalism.

John Murray decided that they were right. He decided to begin preaching Universalism once again. And he decided that he would preach Universalism everywhere he could, throughout the English colonies in America.

Source: Life of Rev. John Murray by John Murray, ed. by Judith Sargent Murray.

John Murray and the Rock

After John Murray first preached Universalism in Thomas Potter’s meeting house in 1770, he went on to preach Universalism throughout the American colonies. He traveled for many miles telling crowds of people what he believed: that God was love, and that all people would go to heaven when they died.

In 1773, John Murray took a long trip through the colonies to preach Universalism. He went as far south as Maryland. He traveled through Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and all the north to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, preaching the whole way. He’d stop in a city where he knew some people, find a place where he could preach, and then get lots of people to come hear him.

But it wasn’t easy. There were many people who thought John Murray should not be allowed to preach Universalism. Sometimes people would try to interrupt him while he spoke. Sometimes someone might even try to throw him out of the building where he was speaking.

From New Hampshire he returned southwards to Boston. After so many months traveling, he decided to stay in Boston for a while. He began preaching in a church in School Street in Boston. The proprietors of the church, the lay leaders, had invited John Murray to preach there. But the minister, a man named Andrew Croswell, did not like John Murray, and did not like Universalism.

In November, John Murray began preaching Universalism in the School Street church. He preached one Sunday evening, and then he preached again on Wednesday. On Wednesday evening, someone threw water all over the audience who had gathered to hear him, and someone else threw an egg at John Murray (which didn’t hit). John Murray knew that Mr. Croswell had arranged for the water, and the egg. The very next day, Mr. Croswell wrote a nasty letter to the newspaper about John Murray. That was the last straw.

John Murray challenged Mr. Croswell to a debate the next Sunday evening. No more of this secret plotting by Mr. Croswell. The two of them would argue in public about whether or not Universalism was true.

The debate started, and a big crowd came out to hear them. Mr. Croswell said many nasty things to John Murray. At last Mr. Croswell demanded that John Murray prove the truth of Universalism. John Murray started a long explanation of how he proved that Universalism was true. But while John Murray was trying to explain Universalism, Mr. Croswell was kicking his legs, or pulling on his coat, or butting at him as hard as he could with his shoulder and saying over and over again, “Have done, have done; you have said enough; quite enough.”

The congregation noticed how rude Mr. Croswell was being, and they did not like it. Soon the debate ended, but Mr. Croswell remained just as nasty as ever.

At the next Sunday evening lecture on Universalism, a huge crowd had gathered in the School Street church. John Murray had a hard time pushing his way through the crowd to get to the pulpit. When he got there, he was almost overwhelmed by a terrible stench. Someone had sprinkled asafoetida, an extremely smelly herb, all over the pulpit. The smell was so bad that for a moment John Murray thought he would not be able to give his lecture. But he managed to recover, and began to speak.

As he began to speak, some of his enemies started to throw stones through the windows of the church. No one was injured, although everyone was so alarmed that it was almost impossible for the lecture to continue. Then someone threw a large rugged stone, weighing about a pound and a half, into the window behind John Murray’s back. It missed him; if it had hit him, it surely would have killed him. He bent down and picked up the rock, and showed it to the people who had gathered to hear him speak.

“This argument,” he said, waving the rock so everyone could see it, “is solid and weighty, but it is neither rational nor convincing.”

When the people in the church saw the rock, they urged him to give up.
“Pray leave the pulpit,” someone called out. “Your life is in danger!”

“That may be so,” said John Murray. “But not all the stones in Boston shall shut my mouth, or stop me from testifying what I believe to be true.”

And he did continue to preach the truth as he understood it, the truth of Universalism, for the rest of his life. He preached that love was the most powerful force in the universe, and that God was love — and for saying that in public, he was threatened again and again with violence. In spite of the threats, he continued to speak what he knew to be true.

A few years later, he helped to found a Universalist church in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He married a woman named Judith Sargent. Both of them worked hard to make the new Universalist church a success. And it was successful; it was so successful that it still exists today, and it is still a Unitarian Universalist church.

Source: The Life of Rev. John Murray, by John Murray, ed. by Judith Sargent Murray.

Theodore Parker and the loaded pistol

Among the people who used to come each Sunday to Theodore Parker’s church in Boston were William and Ellen Craft. William was a carpenter, and they had a nice home in Boston, where they had lived for some years. Theodore Parker knew them well, and went often to see them in their house, and welcomed them gladly when they came to visit him. He knew the sad, true story of their past lives, which was a secret from other people in Boston: years ago they had been held as slaves by a cruel master in Georgia. They had managed to escape from slavery, and had fled over nine hundred miles, until they had finally come to safety in Boston, for Massachusetts was a free state that did not allow slavery.

The Crafts lived peaceful lives in Boston until 1850, when the United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law.

The Fugitive Slave Law allowed slave owners to take former slaves who had escaped to freedom in one of the free states. To demonstrate the power of the new law, some supporters of slavery decided to pull off a high-profile capture of escaped slaves — they decided to capture William and Ellen Craft, who had been free for so long, and who lived a city which was a stronghold of abolition.

The slave-catchers came to Boston. So the Committee on Vigilance, a group of people who organized themselves to stop the Fugitive Slave Law and end slavery, went into action. Theodore Parker let Ellen hide out in his own home. By hiding Ellen, he made himself liable to a fine of a thousand dollars and imprisonment for six months under the Fugitive Slave Law.

Parker said, “I will [helped a fugitive slave] as readily as I would lift a man out of the water, or pluck him from the teeth of a wolf or snatch him from the hands of a murderer. What is a fine of a thousand dollars, and jailing for six months, to the liberty of a man? My money perish with me if it stand between me and the eternal law of God!”

While his wife stayed in the safety of Parker’s house, William Craft armed himself, and with support from the Committee on Vigilance he was able to move around Boston and keep away from the slave-catchers. Then Theodore Parker heard that the slave-catchers had threatened to break into his house at night.

Determined to keep them out, Parker kept a loaded pistol at the ready. A few months later, when some other Unitarian ministers criticized Parker for breaking the law, here’s what he said:

“I have in my church black men [and women], fugitive slaves. They are the crown of my apostleship, the seal of my ministry. It becomes me to look after their bodies in order to ‘save their souls.’ This [Fugitive Slave] law has brought us into the most intimate connection with the sin of slavery. I have been obliged to take my own parishioners into my house to keep them out of the clutches of the kidnapper. Yes, gentlemen, I have been obliged to do that; and then to keep my doors guarded by day as well as by night. Yes, I have had to arm myself. I have written my sermons with a pistol in my desk,– loaded … and ready for action. Yes, with a drawn sword within reach of my right hand. This I have done in Boston; in the middle of the nineteenth century; been obliged to do it to defend the [innocent] members of my own church, women as well as men!”

But the slave-catchers, and the Federal marshals who helped them, never broke into Parker’s house. He went to their hotel, and let them know that whoever came into his house to try to capture Ellen Craft would do so at the peril of their lives. He went on to tell them exactly what the people of Boston thought of them, and what might happen to them if some people in Boston got hold of them, and Parker so scared the slave-catchers that they left the city as soon as they could catch a train out.

While all this was going on, the Committee on Vigilance — that was the name of the organization of abolitionists Parker was working with — raised enough money to send William and Ellen Craft to England, where slavery was illegal, with enough additional money so that they could get established in their new country.

Before they left, it turned out that William and Ellen had never been legally married. They had been living as husband and wife when they were slaves, but since it was illegal for slaves to marry they had never married. Before they left for England, Parker officially married them. But Theodore Parker added his own twist to the marriage ceremony. Here’s how he told the story:

“Then came the marriage ceremony; then a prayer such as the occasion inspired. Then I noticed a Bible lying on one table and a sword on the other. I took the Bible, put it into William’s right hand, and told him the use of it. It contained the noblest truths in the possession of the human race, &c., it was an instrument he was to use to help save his own soul, and his wife’s soul, and charged him to use it for its purpose, &c. I then took the sword; I put that in his right hand, and told him if the worst came to the worst to use that to save [his and] his wife’s liberty, or life, if he could effect it in no other way. I told him that I hated violence, that I reverenced the sacredness of human life, and thought there was seldom a case in which it was justifiable to take it; that if he could save his wife’s liberty in no other way, then this would be one of the cases, and as a minister of religion I put into his hands these two dissimilar instruments, one for the body, if need were — one for his soul at all events. Then I charged him not to use it except at the last extremity, to bear no harsh and revengeful feelings against those who once held him in bondage, or such as sought to make him and his wife slaves even now.”

William and Ellen Craft succeeded in reaching England safely. All this took place in 1851, the year of the first Great Exhibition, held in London. William and Ellen appeared at the Great Exhibition, and crowds of people went to see them, two former slaves who had escaped to England, two now-free people who sang “God save the Queen” to thank Heaven for having escaped from the slave-catchers.

Source: The Life and Writings of Theodore Parker, Albert Réville (London: Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., 1865), pp. 112-114; and The story of Theodore Parker, Francis E. Cooke (London: Sunday School Association, 1890), pp. 100-101.]

Theodore Parker and the Turtle

Once upon a time there lived a little boy named Theodore Parker. He lived on a farm in Lexington, Massachusetts. His grandfather had been one of the militia-men who had stood up to the soldiers in the Battle of Lexington at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, protesting the injustice of the English King. The musket that his grandfather had carried on that day hung over the fireplace in the farmhouse.

One fine day in spring, when Theodore Parker was nearly four years old, his father led him by the hand to a distant part of the farm. Soon his father sent him to walk home alone. On the way, little Theodore had to pass a small pond in the field. A rhodora flower in full bloom drew him to the spot. There in the pond, Theodore saw a little spotted turtle sunning itself in the water at the foot of the flower.

Theodore went up to the turtle. He was carrying a stick in his hand, and he lifted up the stick to lifted the stick to strike it. All at once something checked his arm and stopped him from striking the turtle, and a voice within him said, clear and loud, “It is wrong!”

Theodore held his stick in the air, and wondered at this new feeling. Then he ran home, and told the story to his mother.

“What was it that told me it was wrong?” he said.

His mother took him in her arms. “Some people call it Conscience,” she said. “I like to call it the Voice of God in the soul of people. If you listen and obey it, then it will speak clearer and clearer, and always guide you right. But if you turn a deaf ear, or disobey, then it will fade out little by little, and leave you all in the dark and without a guide. Your life depends on your heeding this little voice.”

For the rest of his life, Theodore Parker listened to his conscience, that voice in his soul, and like his grandfather before him, he always tried to do what was right.

Source: One version of this story may be found in the Unitarian collection The Little Child at the Breakfast Table, by William Channing Gannett and Mary Thorn Lewis Gannett (Boston: Beacon, 1915), p. 16. The information about Parker’s grandfather, and about Parker’s claims that the Revolutionary War influenced his moral views, comes from American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism, by Dean Grodzins (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), pp. 10-12.

Maja Capek and the Story of the Flower Celebration

Maja Oktavec came to the United States from what we now call the Czech Republic as a young woman just over a hundred years ago. She became a librarian, and while working in the Webster Branch of the New York Public Library, she met a man named Norbert Capek who had come to America from the same place. They fell in love, and got married in 1917.

Norbert was a Baptist minister, but he was beginning to doubt his Baptist beliefs. Maja encouraged his doubts, and soon he had resigned from the Baptist ministry, and they had both stopped going to church.

One day, their children said they wanted to go to Sunday school. They chose a church to try, and they came back, their parents asked them what they had learned. It sounded like the old religion they had rejected, so Norbert said that he wished the children would try a different Sunday school the next week. This went on for weeks. The children would go off to a new Sunday school, they would tell what they learned when they got home, and Norbert would ask them to please try another church the next week.

Until one Sunday when the children went to a Unitarian church. When they came home and told what they had learned, Norbert encouraged them to return to that church. Soon Norbert and Maja decided that they, too, would like to go to the Unitarian church, and they liked it so much they became members.

At about this time, their homeland became an independent country called Czechoslovakia. The Capeks returned to their homeland to start a Unitarian church there, in the city of Prague. Most members of their new church had left other religions to become Unitarians. Many of these people did not want to be reminded of the religions they had left behind. In 1923, Norbert and Maja Capek decided to create a new ritual for their congregation: a Flower Celebration, where everyone exchanged flowers to symbolize how all human beings are connected.

Within ten years, this new Unitarian church grew to three thousand members, the largest Unitarian church in the world.

Within another ten years, Nazi Germany started the Second World War. It was a terrible time. Maja Capek came to the United States to raise money to help refugees. While she was in the United States, the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, arrested Norbert Capek because he spoke out for freedom, and they put him into the concentration camp at Dachau, where he died in 1942.

After the war, Maja Capek stayed in the United States. She was deeply saddened by her husband’s death. She continued to her relief work with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency. She also brought the joyous Flower Celebration to us here in the United States. And each year when we have our own Flower Celebration, we give thanks to Maja Capek for sharing this wonderful ritual with us here in the United States.

Sources: Material on the Flower Celebration in Quest, the monthly publication of the Church of the Larger Fellowship (June, 2002); Reginald Zotolli, “The Flower Communion: A Service of Celebration for Religious Liberals,” UUA pamphlet; Richard Henry, Norbert Fabian Capek: A Spiritual Journey (Skinner House, 1999).

Connected by Water

A story for Water Communion services. I based this story on something Steve Hersey said in the water communion service at the First Parish in Watertown, Massachusetts, circa 1995.

This story requires that you make two simple props. First, print out the PDF files on standard letter size paper:
PDF of 602
PDF of 22
PDF of ,000
Now take the “602” sheet and tape 7 sheets of “,000” to the right hand edge; carefully fold the “,000” sheets behind the “602” sheet with an accordion fold. Then take the “22” sheet and tape 9 sheets of “,000” to the right hand edge; fold as above. You have just made two very long numbers; these are the two props you will need.

Each year we do this water communion service. When we share our water in the common bowl, it symbolizes that while we are separate people, we are also part of an interdependent community.

You probably know about the water cycle. When it rains, water falls from clouds onto the ground, and eventually it flows into a river, and all rivers flow down to the ocean. Water evaporates from the ocean and forms clouds, the clouds drift over the land, it rains, and the cycle begins again. You’re in the middle of this cycle because you drink about 2 liters of water every day, and then you sweat or urinate and put water back into the water cycle. So water is constantly on the move.

You probably know that water is made up of molecules, and that each water molecule is made up of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen. Water molecules are incredibly tiny, so tiny you cannot see them. If you had 18 grams of water, or a little more than half an ounce, that would be about 6 x 10^23 [pronounced: “six times ten to the twenty-third”] molecules. The molecular weight of water is approximately 18, and therefore 18 grams of water should have a number of molecules equal to Avogadro’s number, or 6.02 x 10^23.

This is a fairly large number. I can show you what this number would look like. This would be 602 — [show “602” with all the zeros folded behind it]. This would be 602 million [unfold two of the “,000” sheets from behind the “602” sheet]. Um, if I go any higher, I’m going to need some adults to help me hold this very large number up (I need adults because they are tall enough to hold it up where everyone can see it). [Get three or four helpers to hold up the number.] Thank you! Now you can see this very large number: 6.02 x 10^23, or 602 sextillion.

If you’re a child who weighs about 77 pounds, or 35 kilograms, then you have about 20 liters of water in your body (adults, you can multiply up to figure it out for yourselves). That’s approximately 20,000 grams of water, or 6.02 x 10^26, or 602 septillion, molecules of water in your body if you’re a child. And if you drink 2 liters of water a day, you’re replacing about ten percent of that, or 6 x 10^25 molecules, each day. So if you are 3,650 days old (that’s ten years old), about 2.2 x 10^28 water molecules have already passed through your body. This is an even larger number, and here’s what that number looks like. [Begin to unfold the other large number.] Oh, I guess I’m going to need helpers to hold up this number as well. [Get four or five people to hold up this number.]]

Because water is constantly cycling around, and because every human being has such large numbers of molecules of water cycling through them, there’s a very good chance that each one of us has at least a few molecules of water that were formerly in the body of Socrates, the great philosopher. We each probably have some molecules of water that were once in the body of Jesus of Nazareth, and of the Buddha, and any number of great and wise people who lived in the past.

Thus when we say that we are all interconnected, that statement is quite literally true — we are all interconnected through the water cycle, not only with each other, but with all living beings past and present. Jesus, Confucius, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Eliza Tupper Wilkes who was the first Unitarian minister in Palo Alto — you might be literally connected with each of these good and wise people.

(Let’s thank all our helpers!)

Note: Obviously, you can substitute someone else for Eliza Tupper Wilkes. However, given that the Water Communion is a feminist ritual, you should include a woman.

The Christmas Eve Candles

(A story to be told as part of a Christmas Eve candle-lighting service, where each person in the congregation winds up with a lighted candle. Near the story teller are three rows of candles: one tall candle that is already lit as the congregation comes in to the service; two medium-height candles directly in front of it, waiting to be lit; and four short candles in a row in front of that.)

Each year on Christmas eve, we light candles here at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Valhalla. Soon, each of us will be holding a lighted candle, and the light from all our candles will light up our church. We have a reason for lighting all these candles, besides the fact that it looks pretty. Let me tell you a little bit about why we light all these candles.

Here in front of me is a tall candle, a candle that is already lit; this candle was lit when you walked into this room. This candle represents the light of the ages. It represents the wisdom that people have been able to know since people first existed. Those who are willing to search for it, all people, of all cultures and races and nations, right on down through the ages, have been able to find the light of the ages.

[Begin lighting the second row of candles.]

Right in front of this candle representing the light of the ages, you can see two more candles. These two candles represent the prophets and sages. Today we celebrate the birth of Jesus, who was one of these great prophets. Of course there are others — Socrates and Confucius and Buddha, and people like Joan of Arc and Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi — and the prophets and sages whose names we haven’t happened to have heard in this time and place. The prophets and sages have reminded us — continue to remind us — of the wisdom that is our birthright.

[Begin lighting the third row of candles.]

Then you can see four more candles in front of the those two. These four candles represent the teachers who appear in every age, in every community. When I say “teachers,” I don’t just mean school teachers. Teachers are the ones who introduce us to the prophets and sages, who take the time to remind us of the highest wisdom. They might be your parents, or someone here at church; other friends, mentors, and guides, or even the author of a book you once read.

And finally there are many more candles representing you and me, all of us. We will light all our candles from these candles representing the teachers, the sages, and the light of the ages. For we all have been taught, we have all been touched by the wisdom of the sages, we have all felt our lives brightened by the light of the ages. And it is our sacred duty to let our own lights shine, to keep the light of wisdom, the light of hope, shining in the world around us.

Remember this as you receive the light which lights your own candle. The prophets and sages have spoken, the teachers have taught us, but it is up to us to make sure the light of the ages, the light of wisdom and justice and righteousness, burns brightly in the world today.

Source: Based on a story told by Dana Maclean Greeley at First Parish of Concord, Massachusetts, in the 1970s.

The Old Story of Thanksgiving

Please read the notes on sources (see below) before you use this story.

This is the old story of Thanksgiving. Even though you’ve heard this story about a million times, it’s good to tell it every year to remind ourselves why we celebrate Thanksgiving.

The story begins in England. In England in those days, every town had only one church, and it was called the Church of England. You had to belong to that church, like it or not. It’s not like it is here today, where families get to choose which church they want to go to — back then, there were no other churches to choose from!

A small group of people decided they could no longer believe the things that were said and believed in the Church of England. When they tried to form their own church in England, they got in trouble. They went to live in Holland, where they were free to practice their own religion, but they felt odd living in someone else’s country.

Then this small group of people heard about a new land across the ocean called America, a place where they could practice their own religion. They found a ship called the Mayflower, and made plans to sail to America. These are the people we call the Pilgrims.

After a long, difficult trip across a stormy sea, the Pilgrims finally came to the new land, which was called New England. The voyage took much longer than they had hoped, and by the time they got to New England, it was already December. The nights were long, the days were cold, and the Pilgrims had to build houses and find food and try to make themselves comfortable for the long, cold winter.

The weather grew very cold. The Pilgrims very little to eat. The first winter that the Pilgrims spent here in New England was so long and cold and hard, that some of the Pilgrims began to sicken and die. Fortunately, the people who were already living in this new land were very generous — these were people from the Patuxet band of the Wampanoag people. When the Patuxet saw how badly the Pilgrims were faring, they shared their food so at least the Pilgrims wouldn’t starve to death. Perhaps the Patuxet were especially sympathetic because a few years earlier, ninety percent of them had died when diseases brought by Europeans had spread down from Canada.

That first winter, fully half the Pilgrims died from cold and lack of food. Yet without the help of the sympathetic Patuxet, many more would have died.

After that first winter, life got better for the Pilgrims. Spring came, and they were able to build real houses for themselves. They planted crops, and most of the crops did pretty well. The Pilgrims went hunting and fishing, and they found lots of game and caught lots of fish.

By the time fall came around again, the Pilgrims had a pretty comfortable life. To celebrate their good fortune, they decided to hold a harvest celebration. They went hunting and killed some turkeys to eat at their celebration. They grilled fish, and baked pumpkin pie, and we’re pretty sure they had lobster, wild grapes and maybe some dried fruit, and venison. However, they probably did not call their holiday “thanksgiving,” because for them a thanksgiving celebration was something you did in church. At that first celebration, they did not have a church service.

Their harvest celebration lasted for several days, with food, and games, and other recreation. The Patuxet leader Massasoit and some of his followers heard the Pilgrims celebrating, and came to see what was going on. In a spirit of generosity, the fifty Pilgrims invited all ninety Indians to stay for dinner. Imagine inviting ninety guests over to your house for Thanksgiving! And in those days only Pilgrim women and older girls prepared and cooked meals, but there were only four women old enough to help with the cooking. Four women to cook for a hundred and forty people!

The Patuxet quickly saw that there probably wasn’t going to be quite enough food to go around. So Massasoit and his followers went hunting, and in a few hours brought back lots more game to share at the harvest celebration. At last all the food was cooked, and everyone sat down to eat together: men and women, adults and children, Patuxet and English.

That’s the old story of Thanksgiving.

The Pilgrims and other Europeans did well over the next few centuries. But on Thanksgiving we must also remember that the Wampanoag people did not do well. In the 1600s, most of their lands were stolen by Europeans. In the 1700s, many of them were enslaved by the Europeans. In the 1800s, the Wampanoag were not allowed to be U.S. citizens, and had limited legal rights. Through 1900s, many Wampanoag experienced severe discrimination. Yet in spite of all this, the Wampanoag people continue to live and carry on their culture in southeastern Massachusetts today.

Sources and notes

Since 1980, the history of the European settlement at Plymouth, and the relations of the Europeans and the indigenous peoples, has been the subject of intense scholarly scrutiny. The emerging scholarly consensus is that the Thanksgiving story is way more complex than it is usually told.

The story above tries to include some of this complexity — the Thanksgiving story includes a story of a group of Europeans escaping violent repression of their religious conviction and a story of the genocide of indigenous peoples in southeastern New England through settler colonialism and the story of the complicated political situation of the indigenous peoples of southeastern New England from 1600-1621 and the complicated internal divisions in the European settlers, and a story of how women have been erased from both indigenous and European history.These are the stories that need to be considered, at a bare minimum.

Unitarian Universalists have typically told the Thanksgiving story as a story of religious freedom, centering the experience and viewpoints of the male Pilgrims with religious convictions. The story above tries to include the perspective of female Europeans, and (to a lesser extent) the perspective of Massasoit and what he and his people hoped to accomplish by temporarily allying themselves to the Europeans.

One thing completely missing from this story include the perspective of the non-religious settlers, some of whom perpetrated the Wessagusett Massacre in what is now Weymouth, Mass., just two years after the “first Thanksgiving.” While we might find some small excuse for the religious Pilgrims for participating in settler colonialism — in a sense, their religious persecution was used by British colonialists to further the project of settler colonialism — it seems difficult to excuse the non-religious settlers who perpetrated the Wessagusett Massacre (although there is some possible evidence that internal divisions within the indigenous peoples may have assisted the massacre).

Another thing completely missing from this story: the class divisions among both the Europeans and the indigenous peoples. The European settlers included indentured servants who had little control over their own lives. In a similar vein, some scholars interpret the historical evidence as meaning that the indigenous peoples were non-egalitarian (see, e.g., Kathleen Bragdon, Native People of Southern New England, 1650-1775 [Univ. of Oklahoma, 1999]), with implications for the relative agency of elite vs. non-elite indigenous persons.

Still another thing completely missing from this story is an adequate overview of the regional power struggles going on with both European polities and indigenous polities. The Europeans in the settler colony at Plymouth are part of a European power struggle going on between the colonial powers of England, Spain, and France. The Wamponoag and Massachusett peoples of southeastern New England faced pressures from other indigenous polities to their west; and all indigenous polities of southeastern New England probably faced pressure from indigenous polities in what is now upstate New York. These international struggles impacted what was going on in the 50-person settlement at Plymouth in 1621.

In short: If you use this story today, you will probably get complaints. I’d suggest you would be wise to do your own research rather than relying on my research.

Among the many sources consulted:
— Books: Mourt’s Relation; A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn (1980); An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Zed Press, 1987); Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond (1997); Mayflower, Nathaniel Philbrick (Penguin Random House, 2007).
— Websites: The Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag; Cothutikut Mattakeeset Massachusetts Tribe; Plimoth Patuxet Museums; and Praying Indians of Natick and Ponkapoag.

The Story of the Flaming Chalice

There’s a story about how the flaming chalice came to be the symbol of our faith community. Back around 1940, as the Second World War was spreading throughout Europe, the Unitarian Service Committee was hard at work in Europe. The Unitarian Service Committee got Unitarians here in the United States to donate clothing and food to send overseas to Europe, to give to refugees who were cold and hungry.

When they got to Europe, people from the Unitarian Service Committee set up headquarters in Lisbon, Portugal. They soon discovered that almost no one over there had heard of them — even though there were Unitarians in Europe, the people they had to deal with had no idea what a Unitarian was.

Meanwhile, an Austrian artist named Hans Deutsch was living in Paris. When the Nazis invaded Paris, he had to flee for his life, because he had drawn cartoons making fun of Adolf Hitler. He wound up in Portugal, where he met Charles Joy, who was the head of the Unitarian Service Committee. Hans Deutsch like the Unitarian Service Committee, and soon wound up working for them. Deutsch wrote to Charles Joy, telling why he liked working for the Unitarians:

“I am not what you may actually call a believer. But if your kind of life is the profession of your faith — as it is, I feel sure — then religion, ceasing to be magic and mysticism, becomes confession to practical philosophy and — what is more — to active, really useful social work. And this religion … is one to which even a ‘godless’ fellow like myself can say wholeheartedly, Yes!”

From the Unitarian Service Committee headquarters in Lisbon, Charles Joy not only directed relief work, he also helped Jews and other refugees escape the Nazis, and he also directed a network of secret agents and couriers who helped contact refugees who needed to escape. But Charles Joy faced a problem — the Unitarian Service Committee was not well-known, and this could cause problems for their relief workers and for their agents and couriers.

So Charles Joy asked Hans Deutsch to make a symbol for the Service Committee. Why have a symbol? Charles Joy explained that he needed to make Service Committee documents “look official, to give dignity and importance to them, and at the same time to symbolize the spirit of our work…. When a document may keep a man out of jail, give him standing with governments and police, it is important that it look important.”

The symbol that Hans Deutsch drew — and that the Unitarian Service Committee enthusiastically adopted — was a flame coming out of a chalice, the kind of chalice that the ancient Greeks and Romans used. Hans Deutsch thought that the holy oil burning in an ancient Greek chalice symbolized helpfulness and sacrifice. Charles Joy noticed that this chalice remotely suggested a Christian cross, which made sense since Unitarianism did come out of the Christian tradition.

And I think the best thing about the flaming chalice is that it has no official meaning at all. It was created only because it was going to make social justice work easier to carry out. Its original meaning was very simple:– get the work done, help other people, make the world a better place.

Source: Dan Hotchkiss, “The Wartime Origins of the Flaming Chalice,” UU World magazine, May/June 2001; Dan Hotchkiss, “The Flaming Chalice,” pamphlet of the Unitarian Universalist Association (c. 2000; no longer available online); Susan Ritchie, “The Flaming Chalice,” pamphlet of the Unitarian Universalist Association (c. 2020).

The Mood Pillow

adapted from an episode in Little Women by Unitarian author Louisa May Alcott

Once upon a time, about a hundred and fifty years ago in the town of Concord, Massachusetts, a family lived in a house they called “Apple Slump.” There were four children in the family, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, along with their father, Mr. March, and Marmee, their mother. At the time this story takes place, Mr. March was far away, serving in the army during the Civil War.

Jo had long, chestnut-colored hair. She was a tall tomboy who didn’t really like being a girl. Jo also had a terrible temper; she had a hard time controlling their anger. But Jo figured out a way to keep her temper under control. She had what I think of as a “mood pillow.” 

“Apple Slump,” the house that the March family lived in, was a big, old, rambling New England farmhouse. Jo thought the best room in the house was the garret, a room up in the attic that had a nice, sunny window. Next to the window stood an old sofa.

The sofa was long, and broad, and low. It had been the perfect thing for the girls to play on when they were little. They had slept on it, ridden on the arms as if they were horses, and crawled under it pretending they were animals. As they got older, they had long, serious talks sitting on it, they lay down and dreamed daydreams on it.

Jo liked the sofa more than the other girls. It was her favorite place to read. She would curl up in one corner with a good book, and half a dozen russet apples to eat. As she sat reading and eating her apples, a tame little rat would stick its head out and enjoy her quiet company.

But sometimes Jo went up into the garret for a different reason. She had a terrible temper, and sometimes she would get in a horrible nasty mood. Sometimes, when she was in a particularly bad mood, she just needed to be alone.

She would run up into the garret, and pick up the pillow that was on the sofa. This was an old, hard, round pillow shaped liked a sausage. This repulsive-looking old thing was her special property. If she stood it on its end, that was a sign that any one of her sisters, or her best friend Laurence, or her mother, was allowed to come and sit down next to her on the sofa and chat; but if it lay flat across the sofa, “woe to the man, woman, or child who dared disturb it!” When they were younger, her sisters and Laurence had been pummeled mercilessly by this pillow, and now they knew better than to try to sit next to Jo when it lay flat.

I call this her “mood pillow,” and I think it’s a great idea. When Jo was in a bad mood, or angry about something, or when she just needed to be alone, she could use the pillow to let her family and friends know that they should leave her alone for a while. That way, she wouldn’t hurt those around her when she was in a bad mood.

When you’re in a bad mood, what do you do to keep from hurting those around you?

How’s Your Heart?

I heard Rev. Barbara Marshman tell this story back in 1995. I no longer remember exactly the way she told the story, but it went something like this….

We just celebrated Valentine’s Day. The heart has become the symbol of Valentine’s Day, and we send Valentine’s Day cards with red paper cut-outs in a shape that we call heart-shaped.

Actually, your heart isn’t made out of red paper. Your heart is a muscle right here in your chest. It’s about the size of your fist, and it pumps blood all through your body. When you listen to a heart through a stethoscope you can hear it pumping: “bu-bump, bu-bump, bu-bump.” Your heart is really an organ in your body that pumps blood.

But we like to think that our feelings come from our hearts. Maybe this is because when you’re excited your heart beats quickly, or when you feel relaxed, your heart beats slowly. And we like to think that when someone is in love, their heart beats quickly every time they see the one they love. Our hearts and our feelings seem to work together.

Now when I was a little child, my grandmother would say things that I didn’t quite understand. She would describe other people, and talk about their hearts. I wasn’t quite sure what she meant. For example, when she thought someone was an especially kind and good person, she would say, “Oh, he has a heart of gold.” If you think about it, that old expression makes sense: if our hearts seem to be where our feelings are, and if someone is so good they are as good as gold, why then it makes sense to say that person’s heart is as good as gold. But when I was a little child, here’s how I imagined it:

[Show a heart cut out of gold paper]

Sometimes my grandmother would talk about a different kind of person, a person who didn’t seem to have the normal kind feelings that human beings have. She would say, “Oh, that person has a heart of stone.” And when I was a little child, here’s how I imagined it:

[Show a heart made out of stone]

Of course, no one wants to have a heart of stone!

When my grandmother knew someone who was warm and good, who was always ready to help other people, she might say, “Now that’s someone who is warm-hearted.” And this is how I imagined warm-hearted:

[Show a heart with a fire burning in it]

Or there might be someone who had enough love for everyone, whom my grandmother would call “big-hearted.” Here’s how I saw that in my mind’s eye: [Show a bigger heart than the others]

If you show your feelings easily, my grandmother might have said that you “wear your heart on your sleeve.” And here’s how I imagined that:

[Place a small heart on your sleeve]

Every year, Valentine’s day comes just two days after Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. In the old days, people like my grandmother used to call Abraham Lincoln the “Great Heart,” because of his leadership in making the Emancipation Proclamation into law, and eventually ending slavery. Of course you know how I imagined “great heart” when I was little

[Show the biggest heart of all]

A “Great Heart” is someone who really makes a difference in the world. A “Great Heart” is someone who believes that love is the most powerful force in the universe, who lives their lives as if that’s true, and who makes the world a better place through their love. A month ago we celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., and he too was a Great Heart.

I like to imagine that each one of us could become a Great Hears. You just have to try to be the best person you can be. And as you think about being the best person you can be, maybe you can feel your heart growing — however you might imagine what that would look like!

[Show a heart that is folded so that it can expand]

Source: Rev. Barbara Marshman story, told at a meeting of the Mass. Bay District Religious Education Team, circa 1995.

P. T. Barnum’s Elephant

He was the greatest showman in America! He was a man who was known and loved everywhere, the most famous person in the United States in the nineteenth century! He was the man who created “the greatest show on earth”! His name was Phineas Taylor Barnum.

P. T. Barnum was a showman, the greatest showman of all time, a man who put on shows of strange and wonderful things in his giant Museum in New York City. He exhibited the very first live hippopotamus ever seen in North America. His museum was known for its amazing and incredible animals. He even exhibited the amazing Feejee Mermaid. (Well, actually he later admitted that the Feejee Mermaid was a fake that had been glued together.)

He was a showman, but more than that he was an expert at making money. He had a two-part secret for making money. First, give the public good value. Second, get all the free advertising that you can. Here’s an example of how Barnum gave good value, and got free advertising for his fabulous American Museum….

P. T. Barnum brought thirteen elephants Asia to North America. He exhibited them in New York and all across the North American continent. After four years, he sold all but one. He kept that one for his farm in Connecticut. He figured out a way that the elephant could draw a plow. Then he hired a man to use the elephant to plow a tiny corner of Barnum’s farm, which just happened to be right next to the main line of the New York and New Haven Railroad.

P. T. Barnum gave this man a time-table for the railroad. Every time a passenger train was due to pass by, the man made sure the elephant was busily engaged in drawing the plow, right where all the passengers could see.

Hundreds of people each day rode the train past Barnum’s elephant. Everyone who saw it was amazed and astonished. Barnum was using an elephant to draw a plow! Reporters from all the New York newspapers came to write stories on this amazing spectacle. People wrote letters to Barnum from far and wide, asking his advice on how they, too, might use an elephant to draw a plow on their farms.

When Barnum responded to these letters, he always wrote: “Now this is strictly confidential, but for goodness sake don’t even think of getting an elephant. They eat far too much hay and you would lose money. I’m just doing it to draw attention to my museum in New York.”

Pictures of Barnum’s elephant pulling the plow began to appear in newspapers all across the United States, and even overseas in Europe. People came out to Connecticut on purpose just to see Barnum’s elephant at work. They would say, “Why look at that! That’s a real elephant drawing that plow! If Barnum can use an elephant on his farm, he must have all kinds of animals at his Museum. Guess I’ll go to Barnum’s Museum next time I’m in New York city.”

One day, an old farmer friend of Barnum’s came to visit. This farmer wanted to see the elephant at work. By this time, that six acre plot of land beside the railroad had been plowed over about sixty times. The farmer watched the elephant work for a while, and then he turned to Barnum and said, “My team of oxen could pull harder than that elephant any day.”

“Oh, I think that elephant can draw better than your oxen,” said Barnum.

“I don’t want to doubt your word,” said his farmer friend, “but tell me how that elephant can draw better than my oxen.”

Barnum replied, “That elephant is drawing the attention of twenty million people to Barnum’s Museum.”

P. T. Barnum later became famous for his circus, but not many people know that he was also a Universalist. He’s one of my favorite Unitarian Universalists, precisely because he wasn’t perfect. He didn’t always tell the truth, but at least he later admitted when he tried to fool people. He made too much money, but he made sure to give lots of his money away to help other people. He gave money to poor people, and he gave money to help people stop drinking, and he built parks that everyone could use, and he gave lots of money to his Universalist church. I like P. T. Barnum because I know I’m not perfect. But even though I make mistakes, I can follow Barnum’s example and help make the world a better place.

“Elephantine Agriculture,” engraving from the book Struggles and Triumphs by P.T. Barnum (1872). Public domain image courtesy Project Gutenberg.

Source: This morally ambiguous story comes from P. T. Barnum’s 1872 autobiography, Struggles and Triumphs.

SIKH STORIES

Guru Nanak and the Old Woman Who Lost Her Son

Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, lived in a land where there were many Hindus and many Muslims. But Nanak preached “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim”– because the truth is not limited to any one religion.

Once upon a time, on one of his missionary trips or udasi, Guru Nanakcamped beside the Tigris River.

He had been teaching all day, and in the evening an old woman, a Muslim, came to visit him. Weeping, she bowed down at his feet. Nanak asked her to sit next to him and tell him her problems.

“I have been waiting for you for twelve years,” said the old woman. “It was twelve years ago that my son got onto a ferry boat at this very spot to travel to the other side of the Tigris. He was twenty years old, and he was going across the river to visit his sister. The ferry was well out into the river when it suddenly capsized. I watched in horror, trying to see if my son would be safe. Some of those aboard were able to swim to shore, but many were lost. My son was one of those who did not make it back to land.

“I waited all night by the side of the river to be sure,” said the woman, “and at last went home to sleep. I saw you in my dreams, a holy man who held up his hand so that a light shone upon me and filled me with warmth. I knew that you would come and bring back my son to me.”

“Where has your son been for the last twelve years?” Nanak said.

“He has been with Allah,” said the woman.

“Is he content and happy to be with Allah?” said Nanak.

“Oh, yes,” said the woman, “of course he has found perfect happiness with Allah.”

“Then surely you would not be selfish enough to ask your son to leave that perfect happiness to come back to this world,” said Nanak. “For as you know, in this world happiness is rare, while misery is a constant.”

The old woman was silent.

“And have you really been without your son all these twelve years?” said Nanak. “Has he not lived on in your memory? Can you not remember the way he played as a child, the trouble he got into, all the time you spent with him? He was so much a part of you while he was alive that he can never completely go away from you. You have lost his body, yes; but his soul and spirit will remain with you always.”

So it was that Nanak brought her son back to the old woman; though he had really never left her. She touched his feet and went on her way, her soul at peace at long last.

Source: The source for this story is The First Sikh Spiritual Master: Timeless Wisdom from the Life and Teachings of Guru Nanak, by Harish Dhillon (Mumbai: Indus Source Books, 2005; Woodstock, Vermont: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2006), pp. 166-167. Although the bulk of the book is a popular historical biography of Nanak, Dhillon also retells several stories from the Nanak janamsakhis, stories which his grandmother told him when he was a child. Dhillon states this story is probably not historically accurat, pp. 155-156.

The Raja’s Son

There once was a raja, a Hindu king, who married a woman who was a Sikh. When she became the rani, or queen, this woman stayed in touch with the Sikhs who lived in the kingdom, and who had their dharamsala, or place of worship, just below the palace where the raja and rani lived. The Sikhs were well known for their beautiful hymns and their beautiful singing, and the raja came to enjoy listening to the hymns that were sung during kirtan, that is, during the Sikh worship service.

One day, the rani said to the raja, “Do you not wish that we had a child?”

“Oh yes,” said the raja. “I would love for us to have a child. I wish we could have a little boy.” For in the raja’s kingdom, it had always been men who had ruled the kingdom, and the raja hoped for a song that would rule his kingdom after him.

The rani said, “Let us go down to the dharamsala, and ask the sangat for a child.” The sangat was the gathered community of Sikhs, and it was thought that Guru Nanak, the founder of the Skih religion, was present in the sangat, even though he had died long ago.

The raja agreed to do this. A large congregation of Sikhs had gathered for Ekadasi, a Hindu lunar celebration. Even though Sikhs did not celebrate Hindu holidays, the Guru Arjan had said:

On Ekadasi, see God by your side,
Control your desires, and listen to God’s praise,
Let heart be content, and be kind to all beings.

The raja and rani presented their wish for a son as a hymn was being sung. Speaking to the congregation, the raja and rani said: “You come together for Guru Nanak, and so whatever wish is asked of you will be granted. We ask that the Guru would give us a son.”

Those who were in the sangat said, “Trust in the Guru, he will grant you a son.”

Not long thereafter, the raja’s wife told the raja that she was pregnant. “Guru Nanak was right,” they said to each other, “and soon we will have a son.” When the baby was born, the baby’s body looked like a girl’s body, but the raja and his wife were confident that Guru Nanak had correctly foreseen that their child would be a son.

The raja and his wife gave the baby a name that was usually given to a boy, and then waited to see what would happen. And when their baby grew enough to begin to walk and talk and run around, it became clear that the child knew he was a boy. So what Guru Nanak had said did indeed come true: the raja and his wife had a son.

The boy grew quickly, and became a fine young man. Although he had a young woman’s body, nobody in the raja’s palace thought much about it, and the young man did everything that all the other young men did. Then one day, his father called him to the throne room.

“My son,” said the raja, “it is time you married. I would like you to marry –” and he named the daughter of a neighboring raja.

The young man thought he liked this daughter of the neighboring raja, and he also thought that she liked him, so he did not disagree with his father’s idea. But he asked, “Why is it that you want me to get married now, father?”

“I have received a marriage proposal from the young woman’s father,” said the raja. “And besides, I would like to see you married, and I would like you to have children, so that my grandchildren will continue to rule this kingdom.”

The young man looked thoughtful. “Of course I would like to have children,” he said, “but as you know, even though I’m a man, remember that I do have a woman’s body….”

His father waved this away. “Do not worry,” said the raja. “I trust in the Guru. He said that your mother and I would have a child, and we did. He said that your mother and I would have a boy, and we did.”

So the marriage proposal was accepted. The raja instructed his Hindu pandit to carry out the ceremonies to prepare for the marriage. But there were those who whispered, “The young man has a woman’s body. If he marries a woman, how can the two of them have children? The old raja will bring disgrace on us all.” But the old raja didn’t listen to these whispers; he trusted in Guru Nanak, and he knew that his son was indeed a man.

Before long the day of the wedding arrived. The young man got on his horse and, accompanied by a large party of well-wishers, rode to the neighboring raja where the wedding would take place. Suddenly a golden deer appeared in front of the party, and the raja’s son boldly spurred his horse and gave chase to this magnificent animal.

The golden deer ran from the raja’s son, leading him away from the others, until at last the deer jumped into a garden. The raja’s son followed, but when was inside the garden he found, not the golden deer that he had expected, but the Exalted One, Guru Nanak himself.

The raja’s son bowed down before the Exalted One. The Guru said to him, “My child, the Guru will fulfill your wish.”

The rest of the party had been following the raja’s son, and just then they arrived in the garden. Upon seeing Guru Nanak, the raja walked around him, then prostrated himself and laid at the feet of the Guru. “I am truly blessed, to see you, Baba Nanak!” said the raja. “You granted my wish to have a son. No human mouth can praise you enough, for you are beyond all praise!”

“Go in peace,” said Guru Nanak. “I will be with you wherever you go. Wherever you sing my hymns or offer praise to me, there you shall find me.”

The raja and all those in the wedding party became Sikhs from this moment. They continued on their journey, all chanting, “Guru, Guru!” The raja’s son was duly married to the daughter of the neighboring raja, and all was well.

Source: Adapted from: The B40 Janam-Sakhi: An English translation with introduction and commentary of the India Office Gurmukhi Manuscript Panj. B40, a janam-sakhi of Guru Nanak compiled in A.D. 1733, by Daya Ram Abrol ed. W. H. McLeod (Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev Univeristy, n.d. [1979]). The quote from Guru Arjan combines translations from Bhai Manmohan Singh, Dr. Sant Singh Khalsa, and the online Sikh Encyclopedia.

JAIN STORIES

Sayyambhava finds the truth

Prabhava was one of the great teachers of the Jain religion. He wandered all over the earth teaching people to live a simple life, and to not be distracted by the pleasures of the senses, and to harm no living beings. Prbhava taught that if you could live like that, you could get rid of all your karma and achieve omniscience, so that you could see and know everything.

After Prabhava had been teaching for some time, he began to wonder who could take his place once he died. He thought about all his students and followers, but none of them (so he thought) would be able to take over for him. Then he used his upayoga power, that is, his mental sight, a power which allowed him to see everything in the whole world. He looked and looked until at last he saw someone who could take his place, a man named Sayyambhava.

This Sayyambhava was a priest of the Vedic religion, and when Prabhava saw him, Sayyambhava was in the city of Rajagriha, about to kill a goat as a sacrifice. Even though Sayyambhava was a priest in a religion that killed other living beings, because of his power of omniscience, Prabhava knew that he would make a good successor. “The beautiful lotus flower grows in the mud,” Prabhava said to himself, “so if you want a lotus flower you have to look in the mud.”

Prabhava went to Rajagriha to meet Sayyambhava. He sent two Jain monks ahead of him, and told them to go to the place where Sayyambhava was about to sacrifice the goat. “When you get there,” Prabhava told the two monks, “beg for food.” (Jain monks made their living by begging food from others.) “If the Vedic priests give you nothing, turn and walk away, and as you walk away, say in a loud voice, ‘Ah, it is too bad you do not know the Truth.’”

The monks got to the place where the sacrifice was about to take place, asked for alms, and when the Vedic priests refused to give them anything, they turned and walked away, saying in loud voices, “Ah, it is too bad you do not know the Truth.”

When Sayyambhava heard this strange remark, his mind became unsettled. Did these two monks know something that he didn’t know? Was his religion not the Truth? Instead of sacrificing the goat, he turned to his spiritual master, his guru, and asked, “Are the Vedas true — or not? Is our religion the path to the Truth — or not?”

His guru shrugged his shoulders.

Growing angry, Sayyambhava continued in a loud voice, “Those were holy monks, who obviously tell no lies. You’re not a true teacher, you’ve been lying to me all this time!” He took the dagger which he had been going to use to kill the goat. “Tell me the truth! If you don’t, I’ll cut off your head.”

Seeing that his life was in danger, the guru said, “I have not been telling you the truth. It is pointless to memorize the Vedas.” (The Vedas were the holy scriptures of the Vedic religion.) “Not only that,” the guru said, “but a statue of one of the Jain deities — a Jina, one of the highest Jain deities — is buried at the foot of the post where we tie to goats we are about to sacrifice.”

The guru pulled the sacrificial post out of the ground, and Sayyambhava looked down into the hole, where he saw a statue of a Jain deity. The guru went on, “There, that is a statue of the true religion. The only reason we do sacrifices is because we get to keep the meat afterwards. It’s an easy way to make a living. But what good is a religion that kills innocent animals? It is no good at all.

“Yes, I have been lying to you all these years,” said the guru to Sayyambhava. “Lying just so I could fill my stomach with easy food. But you are too good for that. Leave me, so that you can follow the true religion. If you do, I know that you will become all-seeing, and all-knowing.”

But Sayyambhava said, “You are still my teacher because in the end you told me the real truth.” Then Sayyambhava bid his guru a fond farewell, and went in search of the two Jain monks….

Sources: This story is from Canto 5:1-37 of The Lives of the Jain Elders, by Hemachandra (1098-1172). I used the following translations: Sthaviravali Charita, or Parisishtaparvan, Being an Appendix of the Trishashtisalaka Purisha Charita by Hemachandra, ed. Herman Jacobi (Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1891), pp. 39-41; and Hemacandra, The Lives of the Jain Elders, trans. R. C. C. Fynes (Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 117-119.

HINDU STORIES

The Hymn of Purusha

This is just one of many Hindu stories about how everything began.

Before the beginning of all things, a giant named Purusha existed. Purusha had thousands of heads, and thousands of eyes, and thousands of feet. He was huge and embraced the earth on all sides; and at the same time he filled a space only ten fingers wide, the size of the space which holds a human soul.

The giant Purusha is everything, all that had once been, and all that which shall be in the future. He is the god of immortality, and he now lives through sacrificial food which humans offer up to him. All beings and creatures make up one quarter of him; the rest of him is immortal life in a world beyond this world. Before the beginning, the three quarters of Purusha which was immortal life rose up high, and the remaining one quarter of him remained here.

Purusha gave birth to his female counterpart, who was named Virat. When she was born, she took the form of an egg. And then Virat in turn gave birth, and she bore her male counterpart, Purusha. As soon as Virat had given birth to Purusa, he spread to the east and to the west over the earth. Together, Purusha and Virat produced the universe.

Then the Deities prepared Purusha as a sacrifice. They did not sacrifice him as humans might sacrifice an animal; it was a spsiritual sacrifice, an imaginary sacrifice. The clarified butter or ghee which they used in preparing the sacrifice was springtime. The wood which they gathered for the fire to burn the sacrifice was autumn. And the sacrifice himself, the giant Purusha, was summertime. All the Deities, and all the celestial beings, and all the sages sacrificed with him.

The ghee from the sacrifice was gathered up. Purusha, who was born in the beginning, was sprinkled on the grass. He formed the creatures of the air, and he formed the beasts of the forest and the beasts of the village. From that sacrifice were born horses, and cattle, and goats, and sheep.

And from the sacrifice were born the hymns of the Rig Veda, and the melodies of the Sama Veda. From the sacrifice came the ritual, and from it came the meters of poetry.

When Purusha was divided up after the sacrifice, his mouth became the Brahmins or the priests; his arms became the warriors and soldiers; his legs became the traders and farmers; and his feet became the workers and the slaves.

When Purusha was divided up, the Moon was born from his mind and his spirit; the Sun was born from his eye; from his mouth were born both Indra, the god of storms and warfare, and Agni, the god of fire; from his breath was born Vayu, the god of wind and of blowing breath and of life.

When Purusha was divided up, his navel became the middle sky, his head became the heavens, his feet became the earth. And so it was that all the worlds were made, and all that is began.

Sources: I drew on two translations of this hymn: Ralph T. H. Griffith, The Hymns of the Rig Veda: Translated with a Popular Commentary (1889; reprinted New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1987), vol. 2, pp. 558-561; and Edward J. thomas, Vedic Hymns, Wisdom of the East series (London: 1923), reprinted in A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy, ed. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 1957), pp. 19-20. This hymn has been the subject of long and sophisticated philosophical and religious reflection. In my retelling of it, I relied heavily on Griffith’s notes, and the notes provided in Radhakrishnan and Moore, to try to provide a simple yet reasonably accurate interpretation.

The Pool of Enchantment, or the Riddle Contest

a story from the Mahabharata

One day, King Yudhisthira and his four brothers found that the wooden blocks they needed to light a sacred fire had been stolen by a deer. which had stolen the wooden blocks which a Brahmin needed so he could light the sacred fire. The king and his brothers went deep into the forest to find the deer. They searched for a long time. They grew thirsty, but could not find any water. At last, completely tired out, they sat down under a tall tree.

“If we do not find water soon, we shall die,” said Yudhisthira. Turning to his brother Nakula, he said, “Brother, climb the tree to see if there is any water nearby.”

In a few moments Nakula had climbed the tree, and he called down, “I see trees which only grow near running water. there I hear the sound of cranes, birds which love the water.”

“Take the arrows out of your quiver,” said Yudhisthira. “Go fill your quiver with water, and bring it back to quench our thirst.”

Nakula set out, and quickly found a small stream which widened into a pool of clear water. A crane stood on the far side of the pool. Nakula knelt down at the edge of the water to drink, but just then a stern Voice said:

“Do not drink, O Prince, until you have answered my questions.”

Nakula was thirsty, so he ignored the Voice. He drank eagerly from the cool water, and in a few moments lay dead at the edge of the pool.

Nakula’s four brothers patiently waited for him to return. At last Yudhisthira said, “Sahadeva, go find your brother. Then fill your quiver with water, and bring it back to quench our thirst.”

Sahadeva walked off through the forest. Soon he found Nakula lying dead at the edge of the pool. Before looking to see what had killed his brother, he knelt down at edge of the water to drink. Just then, a stern Voice said:

“Do not drink, O Prince, until you have answered my questions.”

But Sahadeva had already drunk from the water, and lay dead at the edge of the pool.

Once again the remaining brothers waited patiently. At last Yudhisthira said to his brother Arjuna, the mighty archer, “Go find our brothers. Then fill your quiver with water, and bring it back to quench our thirst.”

Arjuna slung his bow over his shoulder, and with his sword at his side walked to the pool. When he saw his brothers lying dead among the reeds, he fitted an arrow to his bow while his keen eyes pierced the darkness of the forest searching for the enemy who had killed them. Seeing neither human nor wild beast, he knelt down at the edge of the pool to drink. Just then, a stern Voice said:

“Do not drink, O Prince, until you have answered my questions.”

Prince Arjuna looked about him. “Come out,” he cried, “and fight with me.” He shot arrows in all directions, but the Voice only laughed and repeated its command.

But Arjuna knelt and drank, and soon lay dead at the edge of the pool.

Yudhisthira waited patiently, but when Arjuna did not return he said to Bhima, “Go find our brothers. Then fill your quiver with water, and bring it back to quench my thirst.”

Bhima silently rose, walked to the pool, and found his brothers lying dead. “What evil demon has killed my brothers,” he thought to himself, looking around. But he was so thirsty he knelt to drink. Just then, a stern Voice said:

“Do not drink, O Prince, until you have answered my questions.”

Bhima di not hear the Voice, and soon he lay dead beside his brothers.

Yudhisthira waited for a time. At last he went himself to find water.

When he came to the pool, he stood for a moment looking at it. He saw clear water shining in the sunlight, lotus flowers floating in the water, and a crane stalking along the far edge of the pool. There were his four brothers lying dead at the edge of the water.

Even though he was terribly weak and thirsty, he stopped and spoke aloud the name of each of his brothers, and told of the great deeds each had done. He spoke aloud his sorrow for the death of each one.

Then he thought to himself, “This must be the work of some evil spirit. Their bodies show no wounds, nor is there any sign of human footprints. The water is clear and fresh, and I can see no signs that they have been poisoned. But I am so thirsty, I will kneel down to drink.”

As King Yudhisthira knelt down, the Voice took the shape of a crane, a Baka, a gray bird with long legs and a red head. The Baka spoke to him in a stern voice, saying:

“Do not drink, O King, until you have answered my questions.”

“Who are you?” said Yudhisthira. “What do you want?”

“I am not a bird, but a Yaksha!” said the crane. Yudhisthira saw the vague outlines of a huge being above crane, towering above the lofty trees, glowing like an evening cloud.

“It seems I must obey, and answer your questions before I drink,” said the king. “Ask me what you will, and I will use what wisdom I have to answer you.”

So the Yaksha who disguised as a crane began asking question after question:

The Yaksha said: “Who makes the Sun rise? Who moves the Sun around the sky? Who makes the Sun set? What is the true nature of the Sun?”

The King replied: “The god Brahma makes the sun rise. The gods and goddesses move the Sun around the sky. The Dharma sets the Sun. Truth is the true nature of the Sun.”

The Yaksha asked: “What is heavier than the earth? What is higher than the heavens? What is faster than the wind? What is there more of than there are blades of grass?”

The King replied: “The love of parents is both heavier than earth and higher than the heavens. A person’s thoughts are faster than the wind. There are more sorrows than there are blades of grass.”

The Yaksha asked: “What is it, that when you cast is aside, makes you lovable? What is it, that when you cast it aside, makes you happy? What is it, that when you cast it aside, makes you wealthy?”

The King replied: “When you cast aside pride, you become lovable. When you cast aside greed, you become happy. When you cast aside desire, you become wealthy.”

The Yaksha asked: “What is the most difficult enemy to conquer? What disease lasts as long as life itself? What sort of person is most noble? What sort of person is most wicked?”

The King replied: “Anger is the most difficult enemy to conquer. Greed is the disease that can last as long as life. The person who desires the well-being of all creatures is most noble. The person who has no mercy is most wicked.”

Yudhisthira was able to answer all the questions wisely and well. At last the Yaksha stopped asking questions, and revealed who he was. He was Yama-Dharma, the god of death, and Yudhisthira’s father.

Yama-Dharma said, “It was I who took on the shape of a deer and stole the wooden blocks, so you would have to come look for me. Now you may drink. And you may also choose which of your four brothers shall be returned to life.”

“Bring Nakula back to life,” said Yudhisthira.

“Why not the other three?” said Yama-Dharma.

“My brother Nakula’s mother is Madri,” said the King. “Kunthi is the mother of rest of us. If you bring Nakula back to life, then both Madri and Kunthi will still have a son — Madri will have Nakula, and Kunthi will have me. Therefore, let Nakula live.”

“Truly you are called ‘The Just,” said Yama-Dharma as he began to fade away. “Noblest of kings and wisest of all persons, for your wisdom and your love and your sense of justice, I shall return all of your brothers to life.”

Source: Adapted from The Indian Story Book: Containing Tales from the Ramayana, the Mahabharate, and Other Early Sources, by Richard Wilson (London: Macmillan & Co., 1914); with references to English translations of the Mahabharata.

STORIES FROM ANCIENT GREECE

The Punishment of Prometheus

Once upon a time, the immortal god Prometheus stole fire from the other immortal gods and goddesses, and gave it to mortal human beings.

Zeus, who had just become the new ruler over all the other gods and goddesses, was very angry. To punish Prometheus, Zeus commanded him to be nailed to a cliff in Scythia, a distant place at the end of the world. Zeus told two of his henchmen, a demon named Might and another demon named Violence, to take Prometheus to Scythia. Prometheus had taken the fire from Hephaestus, who was the god who made things out of metal for the other gods and goddesses at his forge, so Hephaestus had to go along to make shackles of bronze to hold Prometheus tightly against the rocks.

After traveling many miles, at last they came at last to a high and lonely cliff. Hephaestus began working while Might and Violence watched to make sure Prometheus didn’t get away.

“I don’t have the heart to bind another god in this desolate place,” said Hephaestus to Prometheus, as he hammered bronze nails into the cliff face. “Yet I have to do it because it’s dangerous to ignore the commands of Zeus. Prometheus, I don’t want to do this to you. The sun will scorch you during the day, and the cold will freeze you at night. This is what has happened because you opposed the will of Zeus. This is what you get for giving fire to the human beings.” Hephaestus paused to wipe the sweat from his forehead. “Zeus is a new ruler, and new rulers are harsh.”

“Why are you delaying?” said the demon named Might. “Why do you pity this god who has betrayed all other gods and goddesses by giving such power to mortal beings?”

“I pity him because we are friends and relations,” Hephaestus started to say. But Might scared him — and Violence, who never said anything at all, scared him more. Hephaestus began working faster. He quickly bound Prometheus’s wrists and ankles with bronze shackles, and bound his body with a strong bronze chain that he nailed to the cliff. Soon Prometheus could not move at all.

“Let me see you hammer with your full force,” said Might. “The power of Zeus is great, and the anger of of Zeus is severe, so you better do a good job.”

“I’m doing what I have to do,” said Hephaestus. “There’s no need to tell me what to do.”

“Oh, I’ll tell you what to do,” said Might, mockingly. “Now get his legs secure.”

“Your words are as ugly as your looks,” muttered Hephaestus under his breath.

“You can soft-hearted if you want,” said Might, sounding dangerous, “but don’t cross me.”

Hephaestus gave one last blow with his hammer. “There, it’s done,” he said. “Now let’s go.” He left, and Violence followed him.

Might stayed behind for a moment. “That’s what you get for insulting the gods and goddesses by giving fire to beings who live for such a short time,” he said to Prometheus. “And are the mortals able to help you now? Your name means ‘Far-seeing,’ but it doesn’t look to me like you could see very far at all.” With that, he turned and left Prometheus alone, bound to the face of the desolate cliff.

When they all had gone, Prometheus groaned in misery. He did have the power of foresight, the ability to see ahead into the future. He had known that he would be chained on that cliff for what he had done, chained for many long years, wracked by pain, burned by the sun, frozen with the cold. He had stolen the fire anyway. Now here he was, groaning in pain, punished by Zeus for helping the human beings.

At last he stopped. “Why am I groaning?” he said to himself. “I foresaw this, and I must bear this punishment as well as I can. Yes, I gave the gift of fire to mortals. Yes, I took a small coal from the forge of Hephaestus, and hid it in a stalk of fennel so I could smuggle it down to the human beings. Giving that fire to mortals was the right thing to do. Fire has helped them learn new arts and sciences; fire has helped them become far more powerful. Zeus is afraid of human beings, afraid they will rival the gods and goddesses with their new knowledge. That is why I am bound here, riveted in bronze fetters beneath the wide sky. I did the right thing, and I’m not afraid to be punished for it.”

The immortal daughters of the god Oceanus flew to Scythia to talk with Prometheus and comfort him. Prometheus poured out his troubles to them, complaining about his fate, while they listened sympathetically. Then Oceanus himself, god of the ocean stream, came too, flying there on his winged horse.

Oceanus asked if there was anything he could do for Prometheus.

“What can you do except look at my suffering?” said Prometheus bitterly. “I was one of the friends of Zeus, and look at me now. I was one of the ones who helped him overthrow Cronus, helped him become the new ruler of the gods and goddesses. Yet here I am, punished cruelly by the one I helped to win power.”

“I see, Prometheus, and I’m sympathetic to you,” said Oceanus. “I want to give you some advice, because even though you are more clever than I, I am an older god than you. When there’s a new ruler of the gods and goddesses, you have to adapt to their rule. You’re going to have to adapt to the new rule of Zeus. Remember that if Zeus hears your bitter angry words, he can make things even worse for you. So take my advice and speak calmly. Our new ruler is a harsh god, and he doesn’t have to listen to anyone’s advice. Now if you will speak calmly, I will go and see if I can get Zeus to free you.”

“No, don’t go to Zeus,” said Prometheus. “Thank you for your loyalty, but you shouldn’t do that. You’ll just get in trouble, too. Go back home. Don’t let him become angry with you.”

Oceanus tried to argue with him, but Prometheus insisted that Oceanus should not go to Zeus. At last, Oceanus leapt back on his winged horse and flew away to his home.

The daughters of Oceanus burst into tears. Prometheus had dared to help human beings by stealing fire for them. Because of that — because he had dared to rebel against the will of Zeus — he was sentenced to be chained to this desolate rocky cliff forever. No one could help him.

Or could they?…

Source: This version of the story of Prometheus comes from the play Prometheus Bound by the ancient Greek poet Aeschylus. I used two translations of Aeschylus’s play, by David Grene (University of Chicago Press, 1942); and by Herbert Weir Smyth (Loeb Classical Library, Harvard Universrity Press, 1926). I also referred to the exegesis offered by William R. Jones in his essay “Theism and Religious Humanism: The Chasm Narrows” (The Christian Century magazine, May 21, 1975).

How to pronounce the Greek names:
Prometheus [pro mee’ the us]
Zeus [zoos]
Hephaestus [heh fay’ stuss]
Oceanus [oh keh ah’ nuss]
Cronus [kro’ nus]

More Stories from Ancient Greek Religions

The following stories are on my curriculum website.

The Story of Demeter and Persephone, part one

The Story of Demeter and Persephone, part two

The Story of Demeter and Persephone, part three

The Story of Demeter and Persephone, part four

The Story of Demeter and Persephone, epilogue

Perseus and Medusa

Perseus and the Sea Monster

The Punishment of Prometheus

CONTEMPORARY STORIES

The Golden Memory Box

You should adapt this story so that it has recognizable details from your own Unitarian Universalist congregation.

Once upon a time there was a girl named Keilah and a boy named Kyle who lived with their parents in the second floor of an old house that looked out over the harbor. During the week, Kyle and Keilah went to school, and on Sunday they went to church. Kyle liked school, Keilah didn’t like school, but they both liked church. They liked going into the worship service with their parents and singing one of the hymns they knew as loud as they could. They liked listening to the things their minister read, even though they didn’t always understand them. They liked going to Sunday school to see their friends. They liked going to social hour where they drank hot chocolate and, when the weather was nice, went outside to play in the church’s labyrinth.

***

On the first day of the new church year, Keilah and Kyle went to their new Sunday school class. Keilah was only a year older than Kyle, and this year they would be in the same class together. Kyle did not want to go to the new Sunday school class. “I won’t know any of the kids,” he told his father as they were getting ready to go. “Can’t I go back to my old Sunday school class?” Keilah was not sure that she wanted Kyle to be in her Sunday school class. “Can’t we go to different Sunday school classes?” she said to her mother. But in the end, they wound up going to Sunday school together.

As usual, they stayed in the first part of the worship service for fifteen minutes with their parents. Then they left when all the other children left. They walked more slowly than anyone else, so when they got to their new classroom, ten other children and three grown-ups, their new Sunday school teachers, were already there. A pleasant-looking man welcomed them and said, My name is Joe. You must be Keilah and Kyle. You’re just in time to play a game.”

The way the game worked, Joe told them, was that everyone had to pick something in a grocery store that had the same first letter, or the same first sound, as their name. “So I’m Joe Jumbo Juice,” he said. “That’s my grocery store name.” Keilah decided her grocery store name was “Keilah Cantaloupe,” and Kyle was “Kyle Kale.” Joe stood in the middle with a pillow, and one person started by saying someone else’s grocery store name. Then that person tried to say someone else’s grocery store name before Joe tapped them with the pillow. If you got tapped before you could say someone else’s name, then you went in the middle. It was a really fun game. At one point, everyone was laughing because Hong Hot Chocolate managed to get Sam Salmon with the pillow while he was talking to the person next to him. Keilah turned to Kyle and whispered, “This is a great game!” Kyle said, “Yeah, I wish it would go on forever!” Suddenly they both heard a voice, a mysterious high-pitched echo-y voice, say, “Put it in your Golden Memory Box!” (Except the voice dragged out “golden” so it really sounded like this: “Put it in your Gooolden Memory Box!”)

“Did you say that?” Keilah whispered to Kyle.

But Kyle didn’t respond, because Sam Salmon had just tapped him with the pillow. Laughing, he went into the center of the circle, and the game kept going.

***

One Sunday in December, Joe, their favorite Sunday school teacher, told the class that the next week there would be no Sunday school. Kyle and Keilah started to frown, but Joe said, “Instead of Sunday school, kids get to stay in the entire worship service next week because there will be a No-Rehearsal Christmas Pageant.”

Keilah asked what a “No-Rehearsal Christmas Pageant” might be. Mr. Lee smiled mysteriously, and told them they would just have to come to church the next week and see for themselves.

The next Sunday, Keilah and Kyle were ready to go to church early, and told their parents to hurry up, because they wanted to know what a “No-Rehearsal Christmas Pageant” might be. finally, they got to church, and at first everything was disappointingly the same as usual. Then the minister said it was time to start the No Rehearsal Christmas Pageant. She said that she would read the Christmas story, and people in the congregation would help her make it come alive by playing a part in the pageant. She said no one would have to speak, but if you volunteered for a part you’d get to wear a simple costume and stand up at the front of the church. Soon she came to the place where the Angel of the God of the Israelites spoke to the shepherds, and Keilah raised her hand high in the air, and the minister actually saw her and picked her to be the angel. She got to put on wings and a halo, and stand up in the pulpit looking down at everyone. Then the minister said she needed some animals who lived in the stable, and Kyle raised his hand when she asked for someone to be a camel, and she picked him. He got to go up front and wear a shaggy brown coat and put a plastic camel’s nose over his own nose.

It was the best pageant ever, and afterwards there were special snacks at social hour, including Christmas cookies. Their parents told them that since there were lots of cookies, they could have three cookies each, along with their hot chocolate. The cookies tasted very good washed down with hot chocolate. Keilah whispered to Kyle, “This has been the best Sunday ever. I wish this day could go on and on forever!” Suddenly they both heard a mysterious voice say, “Put it in your Gooolden Memory Box!”

“Who said that?” Kyle said.

They looked behind them, but there was no one there. And no one else seemed to hear the voice. So they just kept on nibbling their Christmas cookies and talking about the No Rehearsal Christmas Pageant.

***

In the spring, their Sunday school teachers arranged for their class to come to the church on a Saturday evening. They weren’t yet old enough to go on an overnight at the church, but this year they got to come in and have dinner together and play games. Some of the parents made dinner while all the kids helped set the table and get everything ready. Kyle even got to help arrange the flowers on the table. The food came out, and everyone sat down, and the minister said grace, and everyone started eating. After dinner, everyone helped clean up, and then they got out the games. Kielah and Kyle wound up playing Apples to Apples with the minister and her wife and some other kids. Then Joe, their favorite teacher, taught everyone a game called Spoons that was crazy and silly, where if someone got four cards of a kind you had to grab a spoon off the table. By now it was getting dark, and everyone played a game of Sardines that went all over the church building.

At last it was time for the closing worship service. It was ten o’clock, way past Kyle’s bed time, and he thought he might just like to fall asleep. But when they went into the sanctuary, it was lit only by candles and it looked so mysterious and beautiful that he rubbed his eyes and decided to stay awake. Joe played the guitar while they all sang the song “Evening Breeze,” and then Joe and the minister and some other grown-ups sang harmony parts that were so pretty that it made Keilah’s hair stand on end. Everybody lay on the floor while the minister told a story from the olden times. The minister blew out all but a few candles, and they lay on their backs looking up at the high ceiling. One by one, they all got to say what they thought about the story. Then there was a long time of silence that was broken by someone singing “There Is More Love Somewhere.” Soon everyone was singing, lying on their backs and singing up into the great dim empty space above them.

Kyle turned to Keilah and said, “I wish this night would go on forever!” “Me, too,” said Keilah. And then the both heard a mysterious voice calling, as if from a great distance, “Put it in your Gooolden Memory Box!”

But before they could wonder where the voice came from, the worship service was over and it was time to go home.

***

That summer, Keilah became very ill, and she had to go to the hospital. Kyle saw how worried his parents were, and he grew worried and scared, too. The minister came to see his parents, and hugged Kyle while she was there. Keilah was in the hospital for two weeks. When she came home at last, Kyle wasn’t allowed to see her right away. Finally he was allowed to go in to see his sister. “But you can’t stay too long,” his father said. “She’s still quite weak.” The room was dark, so Kyle didn’t see much, and Keilah didn’t say much.

As the days went by, Keilah got better, and stronger. She was still weak, and couldn’t get out of bed, but she was bored. Kyle came in to talk with her, and they played card games, and read stories together. That got boring after a day or two. Kyle kind of wanted to go outside and play with his friends, but he didn’t want to leave Keilah inside by herself, so he stayed with her.

“Boy, I am bored,” said Keilah.

“I wish we had something to do,” said Kyle.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, came a mysterious, high-pitched echo-y voice. “Open your Gooolden Memory Box!” said the voice.

“Where did that voice come from?” said Keilah.

“I remember that voice!” said Kyle. “That’s the voice that we heard when we played that cool game, remember? The game where we had grocery store names.”

“I remember that game,” said Keilah. “I didn’t want it to ever end. And remember the No Rehearsal Christmas Pageant? I got to be the Angel.”

“Oh yeah, and I was the camel,” said Kyle.

And as they talked, they remembered more and more of the good things that had happened to them in the past year. They talked and they talked, and the time seemed to pass quickly. Before long, Keilah could get out of bed, and not long after that she could go outside to play again.

And from then on, whenever something really good happened, Keilah and Kyle remembered to put it in their golden memory box.

Source: Based on a story told by Grace Mitchell. Mrs. Mitchell (as I knew her) was an inspired educator who wrote a column for many years in Early Education magazine. She was the founder of Green Acres Day Camp in Waltham, Massachusetts, a camp with a distinctly progressive philosophy of education. I have adapted this camp story to church life; as I tell it, this story reflects my feeling that when church looks more like camp, it is more memorable to children. A good story to tell at the end of the church year.

The Three Children Who Left Home

Once upon a time, in a vast and prosperous kingdom, there was a beautiful city spread out between the rolling hills to the east, and a big bay that led westward to the wide, wide ocean. In this city, there lived a family in a tiny little house on a quiet side street a mile or so from the bay. There were two parents and three children, and while they never had much money, their house was filled with love.

Now one day the oldest child went to his parents and said, “It is time for me to leave home. I am old enough to go out on my own.”

His parents were sad to see him leave, but they knew he had grown up and it was time for him to leave. “Go out and lead a good life,” they said to him.

So the oldest child went out into the world. He found a good job that paid very well, and he made lots and lots and lots of money. After a year and a day, he went out and bought a very expensive car, put on his most expensive suit of clothes, strapped on his solid gold wristwatch, and went home to visit his parents and his younger brother and sister.

When the oldest child arrived back home, his parents welcomed him with open arms. He pointed to his new car out the window. “It’s a Whizzer XZ-7000,” he said proudly.

“That’s nice, dear,” they told him.

“And look,” he said, “I’m wearing an Italian suit, made by Karma Karmani.”

“That’s nice, dear,” they told him.

“And look at my watch,” he said, pulling down his sleeve to show them. “Solid gold. How about that?”

“That’s nice, dear,” they told him.

“Is that all you have to say?” he said. “Aren’t you proud of me for making lots and lots and lots of money?”

“Of course we’re proud of you, dear,” his parents told him. “But having expensive things isn’t really that important.”

***

Not too long after this, the middle child came to her parents and said, “It is time for me to leave home. I am old enough to go out on my own.”

His parents were sad to see her leave, but knew it was time, and they bid her goodbye.

The middle child went out into the world and got a good job, but instead of sepnding all her money, she saved as much of it as she could. After a year and a day, she gathered together all her stock certificates and mutual fund reports, and went home to visit her parents and her younger brother.

When she arrived back home, her parents welcomed her with open arms. She spread her stock certificates and mutual fund reports on the old dining room table. “Look how much I have,” she said proudly. “I live very simply and spend almost none of the money I make.”

“That’s nice, dear,” one of her parents said to her. And the other parent said, “But why have you saved all this money?”

The middle child stammered and stuttered, and finally said, “I hadn’t really thought about that.”

“There’s more to money than just having it,” they said.

***

Not too long after this, the youngest child came to his parents and said, “It is time for me to leave home. I am old enough to go out on my own.”

His parents were sad to see him leave, but they knew it was time for him to leave.

The youngest child went out and found a job that didn’t pay much, but it was a job where he did lots to help other people lead better lives. He lived as cheaply as possible, and put aside lots of money. And he also gave lots of his money away. He gave lots of money to charity so his money would help other people, and whenever he met a homeless person on the street, he always gave them money, too. He gave lots of money to his church, because he drew strength from his church and he knew his church depended on the people in the church for all the money they needed.

After a year and a day, he went home to visit his parents. His parents welcomed him with open arms. He told them about his job, and how much his job helped people lead better lives.

“That’s nice, dear,” they told him.

“And I try to save as much money as possible,” he said.

“That’s nice, dear,” they told him.

“But then I give away ten percent of my income to my church, and lots of money to help other people,” he said.

“That’s nice, dear,” they told him.

“Is that all you have to say?” he said. “I have a good job that helps other people. I have enough money to put food on the table and a roof over my head. And I give away money to my church and elsewhere, to make the world a better place. Aren’t you proud of me?”

“Of course we’re proud that you have a good job and that you save lots of money and that you give lots of money away,” said one of his parents.

“Yes,” said the other. “The money and the job are just ways you have of showing your love.”

Suddenly the youngest child understood his parents a little better. They would accept him and love him no matter what. The money wasn’t important. The job wasn’t important. What was important was loving other people.

This story is all mine, from (I think) about 1999. I would probably not use it again without substantial rewriting.