Another excerpt from a work-in-progress, a book of stories for liberal religious kids. This one is still pretty rough, my version of a Jataka tale, that is, a tale of one of Buddha’s previous incarnations. 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.
Be forewarned: Some browsers may have problems with the Pali diacritical marks in the proper names.
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, KokÄlika and his friends SÄriputta and MoggallÄna. The three friends didn’t seem to know how to get along with each other. Just that day, KokÄlika 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 KokÄlika, SÄriputta, and MoggallÄna. One bhikku said, “That KokÄlika 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,
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 KokÄlika, the lion was SÄriputta, and the tiger was MoggallÄna.” And the bhikkus knew that Buddha himself was the great tree-spirit in the story.
Copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper. All rights reserved. Source: Tale 272, Vyaggha-JÄtaka, from the Cowell translation of the Jataka tales (1911).