Part of a series of stories for liberal religious kids. This well-known story comes from the Jataka Tales, stories of the former lives of the Buddha. The title in the original Pali is Duddubha Jataka, and it is Jataka tale number 322.
While this story has appeared in many picture books, those who retell it never seem to include the framing story, which is interesting in its own right. For the purposes of religious education, the framing story can serve to teach children about the Buddha, and it also adds another layer to the interpretation of the story. It’s also interesting 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 — perhaps there is some implicit criticism of Hinduism in this story that could be explored with a religious education group. Thus, although this is a well-known story, I think my version is sufficiently different to be of some interest.
The Frightened Rabbit
Copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper
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 plam 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.