Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids. This is a story about selfishness, and it also gives an insight into the supposed magical powers of Daoist priests. Source: Pu Songling, trans. Herbert A. Giles, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (London: Thomas De La Rue & Co., 1880).
One day in the marketplace, a man from the countryside was selling pears he had grown. These pears were unusually sweet with a fine flavor, and so the countryman asked a high price for them.
A Daoist priest, dressed in a ragged old blue cloak, stopped at the barrow in which the countryman had displayed these lovely pears.
“May I have one of your pears?” he said.
The countryman said to him, “Get away from my barrow, so that paying customers may buy my pears.” For the countryman knew that the priest expected him to give him one for nothing. But when the priest did not move, the countryman began to curse and swear at him.
The priest said, “You have several hundred pears on your barrow. I ask for a single pear, the loss of which you would not feel. Why then, sir, do you get angry?”
Several people who were standing around told the countryman to give the priest a pear that was bruised, or which had some sort of blemish, a pear that he could not sell anyway. If he would only do that, then the priest would go away. But the countryman was stubborn, and he refused to give the Daoist priest anything at all.
The beadle of the town, who was charged with keeping the peace and maintaining order, came over to see what was going on. This beadle saw that things were getting out of hand, so he purchased a pear from the countryman, and presented it to the Daoist priest.
The priest bowed low to the beadle, thanking him for the pear. Then the priest turned to the crowd who had gathered round, and said, “Those of us who are Daoist priests have left our homes and given up all wealth. So when we see selfish behavior, it is hard for us to understand it. Now as it happens, 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, “But if you have pears of your own, why didn’t you just eat one of them? Why did you have to have one of the countryman’s pears?”
“Because,” said the priest, “I wanted one of these seeds to grow my pears from.” So saying, he ate up the pear that the beadle had given him. When he had finished eating, he took one of the seeds, unstrapped a pick from his back, and bent down to make a hole in the ground, four inches deep, with the pick. Then he dropped the seed into this hole, and filled it in with earth. Turning back to the crowd, he said, “Could someone bring me a little hot water, please, with which to water the seed?”
One among the crowd who loved a joke went into a neighboring shop and fetched him back some boiling water.
The priest poured the boiling water over the place where he had made the hole. Everyone watched closely, for though it seemed like a joke, Daoist priests were supposed to have knowledge of alchemy and magic and the mystical arts.
Suddenly the people in the crowd saw green sprouts shooting up out of the ground, growing gradually larger and larger until they became a tree. This pear tree — for it was, indeed, a pear tree — quickly grew in the spot, and sprouted green leaves, and then put forth white flowers. Bees were heard buzzing among the flowers, then the petals dropped, and before long the tiny hard green fruits had grown and ripened into fine, large, sweet-smelling pears which hung heavy on every branch.
The priest picked these fine pears and handed them around to everyone in the crowd. When at last everyone had a pear, and all the pears had been picked from the tree, the priest turned and with his pick he hacked away at the tree until, after a long time, he cut it down. Picking up the tree and throwing it over his shoulder, leaves and all, he walked quietly away.
Now this whole time, the countryman had been standing in the crowd, straining his neck to see what was going on, and 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 now gone. He then knew that the pears that old fellow had been giving away were really his own pears. And when the countryman looked more closely at his barrow, he saw that one of its handles was missing, for it 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 were no traces of the priest — much to the amusement of the crowd in the market-place, who watched the countryman’s rage as they finished eating their sweet, juicy pears.
Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids, this one from Central Africa. I like this story because of the differences between Nzambi Mpungu and the Christian Jehovah, and the different reasons Spider and Prometheus have for stealing the heavenly fire. The character of Spider is probably related to Anansi the Spider of West Africa myth, and probably to other African tricksters such as Tortoise of Yoruba myth. This story is 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.
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, and then 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 him 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 heavenly 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 Mpungu set fire to the bamboo, and lo! when it was 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 once again, 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 had to wait on Nzambi for the rest of her days.
Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids, this one from the Mahabharata. Adapted from The Indian Story Book: Containing Tales from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and Other Early Sources, by Richard Wilson (London: Macmillan & Co., 1914).
One day, near the end of their long exile in the forest, King Yudhisthira and his four brothers were searching for a mysterious deer which had stolen the wooden blocks which a Brahmin needed so he could light the sacred fire. The king and his brothers wandered deeper and deeper into the forest trying to find the deer. They grew more and more thirsty, but they were unable to find water. At last they all sat down, exhausted, beneath a tall tree.
“If we do not find water soon, we shall surely die,” said Yudhisthira He turned to his brother Nakula. “Brother,” he said, “climb the tree for us and see if you can spot water nearby.”
Nakula quickly climbed the tree, and in a few moments called down, “I see trees which only grow near running water, and there I hear the sound of cranes, birds which love the water.”
“Take your quiver,” said Yudhisthira. “Go fill it 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 with a crane standing on the far side.
Nakula knelt down at the edge of the pool to drink. Suddenly a stern Voice spoke: “Do not drink, O Prince, until you have answered my questions.”
Nakula was so thirsty he ignored the Voice, and drank eagerly from the cool water. In a few moments he lay dead at the edge of the pool.
The other four brothers waited patiently Nakula’s return. At last Yudhisthira said, “Where can our brother be? Go, Sahadeva, find your brother, and return with a quiver full of water.”
Sahadeva walked off through the forest. Soon he found Nakula lying dead at the edge of the pool. But he was so thirsty that he did not stop, but knelt down at the pool to drink.
The stern Voice spoke: “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 spoke to his brother Arjuna, the mighty archer. “Go, Arjuna,” he said, “find our brothers, and return to us with a quiver full of water.”
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, at last he knelt down at the edge of the pool to drink.
The stern Voice spoke: “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 at him, and repeated its command.
But Arjuna ignored the Voice, knelt and drank, and soon lay dead at the edge of the pool.
Yudhisthira waited patiently, but when Arjuna did not return, the king turned to Bhima. “Go,” he said, “find our brothers, and return with them and a quiver full of water.”
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.
Again the stern Voice spoke: “Do not drink, O Prince, until you have answered my questions.”
Bhima had not heard the Voice, and so he lay dead next to his brothers.
Yudhisthira waited for a time, then 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 edge of the pool. And there were his four brothers lying dead at the edge of the pool.
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 out loud his sorrow for the death of each one.
“This must be the work of some evil spirit,” he thought to himself. “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 Baka, or crane, 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 boldly. “Tell me what you want.”
“I am not a bird,” said the Baka, “but a Yaksha!” And 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 not drink before I answer your questions,” said the king. “Ask me what you will, and I will use what wisdom I have to answer you.”
So the questioning began:
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.”
The questions went on and on, but Yudhisthira was able to answer them all, wisely and well.
At last the Yaksah stopped asking questions, and revealed its true nature: the Yaksha was none other than Yama-Dharma, the god of death, and the father of Yudhisthira.
Yama-Dharma said, “It was I who took on the shape of a deer and stole the wooden blocks so the Brahmin could not light the sacred fire.
“Now you may drink of this fair water, Yudhisthira! And you may choose which of your four brothers shall be returned to life.”
“Let Nakula live,” said Yudhisthira.
“Why not Bhima or Arjuna or Sahadeva?” said Yama-Dharma.
“My brother Nakula is the son of Madri,” said the King, “while Arjuna, Bhima, Sahadeva and I are the sons of Kunthi. If Nakula returns to life, then both my mothers, both Madri and Kunthi, will have a living child. Therefore, let Nakula live.”
Then Yama-Dharma spoke kindly as he faded away. “Truly you are called ‘The Just,” he said. “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.”
More riddles — Here are two dozen more of the riddles that Yama-Dharma asked of Yudhisthira:
1. How may a person become secure? — A person becomes secure through courage. 2. How may a person become wise? — A person gains wisdom by living with people who are wise 3. What is best for the Brahmans (those who pursue learning as their life’s work)? — Studying the Vedas, the holy books, is best for the Brahmans. 4. What is best for the Kshathriyas (those who are the warriors and defenders)? Weapons are best for the Kshathriyas. 5. What is best for farmers? — Rain is best for farmers. 6. Who does not close their eyes when sleeping? — Fish do not close their eyes when sleeping. 7. What does not move even after birth? — Eggs do not move even after birth. 8. What does not have a heart? — A stone does not have a heart. 9. What grow as it goes? — A river grows as it goes to the sea. 10. Who is the guest who is welcome to all? — Fire is the guest who is welcome to all. 11. Who travels alone? — The Sun travels alone. 12. Who is born again and again? — The Moon is born again and again. 13. What container can contain everything? — The Earth can contain everything. 14. Out of all things, what is best? — Out of all things, knowledge gained from wise people is best. 15. Out of all blessings, what is best? — Out of all blessings, good health is best. 16. Out of all pleasures, what is best? — Out of all pleasures, being contented is best. 17. Out of all just actions, which is best? — Out of all just actions, non-violence is best. 18. What must a person control in order to never be sad? — A person must control their mind in order to never be sad. 19. What will a person never be sad to leave behind? — A person will never be sad to leave behind anger. 20. What should a person leave behind to become rich? — A person should leave behind desire in order to become rich. 21. What should a person leave behind to be have a happy life? — A person should leave behind selfishness to have a happy life. 22. By what is the world covered? — The world is covered by ignorance. 23. Why doesn’t the world shine brightly? — Bad behavior keeps the world from shining brightly. 24. What is surprising? — It is surprising that we think of ourselves as stable and permanent, when every day we see beings dying.
Illustrations are from the following public domain sources (accessed through the Internet Archive): Sarus Crane, H. E. Dresser, “A History of the Birds of Europe,” London: 1871-1881. Yudhistira and the crane, Mahabharata, Gorakhpur, India: Geeta Press, n.d.
Another story for liberal religious kids, which I found as I was cleaning up my files.
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?”
The Buddha said, “It is like the four brothers who saw the dhak tree,” and he told them this story:
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: Adapted from the Kimsukopama-Jataka, in The Jataka; or, Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births, edited by E. B. Cowell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1895), book 2, no. 248.
A story from a series for liberal religious kids; this story comes from the Bhagavad Gita.
Once upon a time, two armies assembled at the Kuru Field. On one side was the army of Yudhishthira [Yut-ish-tir-ah], who was the nephew of Dhritarashtra [Dri-tah-rahsh-trah], the great blind King of the Kurus. On the other side was the army of Duryodhana [Dur-yo-tahn-ah], the eldest of Dhri-tarashtra’s hundred sons. Twenty years before, Dhritarashtra had decided to give his kingdom to his nephew Yudhishthira, instead of to his son Duryodhana; for he knew that Duryodhana was wicked and selfish.
As the battle was about to begin, great heroes, their bows and arrows at the ready, stood in their chariots behind their charioteers, who were busy controlling the horses pulling each chariot. Other great heroes also stood at the ready, armed with many different kinds of weapons, each of them skilled in war. (In those days, in that place, only men fought wars, so everyone there was a man.)
Ajuna was one of the heroes who stood in in chariots. His was a large and fine chariot, pulled by magnificent white horses who were driven by a skilled charioteer.
Suddenly, somewhere a warrior blew on a conch shell, making a loud and terrifying sound, to signal that the battle was to begin.
Other warriors took out their conch shells and blew them. Still other people beat on drums and cymbals, and blew loud horns. All this made an incredible noise which sounded over all the earth, up into the sky, making everyone’s heart beat faster.
Someone let loose an arrow, and other warriors responded by shooting their own arrows.
At exactly this moment Arjuna said to his charioteer, “Drive the chariot in between the two armies. I want to look at all these warriors standing eager for battle, those people I’m about to fight.”
His charioteer drove the chariot out in between the two armies. The sound of the conch shells, the sounds of the drums and horns, was just dying away. The two armies are about to join in battle.
Arjuna stood in his chariot, alone in the middle of the field, all prepared to fight. As he looked across the field, he recognizes many of the people in the other army—uncles, teachers, cousins, and friends of his. He saw fathers who had sons in his army, and brothers who were about to fight brothers in his army.
Arjuna thought to himself: “Here are friends and relatives on either side of Kuru Field, about to try and kill each other. This does not make sense.”
Arjuna turned to his charioteer and said, “My mouth is dry and my mind is whirling. I feel that we are about to do a bad thing. What good can come of it if brothers kill brothers, if fathers kill their sons? I feel it would be better if did not fight at all, and simply let the other side kill me.”
Arjuna could not decide what to do next. Should he throw down his weapons and let the other side kill him? Should he go forward and kill his friends and relatives? He did not like either choice, yet he must do something.
And his charioteer turned around, and gave him an unexpected answer….
Another story in a series for liberal religious kids, this one from the Taoist tradition.
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 1.16, based on translations by Lin Yutang, Burton Watson, and James Legge.
This story of a Jain elder might wind up as one of a series of stories for liberal religious kids. Source and notes at the end.
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….
To be continued….
This story is from Canto 5:1-37 of The Lives of the Jain Elders, by Hemachandra (1098-1172). I used the following sources:
Sthaviravali Charita, or Parisishtaparvan, Being an Appendix of the Trishashtisalaka Purisha Charita by Hemachandra. Ed. by Herman Jacobi (Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1891), pp. 39-41.
Hemacandra, The Lives of the Jain Elders, trans. R. C. C. Fynes (Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 117-119.
The image of the Jina is a modified Wikimedia Commons public domain image.
Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids. Source and notes at the end.
This is a story about Rabbi Israel Salanter, who lived in Lithuania in the 1800s:
It was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews. All the people had gathered in the synagogue to wait for Rabbi Israel to lead them in reciting the Kol Nidre, the prayer that begins Yom Kippur. But Rabbi Israel didn’t come. After waiting a long time, the people in the synagogue recited the Kol Nidre without the rabbi, hoping he would appear. Still he didn’t come. The people continued to wait for Rabbi israel, though by now he was so late they began to worry that he would not arrive until after the service was over.
Finally the rabbi came into the synagogue. The people looked at him in amazement: they saw down stuck in his hair and his beard, and his clothing was wrinkled and messy. But Rabbi Israel walked in as if nothing were wrong, as if he were not horribly late. He put on a prayer shawl, and began to recite his prayers. When he had finished praying, he at last explained to the congregation why he was so late:
He had been walking to the synagogue [he said], with plenty of time to spare, when he heard crying inside a house he was walking past. He went into the house, and there was a baby lying in its cradle, with a six year old girl fast asleep nearby. A bottle of milk stood above the cradle, just beyond where the baby could reach it. The rabbi could see what had happened: the mother had gone off to the Yom Kippur service, telling her six year old daughter (who was too young to go to the service) to give the baby its bottle if it started crying. But the girl had fallen asleep, and she did not hear the baby crying. So Rabbi Israel fed the baby. When the baby finished the milk, the rabbi tucked it in the cradle and watched it fall asleep.
It was just then [said the rabbi] that the little girl awakened. She was afraid to be home alone, and begged him to stay with her. The rabbi looked around, and saw that the candles the mother had left were burning low; here was a good reason not to leave the child alone. So he stayed until the children’s mother got back from the synagogue. He concluded his story by saying he was very glad that he had a chance to do such a good deed on the most holy day of the year.
The people in his congregation stared at him. One of them asked: You mean you didn’t say the Kol Nidre, you were absent for the Yom Kippur services, you missed the most important moment of the whole year, all this just because a baby was crying? You, the greatest intellect, the smartest person of our time, you missed being here because of a baby? Rabbi, what were you thinking?
The rabbi scolded them all, saying: Don’t you know that there are reasons why we Jews are allowed to skip prayers, reasons why we are even allowed to break the laws of the Sabbath? If there is the slightest chance of saving a life, we are allowed to — no, we must skip prayers and break the Sabbath. Then too, don’t you know that our families, our children, are central to Jewish life?
This silenced the people. They realized that it didn’t matter that Rabbi Israel had humbled himself by taking care of a mere baby. As he said, there could nothing more important.
Source: This story is from Lucy S. Dawidowicz, ed., The Golden Tradition (Syracuse University Press, 1996), pp. 173-174; the story is quoted and interpreted in Leora Batnitzky, How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought (Princeton University Press, 2001), pp. 124-125; I am indebted to Batnitzky’s interpretation of the story.
Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids, this is a Jataka tale, shortened and altered to make it suitable for middle elementary children. Sophia Fahs included her version of this story in the classic curriculum From Long Ago and Many Lands. Fahs heavily altered the story, however. More about that in the notes at the end of the story. Now, here’s the story:
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.”
And 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!” Continue reading “King Usinara and the Huge Hound”