Week 2: Jataka Tales (Birth Stories of the Buddha)

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Kapota-Jataka. "The headstrong man..."

Reading time: 6 minutes. Word count: 1100 words.

Notice that in this story there are very few specific details about the "story of the present." All we know is that one of the monks was greedy, and so the Buddha told a story in order to teach him a lesson about greediness. This is very different from the previous story, which explained in detail how the monk stripped himself naked and was expelled from the order for his shameful behavior. The jataka tales vary a great deal in the amount of detail that they give you about the "story of the present." The frametale can be simple, or it can be a complex story of its own. You can think of that as being something like the difference between an elaborate, fancy picture frame - and a very simple, plain frame! The frame for this story is a very simple one.

This story was told by the Master while at Jetavana, about a certain greedy Brother. On this occasion the Brethren told the Master, saying, "Sir, this Brother is greedy."

Said the Master, "Is it true, as they say, Brother, that you are greedy?"

"Yes, sir," was the reply.

"So too in bygone days, Brother, you were greedy, and by reason of your greediness lost your life; also you caused the wise and good to lose their home."

And so saying he told this story of the past.

Once on a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta was born a pigeon.

Now the Benares folk of those days, as an act of goodness, used to hang up straw baskets in diverse places for the shelter and comfort of the birds; and the cook of the Lord High Treasurer of Benares hung up one of these baskets in his kitchen. In this basket the Bodhisatta took up his abode, sallying out at daybreak in quest of food, and returning home in the evening; and so he lived his life.

But one day a crow, flying over the kitchen, snuffed up the goodly savor from the salt and fresh fish and meat there, and was filled with longing to taste it. Casting about how to have this will, he perched hard by, and at evening saw the Bodhisatta come home and go into the kitchen.

"Ah!" thought he, "I can manage it through the pigeon."

So back he came next day at dawn and, when the Bodhisatta sallied out in quest of food, kept following him about from place to place like his shadow. So the Bodhisatta said, "Why do you keep with me, friend?"

"My lord," answered the crow, "your demeanor has won my admiration; and henceforth it is my wish to follow you."

"But your kind of food and mine, friend, is not the same," said the Bodhisatta; "you will be hard put to it if you attach yourself to me."

"My lord," said he crow, "when you are seeking your food, I will feed too, by your side."

"So be it, then," said the Bodhisatta; "only you must be earnest."

And with this admonition to the crow, the Bodhisatta ranged about pecking up grass seeds; whilst the other went about turning over cow dung and picking out the insects underneath till he had got his fill. Then back he came to the Bodhisatta and remarked, "My lord, you give too much time to eating; excess therein should be shunned."

And when the Bodhisatta had fed and reached home again at evening, in flew the crow with him into the kitchen.

"Why, our bird has brought another home with him;" exclaimed the cook, and hung up a second basket for the crow. And from that time onward the two birds dwelt together in the kitchen.

Now one day the Lord High Treasurer had in a store of fish which the cook hung up about the kitchen. Filled with greedy longing at the sight, the crow made up his mind to stay at home next day and treat himself to this excellent fare.

So all the night long he lay groaning away; and next day, when the Bodhisatta was starting in search of food, and cried, "Come along, friend crow," the crow replied, "Go without me, my lord; for I have a pain in my stomach."

"Friend," said the Bodhisatta, "I never heard of crows having pains in their stomachs before. True, crows feel faint in each of the three night watches; but if they eat a lamp wick, their hunger is appeased for the moment. You must be hankering after the fish in the kitchen here. Come now, man’s food will not agree with you. Do not give way like this, but come and seek your food with me."

"Indeed, I am not able, my lord," said the crow.

"Well, your own conduct will show," said the Bodhisatta. "Only fall not a prey to greed, but stand steadfast." And with this exhortation, away he flew to find his daily food.

The cook took several kinds of fish, and dressed some one way, some another. Then lifting the lids of his saucepans a little to let the steam out, he put a colander on the top of one and went outside the door, where he stood wiping the sweat from his brow.

Just at that moment out popped the crow’s head from the basket. A glance told him that the cook was away, and, "Now or never," thought he, "is my time. The only question is shall I choose minced meat or a big lump?" Arguing that it takes a long time to make a full meal of minced meat, he resolved to take a large piece of fish and sit and eat it in his basket. So out he flew and alighted on the colander.

"Click" went the colander.

"What can that be?" said the cook, running in on hearing the noise. Seeing the crow, he cried, "Oh, there’s that rascally crow wanting to eat my master’s dinner. I have to work for my master, not for that rascal! What’s he to me, I should like to know!"

So, first shutting the door, he caught the crow and plucked every feather off his body. Then, he pounded up ginger with salt and cumin, and mixed in sour buttermilk – finally sousing the crow in the pickle and flinging him back into his basket. And there the crow lay groaning, overcome by the agony of his pain.

At evening the Bodhisatta came back, and saw the wretched plight of the crow. "Ah! greedy crow," he exclaimed, "you would not heed my words, and now your own greed has worked you woe." So saying, he repeated this stanza:

The headstrong man who, when exhorted, pays
No heed to friends who kindly counsel give,
Shall surely perish, like the greedy crow,
Who laughed to scorn the pigeon’s warning words.

Then, exclaiming, "I too can no longer dwell here," the Bodhisatta flew away.

But the crow died there and then, and the cook flung him, basket and all, on the dust heap.

Said the Master, "You were greedy, Brother, in bygone times, just as you are now; and all because of your greediness, the wise and good of those days had to abandon their homes." Having ended this lesson, the Master preached the Four Truths at the close whereof that Brother won the Fruit of the Second Path.

Then the Master showed the connexion and identified the Birth as follows: "The greedy Brother was the crow of those times, and I the pigeon."

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • where did the pigeon live? why did the crow want to go live with the pigeon?
  • how did the crow think he was going to be able to get the fish?
  • what finally happened to the crow?

Source: Jataka #42. The Jataka, or Stories of the Buddha's Former Births (in six volumes). Editor: E.B. Cowell. 1895.

Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM