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

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Kacchapa-Jataka. "The Tortoise needs must speak..."

Reading time: 4 minutes. Word count: 700 words.

This is one of the most famous of the jataka stories - and since I am a person with a tendency to talk too much, I have tried to take this story to heart! Notice that the frametale is doubled in this story: you have a story (about the Buddha and Kokalika) which contains a story (about the king and his adviser) which contains a story (the story of the talkative tortoise). So, the Buddha is telling a story about the king's adviser who is telling a story about a tortoise! Later on, in the Hitopadesha, you will see even more deeply nested stories within stories within stories!

This is a story told by the Master while staying in Jetavana, about Kokalika. Here again the Master said: "This is not the only time, Brethren, that Kokalika has been ruined by talking; it was the same before."

And then he told the story as follows.

Once on a time Brahmadatta was king of Benares, and the Bodhisatta, being born to one of the king's court, grew up, and became the king's adviser in all things human and divine. But this king was very talkative; and when he talked there was no chance for any other to get in a word. And the Bodhisatta, wishing to put a stop to his much talking, kept watching for an opportunity.

Now there dwelt a Tortoise in a certain pond in the region of Himalaya. Two young wild Geese, searching for food, struck up an acquaintance with him; and by and by they grew close friends together.

One day these two said to him: "Friend Tortoise, we have a lovely home in Himalaya, on a plateau of Mount Cittakuta, in a cave of gold! Will you come with us?"

"Why," said he, "how can I get there?"

"Oh, we will take you, if only you can keep your mouth shut, and say not a word to anybody."

"Yes, I can do that," says he; "take me along!"

So they made the Tortoise hold a stick between his teeth; and themselves taking hold so of the two ends, they sprang up into the air.

The village children saw this, and exclaimed, "There are two geese carrying a tortoise by a stick!"

(By this time the geese flying swiftly had arrived at the space above the palace of the king at Benares.)

The Tortoise wanted to cry out, "Well, and if my friends do carry me, what is that to you, you caitiffs!" - and he let go the stick from between his teeth, and falling into the open courtyard he split in two.

What an uproar there was! "A tortoise has fallen in the courtyard, and broken in two!" they cried.

The king, with the Bodhisatta, and all his court, came up to the place, and seeing the tortoise asked the Bodhisatta a question. "Wise Sir, what made this creature fall?"

"Now's my time!" thought he. "For a long while I have been wishing to admonish the king, and I have gone about seeking my opportunity. No doubt the truth is this: the tortoise and the geese became friendly; the geese must have meant to carry him to Himalaya, and so made him hold a stick between his teeth, and then lifted him into the air; then the must have heard some remark, and wanted to reply; and not being able to keep his mouth shut he must have let himself go; and so he must have fallen from the sky and thus come by his death."

So thought he; and addressed the king: "O king, they that have too much tongue, that set no limit to their speaking, ever come to such misfortune as this;" and he uttered the following verses:

The Tortoise needs must speak aloud,
Although between his teeth
A stick he bit: yet, spite of it,
He spoke - and fell beneath.

And now, O mighty master, mark it well.
See thou speak wisely, see thou speak in season.
To death the Tortoise fell:
He talked too much: that was the reason.

"He is speaking of me!" the king thought to himself; and asked the Bodhisatta if it was so.

"Be it you, O great king, or be it another," replied he, "whosoever talks beyond measure comes by some misery of this kind;" and so he made the thing manifest.

And thenceforward the king abstained from talking, and became a man of few words.

This discourse ended, the Master identified the birth: "Kokalika was the tortoise then, the two famous Elders were the two wild geese, Ananda was the king, and I was his wise adviser."


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

  • what lesson did the Buddha want to teach to the king?
  • how was the tortoise able to fly through the air?
  • why did the tortoise fall down?

Source: Jataka #215. 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