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

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Kokalika-Jataka. "They that with speech inopportune..."

Reading time: 3 minutes. Word count: 500 words.

This next story is also a lesson on keeping quiet! In the moral to the story there s a mythological reference to how "Garuda (the divine eagle) traps the snake." This opposition between eagle and serpent was very important in ancient India, and it is also found in many other cultures - take a look at the flag of Mexico for a great example of this same opposition between serpent and eagle.

This story was told by the Master at Jetavana about Kokalika.

Once upon a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta was his valued minister. Now the king was very talkative. Thought the Bodhisatta, "I will put an end to his talkativeness," and went about looking for an apt illustration.

So one day the king came to his garden and sat down on the royal slab of stone. Above his head was a mango tree and there, in a crow's nest, a black cuckoo had laid her egg and gone off. The female crow watched over that cuckoo's egg.

By and by a young cuckoo came forth from it. The crow, thinking it was her own offspring, took care of it, bringing food for it in her beak. The young bird while still unfledged uttered a cuckoo cry prematurely.

The crow thought, "This young bird even now utters a strange note. What will it do when it is older?" And so she killed it by pecking it with her beak and threw it out of the nest, and it fell at the king's feet.

The king asked the Bodhisatta, "What is the meaning of this, my friend?"

Thought the Bodhisatta, "I am seeking for an illustration to teach the king a lesson, and now I have got one."

So he said, "Garrulous folk, Great King, who talk too much out of season, meet with a fate like this. This young cuckoo, sire, being fostered by the crow, while yet unfledged, uttered a premature cry. So the crow knew it was not her offspring and killed it by pecking it with her beak and threw it out of the nest. All those that are too talkative out of season, be they men or beasts, suffer like trouble."

And with these words he recited these stanzas:

They that with speech inopportune offend
Like the young cuckoo meet untimely end.
Nor deadly poison, nor sharp-whetted sword
Is half so fatal as ill-spoken word.

The sage his measured words discreetly guides,
Nor rashly to his second self confides;
Before he speaks will prudent counsel take,
His foes to trap, as Garuda the snake.

The king, after hearing the religious teaching of the Bodhisatta, thenceforth became more measured in his words, and increasing the glory of the Bodhisatta, he ever gave him more and more.

The Master, having brought his lesson to an end, identified the Birth: "Kokalika in those days was the young cuckoo, and I myself was the wise minister."

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

  • how did the cuckoo chick end up in the nest of the crow?
  • why did the crow kill the cuckoo?
  • what lesson did the king learn from this story?

Source: Jataka #331. 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