Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua
Master Hsuan Hua
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Jataka Tales


The Woodpecker and the Lion

Long, long ago, in a deep, dark forest, the Great Being was born as a woodpecker. Not only was he especially beautiful, but he was also unusually kind, intelligent and wise. One day, he asked his mother: "Why was I born?" His mother replied, "The reason why we are born is so that we can make the world a better place for all creatures great and small, and also teach them how to be good." So the woodpecker became a teacher and doctor to all the other animals, helping and advising them, showing them the right way to live, and preventing them from doing evil, when he could. He had already practiced the Bodhisattva path over countless lifetimes among the various classes of living beings, and his compassion, wisdom, and skill in means were quite well developed. Therefore, he carefully avoided hurting any creatures, even insects -- which are a woodpecker’s natural prey -- and only ate seeds, berries and plants.

One day, while he was flying through the thickest part of the forest, he spotted a lion rolling around in the dust. Lions are the strongest and bravest of all the animals, but this lion was crying and moaning pitifully, and his fur was all dirty and matted.
"O King of the Beasts," the woodpecker called out to him. "What's wrong? Are you sick or injured? Has a hunter's arrow wounded you? Have you been bitten by a snake? Is there anything I can do to help you?"

"O doctor of the forest," wailed the lion. "I was greedily eating too much, too fast, and a sharp bone fragment got stuck deep down in my throat. Now it will not move, whether I try to swallow it or cough it up, so I'm in terrible agony. Do you think you can help me?"

The woodpecker was very experienced at solving problems, and he quickly figured out how to help the poor lion. He picked up a short stick, asked the lion to open his mouth, and placed the stick between the lion's upper and lower teeth to keep his jaws apart. Then, bravely stepping into the lion's mouth, he slid down to the bottom of his throat and carefully removed the bone splinter with his long thin beak. On his way back out of the lion’s jaws, he kicked the splint away, and the lion's problem was solved. Though this would have been difficult even for most doctors to do, the woodpecker’s Bodhisattva training enabled him to accomplish impossible tasks.

The grateful lion thanked the woodpecker profusely for saving his life, and any civilized person would have been eternally grateful for this deed, which carries a huge obligation on the part of the recipient. The woodpecker was as happy as the lion, because he delighted in helping others and solving their problems. As a bodhisattva, seeing other people's happiness was made him happier than his own good fortune, and he didn't even care if they thanked or praised him.

A long time later, there was a famine in that region. It hadn't rained for several weeks, and all the food plants had slowly dried up and disappeared. The starving animals could find nothing to eat. As the woodpecker flew around, hungrily looking for food, he came upon the very same lion devouring an antelope. Now the woodpecker never ate any animals, because he wanted no part in hurting them. But he was so hungry that he felt it would be OK to eat some of this antelope's carcass, since the lion had not actually killed her for him to eat.

The Buddhist precepts state three cases in which it is OK to eat meat, and this was one of them. However, eating meat always raises complicated moral issues, so it is still better just not to do so. And whenever you see someone indulging in behavior that is against your principles, you should take it as a warning that this person doesn’t share your values, and be extra careful around him or her. In any case, the woodpecker didn't want to beg for anything, so he just perched on a nearby tree branch, in hopes that the lion would recognize him and offer him a morsel.

The lion was selfish and greedy by nature, since the Bodhi seed of compassion had not yet been planted in his mind, and he had never been taught how to behave in a civilized manner. So, even though he did remember the woodpecker, he refused to share his food with anyone, even someone who had saved his life! It is very unfortunate that when low-life people are in need, they can be humble, but as soon as they feel safe and secure again, they will often turn arrogant.

Furthermore, in times of crisis, such as a famine, people should be especially generous and compassionate toward each other. But the lion just growled scornfully: "Go away, little bird. This food is all mine! You should be thankful that I didn't bite your head off when you were inside my mouth back then. I'm the mighty lion, I can do what I like, and everyone is afraid of me! So get lost, before I lose my temper and swallow you whole!"

The woodpecker was so shocked at the lion's exceptionally rude and ungrateful behavior that he quickly flew away, displaying the special beauty and power of birds. Since the animal realm is governed by stupidity, and lacks compassion, the lion’s ingratitude wasn’t so much of a surprise to him as a disappointment, because the woodpecker always hoped to see everyone at their best, and was always sorry to see people creating bad karma.

As he soared through the high clouds, the bird met a nosy sky spirit who had been watching and listening to his whole conversation with the lion from above. Perhaps she was annoyed at the fact that he had been mistreated, or maybe she wanted to test his integrity, but in any case, she addressed him from the standpoint of an average person.

"O you wonderful bird," said she. "I remember that you helped that lion a long time ago, when he was in terrible distress. So why did you allow him to insult you just now? Why didn't you get angry and retaliate for his rudeness? Why didn’t you just grab a piece of his food, or attack him with your beak? Or, at least, why didn’t you insult him back?"

“Please don't talk like that!" replied the woodpecker. "I refuse to get angry under any conditions. I only helped that lion because helping other creatures makes me happy, not because I was looking for a reward. So if he's mean to me, I can just fly away and help somebody else. I've decided that I will never lose my temper. That way I can think clearly and try to solve problems instead of creating them."

The woodpecker was demonstrating that once you’ve discovered that someone doesn’t share your values, or has the wrong attitude, you should quietly stay away from that person, to avoid his or her negative influence. Otherwise, you may be persuaded to compromise your own principles. Cultivators must guard their minds against evil thoughts, so as to avoid committing evil deeds.

“And,” he continued, “a spark of anger can burn down a forest of merit and virtue. When people lose their tempers, they start acting stupid and fighting, displaying the ugly side of their natures. And they can't stop, unless one of them calms down. But getting mad and retaliating never solves anything.”

As you can see, after many lifetimes of training, and having developed their wisdom and a compassionate understanding of living beings, really virtuous people like this bird are so accustomed to doing good, that their natural reaction is to behave properly even when they are seriously provoked.

The sky spirit wasn’t fully convinced that the woodpecker was on the right track, however. "But, doctor of the forest," she asked, "Why be nice to someone who isn't nice to you? He certainly doesn’t deserve it.”

"Because I don't want to become a mean, evil person,” replied the woodpecker. “So I don't get mad when people treat me badly. Those who have principles must maintain their integrity at all times. That lion never learned how to be a good, kind person, and he probably feels justified in behaving the way he does, based on some kind of wrong views of himself and the world. If I start acting like a jerk just because he treated me badly, then I would become a jerk too. You see how easy it would be for a good person to turn bad? Simply doing evil deeds will make you an evil person, as we are all responsible for our own actions.

That lion will be tormented by his own deeds, without necessarily learning anything from it. But, under the right conditions, that lion may eventually start to develop an understanding of the world and how to live in it. Then he could become a good person. So I don’t want to make him my enemy.”

The woodpecker knew that evil people can become good, and good people can also become evil. It all depends on how they deal with situations. Furthermore, just as truly worthy and virtuous people are respected everywhere, so would wrong actions ruin the reputation of even the most revered individual, making it hard for him or her to accomplish anything.

"But why would you want that nasty lion to become good, and to find happiness?" insisted the vindictive sky spirit. She clung to the age-old notions of people’s characters being permanently fixed, and didn’t realize the foolishness of harboring resentment and anger.

The woodpecker replied: "Not because I want something from him, but because I want what’s best for him. Evil, selfish and mean people are really sad and miserable because they’re never satisfied and nobody likes them. Stupid people suffer because of their own deeds, and no one can escape his or her karma. But if they learned how to be good, they could purify their karma and be rewarded for their efforts. They would find friends and satisfaction too. However, one cannot teach people the Dharma until the conditions are ripe, and they develop a receptive attitude.”

"How do you know that being good will make people happy, and that their happiness will make the world a better place?" insisted the sky spirit.
"Because all creatures want to be happy, and all of them fear suffering. They all desire to be treated with kindness. If you thought of everyone as your friend, and cared for them as if they were your own family, then you would help them improve their lives, and eventually the fruit of your good deeds would spread to all living creatures.

“Even from a selfish point of view, you can see that if all living beings started being honest and compassionate, and stopped hurting each other, then there would be peace and harmony in the world, and everyone would be happy. Furthermore, they would be creating good karma for their future lives. Ultimately, we all depend on each other to survive. None of us is entirely self-sufficient," replied the woodpecker.
"Well," said the sky spirit, "You really are a brave, wise and compassionate friend to all creatures, for you maintain your integrity no matter how people treat you, and you don't turn bad if people treat you badly. Nor do you allow yourself to be influenced by evil people. That shows that you are really strong and powerful inside. I can see that you are a much wiser, greater sage than many renowned Brahmins who have been leading the holy life for decades. I wish there were more people like you in the world! Then the weaker people who are trying to improve would have more good examples to follow. I will try my best to be like you from now on."

And she gave the woodpecker some strawberries she had found that afternoon, to satisfy his hunger. Then she flew off to tell all her friends about the wisdom and power of not getting angry.
Then the woodpecker went back to his job of helping all creatures and teaching them to be kind, compassionate and wise.

So, the moral of this story is that true Buddhist practitioners will make every effort to eliminate animosity from their hearts, and will respect and care for all living beings as if they were the Buddha himself. Because after all, living beings are just the Buddha, and the Buddha is just living beings!

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