Hunting Trip

The Hunting Trip

by Jeffrey Brooks

The early collection of the teachings of the Buddha is known as the Pali Canon. In it are a set of stories known as Jatakas. These are parables about the things the Buddha did during his past lives. Many of these stories describe acts of self sacrifice motivated by compassion.

These are the acts which put an end to suffering, and they are the causes of enlightenment.

In some later sutras the explanation for the way in which these acts function are treated philosophically, and demand a high degree of technical training and study.

In the Jatakas this sophisticated doctrine is presented in the form of folk tales. They are accessible to anyone who has a warm heart and a curious mind.

One of the Jataka stories begins as three princes ride out from their palace into the countryside to hunt. Soon they come upon a lush valley, thick with woods, fields of flowers and a river meandering through it. As the three brothers were admiring the view they noticed some tiger cubs playing in the grass near their mother.

The mother tiger was very thin. The brothers could see that she was starving and her milk had dried up. The mother tiger just stared at her cubs as they tried to drink milk from her.

The oldest brother felt sorry for the tigers, but he did not know what to do to help them. The middle brother had an idea. They would ride back to the palace and bring back some fresh meat for the mother tiger to eat. Then, if they could save her, her milk would flow again and the cubs would live too.

The three princes turned their horses back toward the palace. As they started to ride the youngest of the brothers, who was named Mahasattva, reconsidered. He thought: to get back to the palace will take half a day, and to return to this spot with the meat would take another half day. By that time this tiger will starve to death.

He decided that the only way to save the tigers was to give his own life to them so that they could live.

He told his brothers “I am not feeling well. I’ll stay here and rest until you come back.”

His brothers rode off.

Once they had disappeared Mahasattva took off his clothes and lay down in front of the tiger. The starving tiger licked him. But she would not bite him because he was alive, and she was only able to eat meat that was already dead. The tiger just put her head down on the ground and sighed, and lay there motionless.

Mahasattva realized his mistake and walked up to a cliff just above where the tigers were laying. There he made a spear of bamboo and stabbed himself in the throat. As his blood drained away he fell from the cliff and landed in front of the tiger, right where he had been laying a few moments before.

The starving tiger seized his body and devoured it, lapping up his spilled blood and gnawing on his bones. Her breasts filled with milk and the cubs drank and drank as much as they could hold.

Revived, the tiger and her cubs left the valley.

The next morning, when the two brothers returned to the valley with their load of fresh meat, they were surprised to see that the tiger and her cubs were gone. They saw nothing in that spot but some bones and a neat pile of clothing.

They recognized their brother’s clothes immediately and knew then that the bones were his too. They realized the real reason why their brother had not returned with them to the palace. They knew he stayed behind to sacrifice his life so the tigers would live.

His parents, the king and queen, were heartbroken when they heard the news about the death of their youngest son. They traveled to the spot where his bones and clothes were left. They decreed that a stupa, a memorial structure, be built in the spot where their son made his sacrifice.

There is a stupa that stands today, about 35 miles from Islamabad, Pakistan, built two thousand years ago, which memorializes this incident.

Of course this incident was not during the life of the historical Buddha, 2,500 years ago, but during one of his past lives. So it might have been many thousands or millions of years ago. But still, people remember this incident.

In later Buddhist scriptures it is mentioned that the original group of disciples taught by the historical Buddha 2,500 years ago in India, were these same tiger cubs, reborn as wandering monks. They had the extraordinary karmic ripening to once again meet an extraordinary person who could save them from suffering and death. This time this person, now a fully enlightened Buddha, could save them not just temporarily but forever, this time by feeding them on his teaching.

It is understood that the Buddha, because of the depth of his compassion and the completeness of his skill, can do this for all of us.

Some of us, as modern people, may be horrified by this story. Others may be inspired. But we need to understand the parable in perspective if we are to make use of it.

The Dalai Lama in a commentary on the 8th century Buddhist teacher Shantideva says this:

“…as long as our compassion is not completely pure and our realization of emptiness is not perfect, it is not proper to give away our wealth and merits. We need to protect our bodies while we purify any selfish motives we may have and increase our altruistic attitude. If we do this we will be able to accomplish the wishes of all beings. Meanwhile we should not give our lives too hastily. Instead, we should cultivate the aspiration to be able to sacrifice ourselves, until such time as doing so is truly beneficial.”

This is a warning against spiritual pride which would cause us to exceed our capacity and waste what we have. It is at the same time a warning against spiritual complacency that just goes with the flow.

No matter what our capacity is, no matter what our level of development, we are encouraged to gauge our ability honestly, acknowledge our faults, cultivate our good qualities, and follow the path of the Bodhisattva.

1 Comment »

  1. Kate said,

    February 6, 2012 @ 9:51 am

    Jeff, thank you for the Dalai Lama’s quote. It is so helpful to me as I focus on setting healthy boundaries with our kids, aspiring to unconditional love, and yet letting go of attachment to the outcome! Amazing lessons to learn in this life. Thanks for your sharing!

    Peace AND Prosperity.

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