Jataka Tales are stories believed to be relayed by Shakyamuni Buddha to enhance understanding of the path to enlightenment by revealing his own past lives and the thousands of incarnations that he had experienced on the path to awakening. An appropriate Jataka Tale will be part of the exploration of each of the paramitas that will be covered in the next several months. Mindfully reading and reflecting on these tales can be a fruitful practice for deepening the understanding and enacting the paramitas. Here is one approach to reading them:
- First read the tale through without pausing or reflecting, enjoying the tale and allowing it to unfold fluidly.
- On second reading bring more mindfulness to the experiences in the body, of the emotions and any thoughts that arise. Noticing constrictions, spaciousness, judgments, aversions etc.
- On the third reading. Inquire into the experiences of obscurations or obstacles to the teachings in the story. “What’s that about?” “What brings that up?” etc.
- Finally reading with an inquiry about the fruition or perfection of dana and how it may relate to your life.
The Story of the Tigress 1
Long, long ago, ages before the bodhisattva attained perfect enlightenment and became the Buddha of our world-age known as Shakyamuni, he was born into a family of wealthy Brahmins. He grew up learning the wisdom, rituals, and skills of his station. When he was grown he was honored. Nobles saw that he had the bearing of a king; the wise looked up to him as a sage. Warriors and merchants felt he had the wisdom of a leader. He was also a naturally gifted teacher, drawn to guiding others along a path of selfless generosity, which in time he decided was his true calling. So he left the city for the forest, where he established a hermitage for those seeking to enter the higher life.
One day years later, now a teacher, he was walking in the forest with one of his disciples. It had not rained for some weeks. The trees were bare, the grass brittle, and the streambeds nearly dry. Suddenly they heard a series of coughing roars coming from somewhere very close nearby. The student listened and said, “Master, those are the roars of a tiger—a hungry tiger. We’d better go back. Now.” But the teacher said, “Wait a moment. Listen again. Those are not simply the roars of a hungry tiger. They are the roars of a starving one. Let’s go on a bit further and see if there’s anything we might do to help.” Reluctantly the disciple agreed.
In a short time they came to the edge of a cliff. Looking down, they saw what was clearly a starving tiger; a tigress, actually, for two small cubs were trying to nurse from her. But every time they approached, the tigress roared miserably and drove them away. She was emaciated, just skin and bones, with all her ribs plainly showing. When she looked at her cubs, her eyes narrowed and seem to glaze over. It was clear that in her desperation she had begun to view them, her own children, as prey, as meat. “Quick,” said the bodhisattva to his student. “Run and see if you can find some food for this starving animal. She may be driven to eat her own cubs if she doesn’t have food soon. The karma arising from that will be terrible. I’ll wait here and do what I can to stop her from harming her cubs till you return.” The disciple ran off.
The teacher watched him go, then turned back to watch the tigers below. How pitiful, he thought, watching them. Even as the bodhisattva watched, he saw the starving tigress struggle to rise up on her front legs, hindquarters still on the ground. She tried again. And again. At last she managed to rise and, growling and drooling, tottered unsteadily toward her tiny cubs. My disciple is not going to be back with food in time to stop her now, thought the bodhisattva. But I can’t just stand idly by and let this happen. Mind is vast, totally empty, and cannot be found. This body, so much matter, is the crystallization of my own past thoughts and deeds extending back into the endless past. My deepest wish has ever been to save sentient beings. To fail to act when there is opportunity would only be a cause for regret. He removed his robe and hung it on a branch of the tree. Then, like a man preparing to simply dive into a lake, he put his hands together and leapt from the cliff. Startled by the sound of something crashing through the trees and bushes behind her, the tigress crouched down in fear, then turned to look. And saw the bloodied body of a man stretched out on the rocks at the base of the cliff. Gathering her remaining strength she lunged forward and began to feed.
When the disciple returned, apologetic and emptyhanded, he saw the teacher’s robe hanging on the tree at the cliff’s edge. He called the teacher’s name but there was no response. Fearing the worst, he went forward and looked down over the cliff’s edge. And saw the tigress feeding. With a cry, the disciple threw himself to the ground by the base of the tree and wept. At last he rose, dried his eyes, and, in awe, carried the robe as a sacred relic back to the hermitage.
Once there, he told the tale of their teacher’s sacrifice to the other disciples. Then he led them all back to the spot. There they festooned the tree with garlands of flowers. When the tigress and her cubs departed, the disciples all descended the cliff, gathered the bodhisattva’s bones, and built a jeweled stupa in which to house them.
The gods, stunned themselves by what they’d witnessed, descended to Earth where the bodhisattva’s body had been devoured and his blood shed and covered the ground with precious incense, fine sandalwood powder, and heavenly perfumes. Even now the bodhisattva’s selfless deed is remembered by those very gods, and by humans, too, who know the tale. It will never be forgotten, even as long ages pass in which high mountains and great civilizations rise and fall, never to be heard of again.
1Rafe Martin. Endless Path: Awakening Within the Buddhist Imagination: Jataka Tales, Zen Practice, and Daily Life, North Atlantic Books. 2010.
Image credit Khangsar.wordpress.com
With these words I pay homage to all buddhas, bodhisattvas, sentient beings, and the totality. May these words not confuse, bring doubt, or harm, but bring ease and warmth and an end to suffering for all beings.
Practicing in sangha, even virtually, supports the practice of meditation differently than sitting solitarily. The members of the Sangha of the Pandemic, invite you to practice with us. No experience is required. There is no cost. Everyone is welcome.
We practice on ZOOM:
- Mondays – Calm abiding and insight meditation. 6 AM Pacific Time
- Tuesdays – Body awareness. 6 AM Pacific Time
- Thursdays – Tonglen, 6 AM Pacific Time
- Sundays – Brahmavihara. 7 AM Pacific Time
- Monday and Thursday. Contemplation and meditation. 4:30 PM Pacific Time
ZOOM Link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/89989680789
Please feel free to reach out with questions or insights. Please also feel free to forward this post and invite others to join the sangha. You may find more reflections, poetry, art at sanghaofthepandemic.org . If you would like to leave comments or participate in ongoing discussions about a blog, go to the end of the individual post or click on the little green box floating on the page.