Four on a Log – Jataka Tales

Buddha’s Tales for Young and Old
[Gratitude]
[Sacca kira-Jātaka]
The Buddha told this story while living at the Bamboo
Grove temple with regard to Devadatta’s attempts to kill him.
The Buddha said, “Oh monks, just as nowadays Devadatta
has attempted to kill me, but I have nevertheless survived, so
it was also in the past.” And the assembled monks requested
the Buddha to tell the story of the past. The Buddha told it in
this way:
Once upon a time, King Brahmadatta of Benares had a
son. He grew up to be a mean and cruel he-man – the type
that’s always trying to prove he’s tougher than everyone else.
He was a bully who constantly pushed people around and
picked fights. Whenever he spoke to people it was with a
stream of obscenities – right out of the gutter. And he was
always quick to anger – just like a hissing snake that’s just
been stepped on.
People inside and outside the palace ran from him as
they would from a starving man-eating demon. They avoided
him as they would a speck of dirt in the eye. Behind his back
everyone called him the ‘Evil Prince’ [Du hakumāra]. In
short – he was not a nice man!
One day the prince decided to go swimming. So he
went down to the river with his servants and attendants.
Suddenly it became almost as dark as night. A huge storm
came up. Being so rough and tough, the prince was always
trying to show he wasn’t scared of anything. So he yelled at
his servants, “Take me into the middle of the river and bathe
me. Then bring me back to shore.”
Following his orders, they took him out to midstream.
Then they said, “Now is our chance! Whatever we do here,
the king will never find out. So let’s kill the Evil Prince. Into
the flood you go, good-for-nothing!” With that they threw
him into the stormy raging river.
When they returned to the bank, the others asked where
the prince was. They replied, “We don’t know. As the rain
came up, he must have swum faster than us and gone back to
Benares.”
When they returned to the palace, the king asked,
“Where is my son?” They said, “We don’t know, your
majesty. When the storm came up, we thought he went back
ahead of us.” King Brahmadatta collected a search party and
began looking for the prince. They searched carefully, all the
way to the riverside, but couldn’t find him.
What had happened was this. In the darkness and wind
and rain the prince had been swept down the flooding river.
Luckily he was able to grab onto a floating dead tree trunk.
Frantically he held on for dear life. As he was being swept
along, the tough he-man was so afraid of drowning that he
cried like a terrified helpless baby!
It just so happened that, not long before, a very rich
man had died in Benares. He had buried his treasure hoard in
the riverbank, along the same stretch of river. His fortune
amounted to 40 million gold coins. Because of his miserly
craving for riches, he was reborn as a lowly snake, slithering
on his belly while still guarding his treasure.
At a nearby spot on the riverbank another rich miser
had buried a treasure of 30 million gold coins. Likewise, due
to his stingy clawing after wealth, he had been reborn as a
water rat. He too remained to guard his buried treasure.
Lo and behold, when the storm came up, both the snake
and the water rat were flooded out of their holes and washed
into the raging river. In fear of drowning, they both happened
to grab onto the same dead log carrying the frightened
wailing prince. The snake climbed up on one end and the
water rat on the other.
There also happened to be a tall cotton tree growing
nearby. There was a young parrot roosting in it. When the
storm-flooded river rose up, the cotton tree’s roots were
washed away and it fell into the water. When he tried to fly
away, the wind and rain swept the little parrot onto the same
dead log with the snake, the water rat and the Evil Prince.
Now there were four on the log, floating towards a bend
in the river. Nearby a holy man was living humbly in a little
hut. He just happened to be the Bodhisatta – the
Enlightenment Being. He had been born into a rich high-class
family in Kāsi. When he had grown up, he had given up all
his wealth and position, and had come to live by himself next
to the river.
It was the middle of the night when the holy man heard
the cries of panic coming from the Evil Prince. He thought,
“That sounds like a frightened human being. My loving-
kindness will not let me ignore him. I must save him.”
He ran down to the river and shouted, “Don’t be afraid!
I will save you!” Then he jumped into the rushing torrent,
grabbed the log, and used his great strength to pull it to shore.
He helped the prince step safely onto the riverbank.
Noticing the snake, water rat and parrot, he took them and the
man to his cozy little hut. He started up his cooking fire.
Thinking of the weakness of the animals, he gently warmed
them by the fire. When they were warm and dry he set them
aside. Then he let the prince warm himself. The holy man
brought out some fruits and nuts. Again he fed the more
helpless animals first, followed by the waiting prince.
Not surprisingly this made the Evil Prince furious! He
thought, “This stupid holy man doesn’t care at all for me, a
great royal prince. Instead he gives higher place to these three
dumb animals!” Thinking this way, he built up a vengeful
hatred against the gentle Bodhisatta.
The next day the holy man dried the deadwood log in
the sun. Then he chopped it up and burned it, to cook their
food and keep them warm. In a few days the four who had
been rescued by that same log were strong and healthy.
The snake came to the holy man to say good-bye. He
coiled his body on the ground, arched himself up, and bowed
his head respectfully. He said, “Venerable one, you have
done a great thing for me! I am grateful to you, and I am not
a poor snake. In a certain place I have a buried treasure of 40
million gold coins. And I will gladly give it to you – for all
life is priceless! Whenever you are in need of money, just
come down to the riverbank and call out, ‘Snake! Snake!’”
The water rat, too, came to the holy man to say good-
bye. He stood up on his hind legs and bowed his head
respectfully. He said, “Venerable one, you have done a great
thing for me! I am grateful to you, and I am not a poor water
rat. In a certain place I have a buried treasure of 30 million
gold coins. And I will gladly give it to you – for all life is
priceless! Whenever you are in need of money, just come
down to the riverbank and call out, ‘Rat! Rat!’”
Such grateful generosity from a snake and a water rat!
A far cry from their previous stingy human lives!
Then came the parrot to say his good-bye to the holy
man. He bowed his head respectfully and said, “Venerable
one, you have done a great thing for me! I am grateful to you,
but I possess no silver or gold. However, I am not a poor
parrot. For if you are ever in need of the finest rice, just come
down to the riverbank and call out, ‘Parrot! Parrot!’ Then I
will gather together all my relatives from all the forests of the
Himalayas and we will bring you many cartloads of the most
precious scented red rice. For all life is priceless!”
Finally the Evil Prince came to the holy man. Because
his mind was filled with the poison of vengeance, he thought
only about killing him if he ever saw him again. However,
what he said was, “Venerable one, when I become king,
please come to me and I will provide you with the Four
Necessities [catu-paccaya-s].” He returned to Benares and
soon became the new king.
In a while the holy man decided to see if the gratitude
of these four was for real. First he went down to the
riverbank and called out, “Snake! Snake!” At the sound of
the first word, the snake came out of his home under the
ground. He bowed respectfully and said, “Holy one, under
this very spot are buried 40 million gold coins. Dig them up
and take them with you!” “Very well,” said the holy man,
“when I am in need I will come again.”
Taking leave of the snake, he walked along the
riverbank and called out, “Rat! Rat!” The water rat appeared
and all went just as it had with the snake.
Next, he called out, “Parrot! Parrot!” The parrot flew
down from his treetop home, bowed respectfully and said,
“Holy one, do you need red rice? I will summon my relatives
and we will bring you the best rice in all the Himalayas.” The
holy man replied, “Very well, when I am in need I will come
again.”
Finally he set out to see the king. He walked to the
royal pleasure garden and slept there overnight. In the
morning, in a very humble and dignified manner, he went to
collect alms food in the city of Benares.
On that same morning the ungrateful king, seated on a
magnificently adorned royal elephant, was leading a vast
procession around the city. When he saw the Enlightenment
Being coming from a distance he thought, “Aha! This lazy
homeless bum is coming to sponge off me. Before he can
brag to everyone how much he did for me, I must have him
beheaded!”
Then he said to his servants, “This worthless beggar
must be coming to ask for something. Don’t let the good-for-
nothing get near me. Arrest him immediately, tie his hands
behind his back, and whip him at every street corner. Take
him out of the city to the execution block and cut off his
head. Then raise up his body on a sharpened stake and leave
it for all to see. So much for lazy beggars!”
The king’s men followed his cruel orders. They tied up
the blameless Great Being [Bodhisatta] like a common
criminal. They whipped him mercilessly at every street
corner on the way to the execution block. But no matter how
hard they whipped him, cutting into his flesh, he remained
dignified. After each whipping he simply announced, for all
to hear: “This proves the old saying is still true – ‘There’s
more reward in pulling deadwood from a river, than in
helping an ungrateful man!’”
Some of the bystanders began to wonder why he said
only this at each street corner. They said to each other, “This
poor man’s pain must be caused by an ungrateful man.” So
they asked him, “Oh holy man, have you done some service
to an ungrateful man?”
Then he told them the whole story. And in conclusion
he said, “I rescued this king from a terrible flood, and in so
doing I brought this pain upon myself. I did not follow the
saying of the wise of old, that’s why I said what I said.”
Hearing this story, the people of Benares became
enraged and said to each other, “This good man saved the
king’s life. But he is so cruel that he has no gratitude in him
at all. How could such a king possibly benefit us? He can
only be dangerous to us. Let’s get him!”
Their rage turned the citizens of Benares into a mob.
They pelted the king with arrows, knives, clubs and stones.
He died while still sitting on the royal elephant. Then they
threw the dead body of the one-time Evil Prince into a ditch
by the side of the road.
Afterwards they made the holy man their new king. He
ruled Benares well. Then one day he decided to go see his old
friends. So he rode in a large procession down to the
riverbank.
He called out, “Snake! Snake!” The snake came out,
offered his respect and said, “My lord, if you wish it, you are
welcome to my treasure.” The king ordered his servants to
dig up the 40 million gold coins.
He went to the water rat’s home and called out, “Rat!
Rat!” He too appeared, offered his respect and said, “My
lord, if you wish it, you are welcome to my treasure.” This
time the king’s servants dug up 30 million gold coins.
Then the king called out “Parrot! Parrot!” The parrot
flew to the king, bowed respectfully and said, “If you wish,
my lord, I will collect the most excellent red rice for you.”
But the holy man king said, “Not now my friend. When rice
is needed I will request it of you. Now let us all return to the
city.”
After they arrived at the royal palace in Benares, the
king had the 70 million gold coins put under guard in a safe
place. He had a golden bowl made for the grateful snake’s
new home. He had a maze made of the finest crystals for the
generous rat to live in. And the kind parrot moved into a
golden cage, with a gate he could latch and unlatch from the
inside.
Every day the king gave rice puffs and the sweetest
bee’s honey on golden plates to the snake and the parrot. And
on another golden plate he gave the most aromatic scented
rice to the water rat.
The king became famous for his generosity to the poor.
He and his three animal friends lived together in perfect
harmony for many years. When they died, they were all
reborn as they deserved.
The Buddha then identified the births, saying:
“Devadatta was Du hakumāra in the past. Sāriputta
was the snake. Moggallāna was the water rat. Ānanda was
the parrot. And the holy man who became the righteous king
was I, myself, who have become the Buddha.”
The moral: “Gratitude is a reward, which is itself rewarded.”