Buddha’s Tales for Young and Old
The Buddha told this story while dwelling in
Jetavanārāma with regard to a nun who was from a good
family of Sāvatthi. One day, while listening to a sermon by
the Buddha, she admired his extreme beauty of form and
wondered whether she had ever been his wife. Immediately,
the memory of her life as ‘Little Grace’ [Cūla-subhaddā],
consort of King ‘Six Tusker’ [Chaddanta], came back to her
and she laughed from joy. But on further recollecting that
she had caused the great elephant king’s death, she burst into
sobs and wept aloud. On seeing this, the Buddha broke into a
smile. When asked by the assembly of monks why he was
smiling, the Buddha said, “Oh monks, this young nun wept
on recalling a sin she once committed against me.” And
saying this, the Buddha then told this story of the past.
[Chapter 1. Rebirth of the Bodhisatta]
Once upon a time there were 8,000 noble elephants who
were able to fly through the air whenever they wished. They
lived in the Himalayan Mountains near a lake that was 800
miles [Yojana-s] long and 800 miles wide. Since it had six
bays that were shaped like elephant tusks, it was called the
Lake of Six Tusks [Chaddanta-vāpi].
It just so happened that the king of this elephant nation
had a son. He was pure white in color, with a bright red
mouth and red feet. Even among these fantastic elephants he
was no ordinary elephant baby. This was not his first life or
his first birth. Millions of years before, he had been a
follower of a long-forgotten teaching ‘Buddha’ – a fully
‘Enlightened One’. He had wished with all his heart to
become a Buddha just like his beloved master.
He was reborn in many lives – sometimes as poor
animals, sometimes as long-living gods and sometimes as
human beings. He always tried to learn from his mistakes and
develop the ‘Ten Perfections’ [dasa-pāramitā-s]: energy,
determination, truthfulness, wholesomeness, giving up
attachment to the ordinary world, even-mindedness, wisdom,
patience, generosity, and of course – loving-kindness. This
was so he could purify his mind and remove the three root
causes of unwholesomeness [akusala-mūla-s] – craving,
anger and the delusion of a separate self – and someday
replace them with the three purities [ti-pārisuddhi-s] –
nonattachment [alobha], loving-kindness [adosa] and
This ‘Great Being’ had been a humble follower of the
forgotten Buddha. His goal was to gain the same
enlightenment of a Buddha – the experience of complete
Truth. So people call him ‘Bodhisatta’, which means
‘Enlightenment Being’. No one really knows about the
millions of lives lived by this great hero. But many stories
have been told – including this one about a magnificent
elephant. After many more rebirths, he would become the
Buddha who is remembered and loved in all the world today.
When the elephant prince grew up he reached a height
of 132 feet [Hattha-s]. He was 180 feet long from trunk to
tail. His trunk alone was 87 feet long and as bright and strong
as a silver chain. Because he happened to have six tusks he
was known as ‘Six Tusker’ [Chaddanta]. These were gigantic
– 45 feet long and 22 feet around. And they shone brilliantly
in six colors – blue, yellow, red, white, crimson and all the
first five at once. After his father died he became the new
king of the 8,000 noble elephants.
It is said that elephants are very intelligent, and these
were more so than usual. They were even wise enough that
the entire nation had come to honor and serve the 500 Silent
Buddhas [Pacceka-Buddha-s] who also lived in the
Himalayas at that time.
They were called Buddhas because they were
enlightened. This means that they no longer experienced
themselves, the ones called ‘I’ or ‘me’, as being in any way
different from all life living itself. So they were able to
experience life as it really is, in every present moment.
Being one with all life, they were filled with
compassion and sympathy for the unhappiness of all beings.
So they wished to teach and help them to be enlightened just
as they were. But the time of our story was a most
unfortunate time, a very sad time. It was a time when no one
else was able to understand the Truth [Dhamma] and
experience life as it really is. And since these Buddhas knew
this, that was why they were Silent insofar as teachings go.
[Chapter 2. Home and Family]
In the middle of the Lake of Six Tusks, for a diameter
of 192 miles it was free of all plant life and as clear, clean
and bright as a magic jewel. Around this vast open center
there grew seven circular thickets – white lilies, blue, red and
white lotuses, white and red lilies, and finally edible white
water lilies that are especially loved by elephants.
Outside the seven thickets was another circle of mixed
water lilies and lotuses. Then, in elephant-hip-deep water
there was a circle of red rice paddy at the outer edge of the
lake. Along the shore there was a thicket of different kinds of
shrubs, with delicate and sweet-smelling flowers that were
blue, yellow, red and white. That made a total of ten circular
thickets, each one extending outward for 16 miles.
Then came a circle of bean plants, followed by circles
of morning glories, cucumbers, pumpkins, squash and other
creeping plants. Then came forests of sugar cane as big as
palm trees, bananas the size of elephant tusks, Sal trees and
jackfruit trees with fruits as big as water jars. There were
forests of very sweet-tasting tamarinds and wood-apple trees.
Next was a big forest of many kinds of trees. Finally there
was a huge circle of bamboo trees.
But that was not all! Surrounding the bamboo forest
were seven encircling mountains. First was Golden Mountain
[Suva a-pabbata] – 112 miles high, then Jewel Mountain
[Ma i-passa-pabbata] – 96 miles high, Sunshine Mountain
[Sūriya-pabbata] – 80 miles high, Moon Mountain [Canda-
pabbata] – 64 miles high, Reflecting Water Mountain
[Uddaka-passa-pabbata] – 48 miles high, Big Dark Mountain
[Mahā-kāla-pabbata] – 32 miles high, and finally the outer
circle called Little Dark Mountain [Cūla-kāla-pabbata] – only
16 miles high! The highest inner Golden Mountain
surrounded the Lake of Six Tusks country like the rim of a
gigantic golden bowl, so that the light reflecting from it made
the lake shine like the young sun at dawn.
At the end of the northeast tusk of the lake stood a huge
banyan tree. Its trunk was 25 miles across and 112 miles
high, and it had 8,000 banyan roots growing down from its
branches. It was as beautiful as a mountain of jewels.
On the west side of the Lake of Six Tusks was a golden
cave extending into Golden Mountain for 192 miles. King
Six Tusker spent the spring in this cave with his entire nation
of 8,000 elephants, including his two queens. The first was
called ‘Great Grace’ [Mahā-subhaddā] and the second, ‘Little
The Elephant King spent the summer months under the
hanging roots of the huge banyan tree, enjoying the cool
breezes blowing from the Lake of Six Tusks. One day he was
informed that the great forest of Sal trees was in full bloom.
Wishing to enjoy the beautiful fragrance of the large
blossoms he went to the blooming Sal forest, followed by all
the other elephants. He just happened to bump his forehead
against one of the flower-laden trees. Queen Little Grace was
standing upwind, so the heavier twigs and leaves and biting
red ants in their little leaf houses fell on her royal body.
Queen Great Grace happened to be standing downwind, so
the lighter flower petals and sweet-smelling pollen were
blown onto her royal body.
Because of her own ignorance Queen Little Grace
misinterpreted these events. Instead of accepting the simple
fact of objects falling on her body causing minor discomfort
which passed quickly, she imagined that a self living inside
her had been insulted. To defend this self-image she
automatically and immediately got angry at the Great Being,
King Six Tusker. She thought, “He dropped dirty twigs and
leaves and red ant houses on me, but on his favorite wife, the
number one queen, he dropped lovely flower petals and
sweet pollen. I’ll get even with him!” And she tied this anger
to herself and herself to it, determined not to let it go.
A few days later the nation of 8,000 elephants went
down to bathe in the Lake of Six Tusks. Two young elephant
calves took fragrant roots of Usīra-bushes in their trunks and
respectfully washed King Six Tusker. They thoroughly
rubbed his thick elephant skin, a job as big as if they were
washing Mount Kelāsa.
When they were finished and the king came out of the
lake, they bathed the two beautiful queens in the same way.
They too left the water and stood by his side. Then the entire
nation of 8,000 elephants went into the lake, played in the
water, picked various lotuses and decorated their king and
queens with the flowers.
It just so happened that one elephant, while swimming
in the lake, saw a marvelous lotus with seven flowers one
inside the other reaching high above the water. The lucky
elephant plucked it up and offered it to King Six Tusker. He
held it in his trunk and sprinkled the sweet-smelling pollen
on his forehead. Then he gave the seven-flowered lotus to his
number one queen, Great Grace.
When she saw this, Queen Little Grace thought, “Even
this great seven-flowered lotus he gave to his more loved
one, not to me.” She used this thought to build up hatred,
which she tied to herself and herself to it, determined not to
let it go.
One day not long after, the Enlightenment Being mixed
together sweet fruits and lotus roots which he sprinkled with
lotus nectar. This he put into the alms bowls of the 500 Silent
Meanwhile, Queen Little Grace had collected many big
and little fruits which she also gave as alms to the Buddhas.
Still holding onto her hatred, she silently dedicated the
blessing of her gift to her own craving for vengeance.
Wishing with all her might she thought, “When this present
life comes to an end may I be reborn in the royal family of
the kingdom of Madda as the Princess Grace [Subhaddā].
When I grow up may I become the number one queen of the
King of Benares. Able to please his mind, may I become his
favorite so I can do whatever I want. With such power may I
speak to the king and get him to send a hunter to kill this king
of elephants with a poisoned arrow and bring me his tusks
that shine with six colors!”
From that time on she did not eat or drink. Soon she
became dehydrated and died.
[Chapter 3. The Hate-filled Queen]
Rebirth took place as Grace, daughter of the Queen of
Madda. When she grew up she married the King of Benares
and became his favorite wife, the most pleasing to his mind.
She came to be in charge of all the king’s 16,000 wives.
Remembering her previous life Queen Grace thought,
“My great wish is coming true. Now I have the power to
request the tusks of the Elephant King be brought to me!”
She rubbed medicinal oils on her skin, dressed in dirty
clothes and lay in bed as if sick.
The king began asking for his favorite queen. When
told she was ill he went to her bed, massaged her back and
said, “Oh queen whose body once glowed, why are you
grieving? Your color has paled and your large eyes have
faded. You are like a once beautiful garland that has been
She replied, “My lord, I seem to be in a nightmare with
a fantastic craving that cannot be satisfied. I fear if my wish
is not granted I must die!”
“Whatever joys and luxuries are desired in this world I
can provide,” said the king, “so tell me your wish and I will
“Great king, granting my wish will not be easy. First
summon all the hunters in your kingdom and then I will tell
my fantastic craving.”
The king left her chamber and ordered the drums be
beaten to call all the hunters. Soon they arrived, of course
bringing suitable gifts for the king. There were 60,000 of
them in all.
Sitting by an open window the king told Queen Grace,
“My dear queen, all the clever and fearless hunters, knowers
of forests and beasts, have come to me. Whatever you want
me to do for you can now be done.”
The queen addressed the crowd, “Hunters, listen to me
well. In a dream I have seen a certain pure white elephant
with six magnificent tusks. It is those tusks which I crave and
if I do not get them I will surely die!”
Some of the hunters answered her, “Neither we nor our
parents nor our grandparents ever saw or heard of such an
elephant with six tusks. Tell us please, according to your
dream, in what direction is this elephant to be found?”
Queen Grace looked at all the hunters carefully. She
saw one who had wide feet, calf muscles as big and round as
alms bowls, large knees and ribs, a thick beard and brown-
stained teeth. He was the biggest of them all and was so
covered with scars from old wounds that he was the ugliest
too. He stood out easily in the crowd. Known as ‘Top Dog’
[Sonuttara], some storytellers say this was not the first
lifetime in which he became an enemy of the Enlightenment
Being. “This big ugly one will do just fine,” thought the
With the king’s permission she took Top Dog to the top
of the seven-storied palace. She opened the northern window,
pointed towards the Himalayas and said, “There in the North,
when you have passed seven mountains you will come to a
golden cliff full of flowers that are loved by human-headed
bird beings [Kinnara-s]. Look down from the top of that
golden peak and you will see on the other side a banyan tree
as big as a green cloud, with 8,000 hanging roots. The pure
white Elephant King with six tusks is under that tree. He
cannot be conquered by anybody since he is protected by
8,000 elephants who ride on the wind to strike with their long
sharp tusks. His powerful elephant guards are angered by
even a change in the wind. If they see a man their rage blows
hot air from their trunks and turns him into ashes.”
This was enough to frighten even Top Dog. “Your
highness,” he replied, “in your royal family there is plenty of
gold, silver, pearls, lapis lazuli and precious jewels. Why do
you need the ivory from those tusks? Is it really that you
want that elephant killed? Or in truth do you aim to get me
“When I remember what that elephant did to me,” she
said, “I am filled with jealousy and it makes my heart burn
with frustration. Oh hunter, grant me the vengeance I crave
and five of the richest villages in the kingdom shall be yours!
Oh hunter my friend, I have given alms to Silent Buddhas
and dedicated the benefit to my own greatest wish – to have
that six tusker killed and keep his biggest pair of tusks for
myself. This was not a dream, but a mighty promise that must
now come to pass. By the power of that promise, go and have
Top Dog agreed, saying, “As you wish, your majesty.
Now please tell me where he lives exactly, and where he
sleeps. What road does he take to go bathing and where does
he bathe? Tell me what you can about his lifestyle.”
Remembering her previous life as an elephant she said,
“Very near the giant banyan tree there is a big lake with
crystal clear water and a beautiful bathing place. Flowers
bloom there, served by honeybees. When the Elephant King
finishes his bath his skin is as white as a pure white lotus and
he dresses in blue lotus garlands. Happily he returns home
following his beloved Queen Great Grace.”
“I will kill the king elephant,” said Top Dog, “and bring
you his tusks.” The queen was filled with joy and gave him a
thousand gold coins. She said, “Now go home and in seven
days’ time be ready to begin the journey.”
The queen summoned blacksmiths and told them, “We
need an ax, a hatchet, a shovel, a pick, a hammer, a bamboo
cutter, a grass cutter, an iron staff, a saw, an iron pole and a
grappling hook. Make them quickly and bring them to me.”
Then she called leather workers and ordered them, “We
need a bag as big and strong as a water jar, ropes and straps
strong enough to tie an elephant, sandals big enough to fit an
elephant, and a big umbrella. Make them quickly from the
strongest leather and bring them to me.”
After all these things were made and brought to the
queen, she added fire sticks and other necessities. She put
everything in the big leather bag, making it as heavy as a
huge water jar filled with water.
After the week had passed, Top Dog returned and
bowed before the queen. Having the strength of five
elephants, he tucked the heavy leather bag easily under his
arm. After taking leave of the king and queen he left the
palace, loaded up his chariot and rode out of the city. After
going through many villages and towns he crossed the border
of the kingdom of Benares. He went through vast forests and,
after sending home the crowds that followed him, he arrived
in the land where no people live.
[Chapter 4. The Hunt]
Top Dog used the grass cutter to get through a jungle of
grass, and the bamboo cutter for basil and reed thickets. After
first piercing the biggest trees with the pick, he used the ax to
chop his way through a forest. Then he made a bamboo
ladder and climbed it to the top of an impenetrable bamboo
thicket, which he crossed by using a bamboo pole that he
stretched over it.
Coming to a muddy swamp he walked over it using two
wooden planks, one after the other, over and over again.
Then he made a canoe and paddled it across a flooded area.
At last he arrived at the foot of the great circle of
mountains. He climbed by throwing the grappling hook and
leather rope up, tying the bottom to a peg he had hammered
into the mountain, and pulling himself up the rope to the
hook. Then he hammered another peg into the mountain, tied
it to the rope, pulled out the grappling hook and threw it
farther up the slope. Hitting the rope beneath him sharply he
dislodged the lower peg, gathered it in, and pulled himself up
to the hook. He repeated this over and over again until he
reached the summit.
He climbed down the other side by hammering the peg
into the mountain and tying the leather rope to it as well as to
the big leather bag. Then he sat inside the bag and lowered it
downwards – just like a spider hanging by a thread from his
cobweb. On the other hand, there were some places where he
simply grabbed hold of the big leather umbrella and used it
like a parachute to fly down like a graceful bird (or at least,
so it is said).
After climbing up and down the first six mountains, he
finally came to the innermost Golden Mountain, which just
so happened to be 112 miles high! He climbed to the top and
found Kinnara-s living there, as had been foretold by Queen
Grace. These are winged beings who look human from the
waist up and birdlike from the waist down. They are innocent
creatures who generally avoid talking with people – since
they consider them to be mostly liars.
Looking down the other side of Golden Mountain, Top
Dog saw the giant banyan tree, as big as a cloud, with its
8,000 roots hanging down. He saw too the white Elephant
King with six tusks, who could not be conquered by anyone,
guarded by 8,000 strong fighting elephants with sharp tusks
and able to fly like the wind. Nearby he saw the great lake
filled with beautiful lotuses served by millions of bees. And
he saw the path the king was accustomed to following to go
for his bath.
Urged on by the hateful desire for vengeance of the
wicked queen, he climbed down the inner cliff face of
Golden Mountain. He reached the dwelling of King Six
Tusker seven years, seven months and seven days after
Top Dog thought out his plan – “I will make a pit, hide
inside it, shoot the Elephant King and bring him to the end of
his life!” So he went into the forest, collected wood and cut
down trees to make posts.
While the elephants were bathing in the lake he dug a
pit with the shovel he had brought, hiding the dug-up dirt by
sprinkling it in the water. He set the posts in the bottom of
the pit to support planks which he covered with dirt and
brush, leaving only a hole the size of an arrow and an
entrance for himself at the far end.
At dawn he attached a false hair bun on top of his head
like Indian holy men wear. He disguised himself further by
wearing holy yellow robes. Then he hid inside the pit with
his bow and poison-tipped arrow.
When the Enlightenment Being passed by, Top Dog,
with the terrible wish to kill in his heart, shot him with the
poison arrow. The king elephant trumpeted a great cry of
pain. All the other elephants began trumpeting just as loudly
from fear. Trampling grass and trees alike into powder, the
8,000 fled in eight directions.
The king was driven by his great pain into wanting to
kill his attacker. He followed the line of flight of the arrow
and saw the hunter hiding in the pit. Then he noticed the
yellow robes, the kind worn by perfect men whom the good
would never blame.
Suddenly he said, “Whoever is stained, not having
tamed his mind, and is dishonest, is not worthy of that yellow
robe. But one who has cleaned his stains by concentrating his
mind, and is honest and wholesome, is worthy to wear the
yellow robe.” By giving this teaching to his enemy, the Great
Being blew out the fire of anger within himself. Then he
asked, “My friend, why do you want to kill me? Or were you
persuaded by another to kill me?”
Top Dog replied, “Queen Grace, favorite of the King of
Benares and respected by the royal family, saw you in a
dream. It was she who rewarded me and said, ‘I want his
tusks. Go get them and bring them to me!’”
Realizing this must be a deed of the re-born Little
Grace, the Enlightenment Being decided he must suffer the
pain of losing his tusks for her sake. And furthermore he
thought, “She doesn’t want anything to do with my tusks.
She wants me dead!”
Then he said to Top Dog, “She knows that my parents’
and grandparents’ and great grandparents’ tusks have been
saved by us here after their deaths. She specifically wants my
tusks because her hatred makes her want me dead. All right,
get started hunter – take your saw and cut off my tusks while
I still live. Then go tell the hate-filled queen the elephant died
because of them.”
With saw in hand the hunter approached. But since the
great Elephant King was 132 feet tall, appearing to be as big
as a mountain, he could not reach the tusks. Then the Great
Being lay on the ground and bowed his head.
The hunter got onto the trunk that was as bright and
strong as a silver chain. He climbed up until he stood on the
forehead just as if he had conquered the peak of holy Mount
Kelāsa. Then he climbed down the forehead, put his foot into
the mouth, stuck his knee up against the cheek and inserted
the long saw into the mouth. He began drawing the saw with
both hands. The great white elephant felt severe pain as his
mouth filled up with blood. The hunter shifted back and forth
but could not cut the mighty tusks.
Accepting the pain, Six Tusker spit out the blood and
asked, “My friend, can’t you cut it yourself?” “No, my lord,”
said the man. Still alert in his mind, he continued, “Then take
my trunk that I am now too weak to raise, and put it on the
saw.” After the hunter did so, the elephant helped him saw
off his own tusks, as easily as if they were the tender parts of
a palm tree.
Then the Great Being said, “Friend hunter, it is not
because I do not like them that I give you these tusks. And
neither is it because I wish for a superior rebirth – as Māra,
god of death, or as Sakka, king of the gods, or even as
Brahma, greatest of all gods. Instead I wish only to give the
most perfect gift possible – for the benefit of the unfortunate
queen and all other beings.”
After giving his six tusks of six colors to Top Dog he
asked, “How long did it take you to get here?” “It took me
seven years, seven months and seven days,” he replied. “Go
my friend, you may reach Benares in seven days by the
magic of these magnificent tusks!”
After Top Dog was out of sight, and before Great Grace
and the other elephants returned, the Bodhisatta died.
Then the 8,000 elephants who had fled in eight
directions returned. Along with Queen Great Grace they saw
the great corpse. They wept and cried out to the Silent
Buddhas, true friends of the Great Being, “Sirs, the one who
used to give you the Four Necessities [catu-paccaya-s] –
food, clothing, shelter and medicine – has died from a
poison-soaked arrow. Come and see his dead body.”
All 500 Silent Buddhas flew miraculously through the
air and landed at the place of death. Two strong young
elephants lifted the body of their king and made it bow down
respectfully to the Silent Buddhas. Then they burned the
body on a gigantic funeral fire. All night long the Silent
Buddhas chanted in honor of the Enlightenment Being.
The next morning the 8,000 elephants blew out the
funeral fire. Filled with grief they wept, threw dirt on their
heads, and returned to their homes following Queen Great
[Chapter 5. The Victorious Queen]
Even before the seventh day, Top Dog arrived in the
suburbs of Benares carrying the graceful tusks – beautiful
and matchless in the world, brightening the forests with their
golden radiance. He sent word ahead to the queen, “I have
killed the elephant and brought you his tusks.”
When he got to the city he went to Queen Grace and
said, “Your majesty, the elephant for whom your heart was
filled with hatred, the one you told me to find and kill, he has
indeed been killed by me. Have no doubt of the death of that
Elephant King, for here are his tusks.” And he gave them
over to her.
The tusks, which were beautiful and shining with six
colors, she received on her bejeweled fan and placed on her
lap. On seeing the tusks of her husband of a previous life she
thought, “This beautiful Elephant King was killed by me, for
on my command Top Dog killed him with a poison-soaked
arrow.” With her mind focused on the Great Being she
suffered her full measure of pain and remorse. Unable to bear
the pain of her overwhelming grief, her heart broke and she
died on that very same day.
* * *
This Jātaka story having been told, the Buddha made
the story clear by saying:
“Queen Grace is today this nun. Top Dog is today
Devadatta. And I who am today the Buddha was King Six
At the end of the Buddha’s telling of the story, many
people attained the stream entrance state of mind [sotāpatti].
And the nun, by spiritual insight, attained Arahant-ship
[sainthood] and freed herself from all future pain and rebirth.
The moral: “Ignorance breeds hatred.”
“Suffering is the first truth.”
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