While he was on tour through Magadha, Buddha told this story about the extinguishing of a forest fire.
One day, Buddha went on his morning round for alms through a hamlet in Magadha. After finishing his meal, he went out again accompanied by a large group of bhikkhus. Some monks walked ahead of Buddha, and some walked behind him. While they were on their way, a great forest fire broke out, raging fiercely and spreading rapidly, until the jungle was a roaring wall of flames and smoke.
Those monks who had not yet made attainments were terrified with the fear of death. “Let us set a counter fire so the jungle fire cannot reach us over the ground we have burned,” they cried, and immediately started to kindle a fire.
“What are you doing?” asked the other monks. “You are blind to the sun rising in front of your eyes. Here you are, journeying along with Buddha who is without equal, but still you cry, ‘Let us make a counter fire!’ You do not know the might of a Buddha! Come with us to the Teacher.”
All the monks gathered around Buddha who had halted as soon as he had seen the flames. The blaze whirled and roared as if to devour them. Suddenly, however, when the fire was exactly sixteen lengths from the spot where Buddha stood, the flames went out like a torch plunged into water, extinguished and completely harmless.
The monks burst into praises of Buddha, “Oh, how great are the virtues of the Teacher! Even fire can not singe the spot where Buddha stands!”
“It is no present power of mine,” Buddha told them, “that makes the fire go out as soon as it reaches this spot. It is the power of a former Act of Truth of mine. No fire will ever burn this spot during the whole of this world age. This is one of the miracles which will last until the end of this era.”
The Elder Ananda then folded a robe in fourths and laid it down for Buddha to sit on. After he had taken his seat, the monks bowed to him and seated themselves respectfully around him. “Only the present is known to us, Sir. The past is hidden,” they said. “Please make it clear to us.” At their request, the Buddha told this story of the past.
Long, long ago in this very spot the Bodhisatta was reborn as a quail. Every day, his parents fed him with food which they brought in their beaks, since he was still was confined to the nest and unable to forage on his own. The baby quail did not even have the strength yet to stand on his feet to walk about, much less to spread his wings and fly.
One day, a great jungle fire broke out. (At that time also, this area of Magadha was ravaged by fire every year in the dry season.) As the flames swept through the grass and the forest, birds and animals fled for their lives. The air was filled with the shrieking of adult birds flying away from their nests. The parents of this young bird were as frightened as the others and abandoned their helpless offspring to his fate. Lying there in the nest, the little quail stretched his neck to see what was happening. When he saw the flames coming toward him, he thought to himself, “My parents, fearing death, have fled to save themselves, leaving me here completely alone. I am without protector or helper. Had I the power to take to my wings, I too would fly to safety. If I could use my legs, I would run away. What can I do?”
“In this world,” he thought further, “there exists the Power of Goodness and the Power of Truth. There are beings who, having realized all the Perfections in previous lives, have attained enlightenment beneath the Bodhi tree. They have become Buddhas, filled with truth, compassion, mercy, and patience. There is power in the attributes they have won. Although I am very young and very weak, I can grasp one truth that is the single principle in Nature. As I call to mind the Buddhas of the past and the power of their attributes, let me perform an Act of Truth.”
The little quail concentrated his mind by recalling the power of the Buddhas long since passed away and declared, “With wings that cannot fly and legs that cannot yet walk, forsaken by my parents, here I lie. By this truth and by the faith that is in me, I call on you, O dreadful Fire, to turn back, harming neither me nor any of the other birds!”
At that instant, the fire retreated sixteen lengths and went out like a torch plunged in water, leaving a circle thirty-two lengths in diameter around the baby quail perfectly unscathed.
From that time on, that very spot has escaped being touched by fire, and so it will continue to be throughout this entire era. When his life ended, the quail who had performed this Act of Truth, passed away to fare according to his deserts.
“Thus monks,” said the Master, “it is not my present power but the efficacy of that Act of Truth performed by me as a young quail, that has made the flames spare this spot in the jungle.”
At the end of his lesson Buddha preached the Truths. Some of the monks who heard attained the First path, some the Second, some the Third, and some became Arahats. Then Buddha showed the connection and identified the Birth by saying, “My present parents were the parents of those days, and I myself the little quail who became king of the quails.”