Buddha’s Tales for Young and Old
[Generosity and Ingratitude]
The Buddha told this Jātaka story while he was living in
the Bamboo Grove temple with regard to Devadatta’s lack of
gratitude, and his not recognizing the Buddha’s virtues. At
the request of the monks gathered in the preaching hall, who
were discussing this topic, the Buddha told this story of the
Once upon a time the Enlightenment Being was born as
an elephant. He was wonderfully white in color, glowing like
polished silver. His feet were as smooth and bright as the
finest lacquer. His mouth was as red as the most elegant red
carpet. And his marvelous eyes were like precious jewels,
sparkling in five colors – blue, yellow, red, white and
The splendid beauty of this magnificent elephant was
the outer form of the Enlightenment Being. But this was only
a pale reflection of his inner beauty – because during many
previous lives he had filled himself with the Ten Perfections
[dasa-pāramitā-s]: energy, determination, truthfulness,
wholesomeness, giving up attachment to the ordinary world,
evenmindedness, wisdom, patience, generosity, and of course
When he became an adult, all the other elephants in the
Himalayan forests came to follow and serve him. Before long
his kingdom contained a population of 80,000 elephants.
Such a large nation was crowded and filled with distractions.
In order to live more quietly, he separated himself from the
rest and went to live alone in a secluded part of the forest.
Because of his wholesomeness and purity, which were easily
seen by everyone, he was known as the Elephant King
In the meantime, a forester from Benares traveled into
these Himalayan foothills. He was searching for things of
value he could sell back in Benares. After a while he lost his
sense of direction. He ran back and forth trying to find his
way. Soon he became exhausted and scared to death! He
began trembling and crying out loud from fear.
The Elephant King Goodness heard the sound of the
poor lost man’s frightened weeping. Immediately he was
filled with pity and compassion. Wishing to help him in any
way he could, he began walking through the forest towards
But the man was in such a big panic that, when he saw
the gigantic elephant coming towards him, he started running
away. When the wise elephant king saw this, he stopped
moving. Seeing this, the forester also stopped. Then King
Goodness began walking towards him again, the man started
running, and once again stopped when the elephant stopped.
At that point the man thought, “This noble elephant!
When I run, he stops. And when I stop, he walks towards me.
No doubt he intends me no harm – he must want to help me
instead!” Realizing this gave him the courage to stop and
As the Elephant King Goodness slowly approached, he
said, “My human friend, why are you wandering about,
crying in panic?”
“Lord elephant,” said the man, “I lost all sense of
direction, became hopelessly lost, and was afraid I would
Then the Enlightenment Being took the forester to his
own secluded dwelling place. He comforted and soothed him
by treating him to the finest fruits and nuts in all the
Himalayas. After several days he said, “My friend, don’t be
afraid. I will take you to the land where people live. Sit on
my back.” Then he began carrying him towards the land of
While riding comfortably on this glorious being, the
man thought, “Suppose people ask me where I was. I must be
able to tell everything.” So he made notes of all the
landmarks, while being carried to safety by the kind elephant
When he came out of the thick forest near the highway
to Benares, the Elephant King Goodness said, “My good
friend, take this road to Benares. Please don’t tell anyone
where I live, whether they ask you or not.” With these parting
words, the gentle elephant turned around and went back to
his safe and secret home.
The man had no trouble finding his way to Benares.
Then one day, while walking in the bazaar, he came to the
shops of the ivory carvers. They carved ivory into delicate
and beautiful statues, scenes and shapes. The forester asked
them, “Would you buy tusks that come from living
The ivory carvers replied, “What a question! Everyone
knows the tusks from a live elephant are much more valuable
than from a dead one.¹²” “Then I will bring you some live
elephant tusks,” said the forester.
Caring only for money, ignoring the safety of the
elephant king, and without any gratitude towards the one who
had saved his life – the man put a sharp saw in with his other
provisions, and set out towards the home of King Goodness.
When he arrived the elephant king asked him, “Oh my
dear human friend, what brings you back again?” Making up
a story, the greedy man said, “My lord elephant, I am a poor
man, living very humbly. As these times are very difficult for
me, I have come to beg from you just a little piece of tusk. If
you can give it to me, I will take it home and sell it. Then I
will be able to provide for myself, and survive for a while
Pitying the man, the Elephant King Goodness said, “Of
course my friend, I will give you a big piece of tusk! Did you
happen to bring a saw with you?” “Yes lord,” said the
forester, “I did bring a saw.” “All right then,” said the
generous King Goodness, “cut from both my tusks!”
As he said this, the elephant bent down on his knees
and offered up his spectacular silvery-white tusks. Without
the slightest regret, the man sawed off big pieces of ivory
from both tusks.
¹² The ivory from a live elephant is not as dried out as the
ivory from a dead
elephant, and therefore is easier to carve.
The Enlightenment Being picked up both pieces with
his trunk. He said, “Good friend, I am not giving you my
lovely tusks because I dislike them and want to get rid of
them. Nor is it because they are not valuable to me. But a
thousand times, even a hundred thousand times more lovely
and valuable are the tusks of all knowable wisdom, which
leads to the realization of all Truth [Dhamma].”
Giving the wonderful tusks to the man, it was the
elephant’s wish that his perfect generosity would eventually
lead him to the greatest wisdom.
The man went home and sold both pieces of ivory. But
it didn’t take long for him to spend all the money. So again
he returned to the Elephant King Goodness. He begged him,
“My lord, the money I got by selling your ivory was only
enough to pay off my debts. I am still a poor man, living very
humbly. Times are still hard in Benares, so please give me
the rest of your tusks, oh generous one!”
Without hesitation, the elephant king offered what was
left of his tusks. The man cut off all that he could see of
them, right down to the sockets in the elephant’s skull! He
left without a word of thanks. The wonderful kind elephant
meant no more to him than a bank account! He took the ivory
back to Benares, sold it, and squandered the money as before.
Once again the forester returned to the Himalayan home
of the Elephant King Goodness. And again he begged him,
“Oh noble elephant king, it is so very hard to make a living in
Benares. Have pity on me and let me have the rest of your
ivory – the roots of your tusks.”
Perfect generosity holds nothing back. So once again
the elephant king bent down on his knees and offered his
remaining stumps of ivory. The ungrateful betrayer did not
care at all for the elephant. He stepped onto the magnificent
trunk – like a thick silver chain. He climbed up and sat
between the pure white temples, on top of the great head –
like a snowy Himalayan dome. Then he roughly dug in with
his heels, rubbing and tearing away the tender flesh from the
stumps of the once-beautiful tusks. He used his dull worn-
down saw to cut and hack the ivory roots out of the noble
It is said there are many worlds – the hell world of
torture, the worlds of hungry ghosts, of animals and of
mankind, as well as many heaven worlds – from the lowest to
the highest. In all these worlds there are millions of beings
who, at one time or another, have been born and lived as
elephants. And some who tell this story say, that although
they knew not why, all those one-time elephants felt the pain
of the Great Being – the Elephant King Goodness.
The forester departed carrying the bloody ivory stumps.
Thinking there was no reason to see the elephant again, he
didn’t bother to show any sign of gratitude or respect.
The vast solid earth, which is strong enough to easily
support great mountains, and is able to bear the worst filth
and stench, could not bear and support this cruel man’s
enormous unwholesomeness. So, when he could no longer be
seen by the suffering elephant, the mighty earth cracked open
beneath him. Fire from the lowest hell world leaped up,
engulfed him in bright red flames, and pulled him down to
This was witnessed by a tree-dwelling spirit that lived
in the forest.¹⁴ She made the forest echo with the words, “An
ungrateful person will always be looked down on by
everyone. Never do something good for an ungrateful
person.” The tree-dwelling spirit then taught this truth: “The
more an ungrateful person gets, the more he wants. Nothing
in the world can satisfy his appetite.” The tree-dwelling
spirit made the forest echo with such teachings.
As for the Elephant King Goodness, he lived out his
life, passing on at last according to his wholesome deeds.
The Buddha identified the births in this way:
“The ungrateful forester was Devadatta. The tree-
dwelling spirit that witnessed the events of this story was
¹³ The fire of the hell [niraya] Avīci burns, but it does not consume.
¹⁴ Snakes are often figured as tree-dwelling spirits, or tree
fairies. Such an
interpretation would be a pun on the Pāli title of this story,
which could mean
either “The Story of a Virtuous Elephant” or “The Story of a Virtuous Snake”.
Sāriputta. And I who am today the Buddha was the Elephant
The moral: “The ungrateful stops at nothing, and digs his
Buddha’s Tales for Young and Old