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Jataka 1

Apaṇṇaka Jātaka

The True Dharma

as told by Eric Van Horn

originally translated by Robert Chalmers, B.A., of Oriel College, Oxford University

originally edited by Professor Edward Byles Cowell, Cambridge University


This is a story about wisdom. The Pāli word is “pañña” and the Sanskrit word is “prajñā.” Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu prefers to translate this as “discernment.” It is not some thing that one obtains. It is an active quality, the ability to make good choices in the moment. Notice how in this story the wise merchant is able to observe the situation, analyze it, and make skillful decisions. Conversely, the foolish merchant is motivated by greed and ignorance.

In Buddhist practice, the Dharma provides the basis for making wise choices, and the practice of meditation develops the skill to see what is going on in the mind. The ability to develop this inner observer allows the practitioner to see defilements in the mind so that they do not inhibit good decision making. Likewise, the cultivation of good qualities supports the ability to make wise decisions.


The Blessed One told this story about the Dharma while he was staying in the Great Monastery at Jetavana near Sāvatthi. But what, you might ask, was it that led up to this tale?

It was 500 friends of the Buddha’s great lay disciple Anāthapiṇḍika. They were followers of other religious leaders.

One day Anāthapiṇḍika took his 500 friends to Jetavana, and he also brought garlands, perfumes, and ointments, together with oil, honey, molasses, cloths, and cloaks. After paying homage to the Blessed One, he gave his gifts to the Saṇgha and sat down to the side. Likewise, the disciples of other schools saluted the Buddha and took their seats close by the side of Anāthapiṇḍika. They gazed upon the Master's countenance, glorious as the full moon, upon his excellent presence endowed with the signs and marks of Buddhahood and surrounded to a height of six feet with light, and upon the rich glory that marks a Buddha, a glory that issued as it were in paired garlands, pair upon pair.

Then, in the thunderous tones of a young lion roaring in the Red Valley, or as of a storm cloud in the rainy season, bringing down as it were the Ganges of the Heavens (i.e. the Milky Way) and seeming to weave a garland of jewels, yet in a voice of perfection, the charm of which ravished the ear, he preached to them the Dharma in a discourse full of sweetness and bright with varied beauty.

After hearing the Master’s discourse, they rose up with hearts converted, and with due salutation to the Lord of Knowledge, they renounced the other doctrines in which they had taken refuge and went to to the Buddha as their refuge. After that they always went to the monastery with Anāthapiṇḍika, carrying in their hands perfumes and garlands and the like, to hear the Dharma. They gave generously, kept the Five Precepts, and kept the weekly fast-day.

Subsequently the Blessed One left Sāvatthi and went back to Rājagaha. As soon as the Buddha left, they renounced their new faith, returned to the other doctrines, and reverted to their original state.

After he had been in Rājagaha for seven or eight months, the Blessed One went back to Jetavana. Once again Anāthapiṇḍika came with his friends to the Master, saluted him, offered perfumes and the like, and took his seat on one side. The friends also saluted the Blessed One and took their seats. Then Anāthapiṇḍika told the Blessed One how, after the Buddha left on his alms-pilgrimage, his friends had forsaken their refuge for the old doctrines and had reverted to their original state.

Opening the lotus of his mouth as though it were a casket of jewels scented with divine perfumes, the Blessed One made his sweet voice come forth as he asked, “Is it true that you, disciples, have forsaken the Three Refuges (i.e., the Buddha, Dharma and Saṇgha, also the Three Gems) for the refuge of other doctrines?”

Unable to conceal the truth, they confessed, saying, “It is true, Blessed One.” Then the Master said, “Disciples, not between the bounds of hell below and the highest heaven above, not in all the infinite worlds that stretch right and left is there the equal, much less the superior, of the great rewards that spring from following the Five Precepts and from other virtuous conduct.”

Then he declared the excellence of the Three Gems as they are revealed in the sacred texts. “Of all creatures, no matter what their form, of these the Buddha is the chief.” Then he went on to say, “No disciples, male or female, who seek refuge in the Three Gems, that are endowed with such peerless excellences, are ever reborn into hell and other painful states. Released from all rebirth into states of suffering, they pass to the Realm of Devas and there they receive great glory. Therefore, in forsaking such a refuge for that offered by other doctrines, you have gone astray.”

But the Master did not end his teaching at this point. He went on to say, “Disciples, meditation on the thought of the Buddha, meditation on the thought of the Dharma, meditation on the thought of the Saṇgha gives entry to and fruition of the First, the Second, the Third, and the Fourth Paths to Bliss.” (i.e. the four stages of awakening: stream-entry, once return, non-return, and arahant.) And when he had preached the Dharma to them in these and other ways, he said, “In forsaking such a refuge as this, you have gone astray.”

When he had exhorted the disciples, the Blessed One said, “So too in times past, disciples, the people who jumped to the conclusion that what was no refuge was a real refuge, fell prey to goblins in a demon-haunted wilderness and were utterly destroyed, while the people who adhered to the absolute and indisputable truth, prospered in the same wilderness.” And when he had said this, he became silent.

Then, rising up from his seat and saluting the Blessed One, Anāthapiṇḍika burst into praises. With clasped hands raised in reverence to his forehead, he said, “It is clear to us, sir, that in these present days these disciples were led by error into forsaking the supreme refuge. But the bygone destruction of those opinionated ones in the demon-haunted wilderness and the prospering of the men who adhered to the truth, are hidden from us and known only to you. May it please the Blessed One, as though causing the full moon to rise in the sky, to tell us the story of what happened.”

Then the Blessed One said, “It was only by brushing away the world's difficulties and practicing the Ten Perfections (generosity, virtue, renunciation, wisdom, effort, patience, honesty, determination, loving-kindness, and equanimity) through many eons that I became a Buddha. Now listen as closely as if you were pouring pure liquid gold into a fine mold.”

Having excited Anāthapiṇḍika’s attention, he made clear the thing that re-birth had concealed from them, as though he were releasing the full moon from the upper air, the birthplace of the snows.


Once upon a time in the city of Benares in the Kāsi country there was a king named Brahmadatta. In those days, the Bodhisatta (Buddha in a previous life) was born into a merchant’s family. When he grew up, he used to journey about trading with 500 carts, travelling first from east to west and then from west to east. There was also another young merchant at Benares, and he was very foolish.

Now at the time of our story, the Bodhisatta had loaded 500 carts with valuable merchandise from Benares and had them ready to depart. The foolish young merchant had done so as well. The Bodhisatta thought, “If this foolish young merchant travels with me and the 1,000 carts travel along together, it will be too much for the road. It will be very hard to get wood, water, and food for the men or grass for the oxen. Either he must go first, or I must go first.”

So he went to the other merchant and said, “The two of us can't travel together. Would you rather go first or last?” The foolish merchant thought, “There will be many advantages if I go first. I will have a road that is not yet cut up. My oxen will have the pick of the grass. My men will have the pick of the herbs for curry. The water will be undisturbed. And lastly, I shall fix my own price for selling my goods.” So he replied, “I will go first, my dear sir.”

The Bodhisatta saw many advantages in going last. He thought, “Whoever goes first will level the road where it is rough, while I will travel along the road they have already travelled. Their oxen will have grazed off the coarse old grass, while mine will eat the sweet young growth that will spring up in its place. My men will find a fresh growth of sweet herbs for curry where the old ones have been picked. Where there is no water, the first caravan will have to dig to supply themselves, and we will drink at the wells they dug. Finally, haggling over prices is hard work, whereas I will sell my merchandise at the prices they have already fixed.” Seeing all these advantages, he said to the other merchant, “Then you go first, my dear sir.”

“Very well, I will,” said the foolish merchant, and he yoked his carts and set out. Traveling along, he left human habitations behind him and came to the outskirts of the wilderness. Now there are five kinds of wildernesses: robber wildernesses, wild beast wildernesses, drought wildernesses, demon wildernesses, and famine wildernesses. The first is when the way is beset by robbers. The second is when the way is beset by lions and other wild beasts. The third is when there is no bathing or water to be got. The fourth is when the road is beset by demons. And the fifth is when no food are to be found. The wilderness in this case was both a drought wilderness and a demon wilderness.

The young merchant took great big water jars on his carts, and he set out to cross the ninety miles of desert that lay before him. When he reached the middle of the wilderness, the goblin who haunted it said to himself, “I will make these men throw away their water, and then I will kill them all when they are weak and we will eat them.” So he used his magic power to make a beautiful carriage drawn by pure white young bulls appear. With some ten or twelve goblins bearing bows and quivers, swords and shields, he rode along to meet them like a mighty lord in this carriage. He had blue lotuses and white water-lilies wreathed round his head, and he had wet hair and wet clothes. His carriage wheels were wet and muddy. His attendants, too, in front and rear of him went along with their hair and clothes wet, with garlands of blue lotuses and white water-lilies on their heads, and with bunches of white lotuses in their hands. They chewed tasty stalks that were dripping with water.

At that time, it was the custom for caravan leaders to ride in front in their carriage with their attendants around them whenever the wind blew in their face. This was so they could escape the dust. But when the wind blew from behind them, they rode in the rear of the column. On this occasion, the wind was blowing against them, so the young merchant was riding in front.

When the goblin saw the merchant approach, he drew his carriage to the side of the road and greeted him kindly and asked him where he was going. Likewise, the merchant of the caravan drew his carriage to the side of the road to let the other carts pass by, while he stayed behind to talk to the goblin. “We are just on our way from Benares, sir,” he said. “But I see that you have lotuses and water-lilies on your heads and in your hands, and that your people are chewing tasty stalks, and that you are all muddy and dripping with water. Did it rain while you were on the road, and did you come on pools covered with lotuses and water-lilies?”

The goblin exclaimed, “What did you say? Why, just over there is a dark green forest, and after that there is nothing but water all through the forest. It is always raining there. The pools are full and there are lakes covered with lotuses and water-lilies.”

Then as the line of carts passed by, he asked where they were going. The young merchant told him.

“And what goods do you have in your carts?”

The young merchant told him.

“And what do you have in this last cart? It seems to move as if it has a heavy load.”

“Oh, there's water in that.”

“You did well to carry water with you from the other side. But there is no need for it now. Water is abundant up ahead. You can break the jars and throw the water away. You won’t need them and you will travel more easily.” Then he added, “Now continue on your way. We have stopped here too long already.” Then he went a little way further on until he was out of sight, and then he made his way back to the goblin-city where he lived.

foolish merchant

Figure: The Foolish Merchant

As you can probably guess, that foolish merchant did exactly as the goblin said. He broke his water jars and threw away all of his water. He did not save even enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Then he ordered the carts to drive on.

And of course, he did not find a drop of water. The men became exhausted from thirst. All day long they kept moving until the sun went down. At sunset they unyoked their carts and made camp, tying the oxen to the wheels. The oxen had no water to drink, and the men had none with which to cook their rice. The tired-out band sank to the ground to sleep. But as soon as night fell, the goblins came out from their city and killed every single one of those men and oxen. And when they had eaten their flesh, leaving only the bare bones, the goblins left. Thus the foolish young merchant was the sole cause of the destruction of that entire caravan. Their skeletons were strewn in every conceivable direction, while the 500 carts stood there with their loads untouched.

Now the Bodhisatta allowed six weeks to pass before he set out. He left the city with his 500 carts, and in due course came to the outskirts of the wilderness. Here he had his water jars filled, and he laid in an ample stock of water. He assembled his men in camp and said, “Let not so much as a handful of water be used without my approval. There are poison trees in this wilderness, so no one should eat any leaf, flower, or fruit that he has not eaten before without first asking me.” He then went into the wilderness with his 500 carts. When he reached the middle of the wilderness, the goblin showed up again. But, as soon as he became aware of the goblin, the Bodhisatta saw through him. He thought to himself, “There's no water here in this ‘Waterless Desert.’ This person with his red eyes and aggressive bearing casts no shadow. He has probably talked the foolish young merchant into throwing away all his water. Then he waited until they were worn out, and killed the merchant and his men. But he doesn't know my cleverness and intelligence.” He shouted to the goblin, “Be gone! We're men of business, and we do not throw away what water we have got before we see where more is to come from. But, when we do see more, we will throw this water away and lighten our carts.”

The goblin rode on a bit further until he was out of sight, and then he went back to his home in the demon city. But when the goblin had gone, the Bodhisatta's men said to him, “Sir, we heard from those men that over there is the dark green forest where they said it was always raining. They had lotuses on their heads and water-lilies in their hands and were eating tasty wet stalks. Their clothes and hair were wringing wet. Water was streaming off of them. Let us throw away our water and get on a more quickly with lightened carts.”

On hearing this the Bodhisatta ordered a halt and gathered all the men. “Tell me,” he said, “Did anyone among you ever hear before today that there was a lake or a pool in this wilderness?”

“No, sir,” they answered. “It’s known as ‘the Waterless Desert.’”

“We have just been told by some people that it is raining just on ahead, in the belt of forest. Now how far does a rain-wind carry?”

“Three or four miles, sir.”

“And has this rain-wind reached any one man here?”

“No, sir.”

“How far off can you see the crest of a storm-cloud?”

“Three or four miles, sir.”

“And has any one man here seen the top of even a single storm-cloud?”

“No, sir.”

“How far off can you see a flash of lightning?”

“Twelve or fifteen miles, sir.”

“And has any one man here seen a flash of lightning?”

“No, sir.”

“How far off can a man hear a peal of thunder?”

“About six to ten miles, sir.”

“And has any man here heard a peal of thunder?”

“No, sir.”

“These are not men but goblins. They will return in the hope of attacking us when we are weak and faint after throwing away our water. As the young merchant who went on before us was not a wise man, most likely he was fooled into throwing away his water and was killed when they were exhausted. We may expect to find his 500 carts standing just as they were loaded for the start. We will come on them today. Continue on with all possible speed without throwing away a drop of water.”

Urging his men forward with these words, he proceeded on his way until he came upon the 500 carts standing just as they had been loaded. The skeletons of the men and oxen were strewn about in every direction. He had his carts unyoked and arranged in a circle to form a fortified camp. He saw that his men and oxen had their supper early, and that the oxen were made to lie down in the middle with the men around them. He himself along with the leading men of his band stood guard, swords in hand through the three watches of the night, waiting for the day to dawn.

The next day at daybreak, after he had fed the oxen and all the necessary preparations were done, he discarded his own weak carts for stronger ones. He exchanged his own common goods for the most valuable of the abandoned goods. Then he went on to his destination where he bartered his stock for wares of two or three times their value. He came back to his own city without losing a single man out of all his company.


The story having ended, the Master said, “Thus it was, layman, that in past times the fatuous came to utter destruction, while those who stuck to the truth escaped from the demons’ hands. They reached their goal in safety and came back to their homes again.” And having linked the two stories together, the Buddha spoke the following stanza for the purposes of this lesson on the Dharma:

Then some declared the only, the peerless Dharma,

But otherwise the false prophet spoke.

Let a person who is wise learn from this lesson,

And firmly grasp the only, the peerless Dharma.

Thus did the Blessed One teach this lesson about respecting the Dharma. And he went on to say, “What is called walking by truth not only bestows the three happy endowments, the six heavens of the realms of sense, and the endowments of the higher Realm of Brahma, it finally leads to Arahatship. While what is called walking by untruth entails re-birth in the four states of punishment or in the lowest castes of mankind.”

Further, the Master went on to expound in sixteen ways the Four Truths (i.e. The Four Noble Truths) at the close of which all those 500 disciples were established in the Fruit of the First Path (stream-entry).

Having delivered his lesson and his teaching, and having told the two stories and established the connection linking them together, the Master concluded by identifying the story as follows, “Devadatta was the foolish young merchant. of those days. His followers were the followers of that merchant. The followers of the Buddha were the followers of the wise merchant, who was myself.”

(Devadatta was a monk and the Buddha’s cousin. He conspired to take over the Saṇgha and even tried to kill the Buddha.)