Jataka 33

Sammodamāna Jātaka

The Sad Quarrel of the Quails

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

There are a couple of interesting moments in this story. First, when the quail hunter sees what the birds are doing, he doesn’t flinch. He assumes that sooner or later the harmony that enables the birds to outwit him will not last. He seems to have a pretty good idea about the nature of the quails in that community.

The second interesting moment is when the Bodhisatta sees the dispute, and he simply leaves. This is a common theme in the Buddha’s teaching. The hardest thing to do when there is a problem is nothing, but that is often the best choice. The Bodhisatta has enough discernment to see that there is nothing to be done. This couples the qualities of discernment (wisdom) and equanimity. We often do harm by trying to intervene when it is inappropriate. The reason that we do this is the impulse to act. We need equanimity to calm these impulses, and we also need wisdom to see what actions are skillful and which ones are not.

While harmony reigns.” This story was told by the Master while living in the Banyan Grove near Kapilavatthu. It is about a squabble over a head scarf, as will be related in the Kuṇāla Jātaka (Jātaka 536).

On this occasion, however, the Master said this to some royal kinsfolk: “My lords, strife among kinsfolk is unseemly. Yes, in bygone times, animals, who had defeated their enemies when they lived in harmony, came to utter destruction when they argued.” And at the request of his royal kinsfolk, he told this story of the past.

Once upon a time when Brahmadatta was king of Benares, the Bodhisatta was born as a quail, and he lived in the forest at the head of many thousands of quails. In those days there was a fowler who caught quails who came to that place. He used to imitate the song of a quail until he saw that the birds had gathered together. Then he would throw his net over them and lash the sides of the net together to trap them. Then he crammed them into a basket and went home to sell his prey for a living.

Now one day the Bodhisatta said to the quails, “This fowler is creating havoc among our kinsfolk. I know a way to make it impossible for him to catch us. When he throws the net over you, everyone should put his head through the mesh, and then all of you must fly away together with the net and land on some thorn bushes. Once in the thorn bushes you can each escape from the net.”

“Very good,” they said, and they all nodded in agreement.

The next day, when the net was cast over them, they did just as the Bodhisatta had told them. They lifted up the net, flew off, and landed in some thorn bushes. Then they escaped from underneath the net. The fowler eventually found his net, and while he was still disentangling it, evening came on, and he went away empty-handed.

On the next day and following days the quails played the same trick. So it became the regular thing for the fowler to be engaged until sunset disentangling his net, and then to go home empty-handed. His wife grew angry and said, “Every day you come home empty-handed. I suppose you’ve got a second house somewhere to keep up!”

“No, my dear,” the fowler said. “I do not have a second home to keep up. The fact is those quails have figured out how to work together. The moment my net is over them, they fly off with it and escape. Then they leave it in some thorn bushes. But I know that they won’t continue to cooperate. Don’t worry. As soon as they start arguing among themselves, I will bag the lot of them, and that will bring a smile to your face.” And so saying, he repeated this stanza to his wife:

While harmony reigns, the birds carry off the net.

When quarrels arise, they’ll fall a prey to me.

Not long after this, one of the quails landed accidentally on another quail’s head. “Who landed on my head?” this quail cried angrily. “I did, but I didn’t mean to. Don’t be angry,” said the first quail. But despite this answer, the other quail remained angry. They began to taunt each other, saying, “I suppose it is you who single-handedly lifts up the net!” As they argued with one another, the Bodhisatta thought to himself, “There is no safety with one who is quarrelsome. The time has come when they will no longer lift up the net, and as a result they will come to destruction. The fowler will get his opportunity. I can stay here no longer.” And with that he with his following went elsewhere.

Oh, Those Quarreling Quail!

Figure: Oh, Those Quarreling Quail!

Sure enough the fowler came back a few days later. He lured them by singing their song and then threw his net over them. Then one quail said, “They say that when you lifted the net all by yourself, the hair on your head came off. Now is your time. Lift away!” The other responded, “When you were lifting the net, they say both your wings molted. Now is your time. Lift away.”

But while they were needling each other to lift the net, the fowler himself lifted the net for them. He crammed them into his basket and took them home. And his wife’s face was wreathed with smiles.

“Thus, sires,” the Master said, “quarreling among kinsfolk is unseemly. Quarrelling only leads to destruction.” His lesson ended, he showed the connection and identified the birth by saying, “Devadatta was the foolish quail of those days, and I myself the wise and good quail.”