Jataka 35

Vaṭṭaka Jātaka

The Act of Truth

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

Miracles are a common theme in the Buddhist texts. This is a story about one of them.

Note again the reference to an “æon” or “kalpa,” a life of the universe.

This story does not provide a very good example of parenting skills.

With wings that do not fly.” The Master told this story while on an alms pilgrimage in Magadha. It is about the suppression of a forest fire.

Once the Master went on his morning alms round through a certain town in that country. On his return, after his meal, he went out again followed by a group of monks. Just then a great fire broke out. There were many monks both in front of the Master and behind him. The fire came on, spreading far and wide, until there was one sheet of smoke and flame.

Some unconverted samaṇa (spiritual seekers who were not followers of the Buddha) were overcome with fear. “Let us create a fire line,” they cried, “and then the big fire will not sweep over the ground we have burned.” And with this plan, they set about building a fire with their tinder sticks.

But others said, “What are you doing, brothers? It is as if you are blind to the moon in mid-heaven (an astrological reference meaning someone who is very powerful) or the sun rising brightly from the east or the sea on whose shores you stand or Mount Sineru towering before your very eyes. You are traveling with him who is peerless among devas and men alike. You do not give a thought to the All-Enlightened Buddha, but cry out, ‘Let us create a fire line!’ You do not know the might of a Buddha! Come, let us go to the Master.”

Then, gathering all the samaṇa together, they flocked around the Lord of Wisdom. At a certain spot the Master halted, with this mighty assembly of samaṇa surrounding him. On rolled the flames, roaring as though to devour them. But when they approached the spot where the Buddha stood, the fire went out like a torch plunged into water. The fire was unable to spread into a space thirty-two lengths in diameter.

The samaṇa burst into praises of the Master, saying, “Oh! How great the virtues of a Buddha are! For even this fire, though lacking consciousness, could not sweep over the spot where a Buddha stood, but went out like a torch in water. Oh! How marvelous the powers of a Buddha are!”

Hearing their words, the Master said, “It is not my power in the present, brothers, that made this fire go out on reaching this spot of ground. It is the power of a former ‘Act of Truth’ of mine. For in this spot no fire will burn throughout the whole of this æon, the miracle being one that endures for an æon.”

Then the Elder Ānanda folded a robe into four and spread it for the Master to sit on. The Master took his seat. Bowing to the Buddha as he sat cross-legged there, the brothers too seated themselves around him. Then they asked him, saying, “We only know about the present, sir. The past is hidden from us. Tell us about it.” And, at their request, he told this story of the past.

Once upon a time in this spot in Magadha, the Bodhisatta was born as a quail. When he broke out of his shell, he became a young quail, about as big as a large ball. His parents kept him lying in the nest, while they fed him with food that they brought in their beaks. He did not have the strength to either spread his wings and fly through the air or to lift his feet and walk on the ground.

That spot was ravaged every year by a forest fire, and it was just at this time that the fire swept down on it with a mighty roaring. The flocks of birds, darting from their nests, were seized with the fear of death and flew shrieking away. The father and mother of the Bodhisatta were as frightened as the others, and they also flew away, leaving the Bodhisatta behind. Lying there in the nest, the Bodhisatta stretched out his neck, and seeing the flames spreading towards him, he thought to himself, “If I had the power to fly, I could get to safety. Or, if I could move my legs and walk, I could get there on foot. But my parents, seized with the fear of death, fled away to save themselves, leaving me here alone in the world. I am without protector or helper. What, then, shall I do?”

Then he had this thought: “There is in this world the Power of Goodness and the Power of Truth. There are those who, through having realized the Perfections in past ages, have become All-Enlightened beneath the Bodhi tree. They won Release by goodness, tranquility, and wisdom. They possess wisdom of the knowledge of Release. They are filled with truth, compassion, mercy, and patience, and their love embraces all creatures alike. Men call them transcendent Buddhas. There is a power that they won.”

“I, too, grasp one truth. I hold and believe in a supreme goal. Therefore, I will call to mind the Buddhas of the past and the power they won. I will hold to the true belief in the supreme goal, and by the Power of Truth I will make the flames go back and save myself and the rest of the birds.”

Then he said:

There is saving grace in Goodness in this world.

There is truth, compassion, and the purity of life.

I will work a matchless miracle using the Power of Truth.

Remembering Faith’s might, and remembering

those who triumphed in the days gone by,

Strong in the truth, I will perform an Act of Truth.

Accordingly, the Bodhisatta, calling to mind the power of the Buddhas long since passed away, performed an Act of Truth in the name of the true faith that was in him, repeating this stanza:

With wings that do not fly, feet that do not walk,

Forsaken by my parents, here I lie!

Wherefore I call upon you, dread Lord of Fire,

Primeval Jātaveda, turn! Go back!

(Jātaveda is the god of fire.)

Even as he performed his Act of Truth, Jātaveda retreated to a space of sixteen lengths, and in going back the flames did not continue to devour everything in their path. They went out there and then, like a torch plunged in water. Therefore, it was said:

I performed my Act of Truth, and with that

The sheet of blazing fire left sixteen lengths

Unscathed, like flames met by water and quenched.

And as that spot escaped being wasted by fire throughout a whole æon, the miracle is called an “æon miracle.” When his life ended, the Bodhisatta, who had performed this Act of Truth, passed away to fare according to his karma.

The Baby Quail Turns Back the God of Fire

Figure: The Baby Quail Turns Back the God of Fire

(Indian Gods are often androgynous.)

“Thus, brothers,” the Master said, “it is not my present power but the power of an Act of Truth performed by me when a young quail that made the flames pass over this spot in the forest.” His lesson ended, he preached the Four Noble Truths, at the close of which some won the First (stream-entry), some the Second (once-returner), some the Third Path (non-returner), while others became Arahats. Also, the Master showed the connection and identified the birth by saying, “My present parents were the parents of those days, and I myself the king of the quails.”