Jataka 36

Sakuṇa Jātaka

The Unsuitable Tree

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 practicality. Many meditation teachers push and push and push, and this is not always the proper approach. You must learn to use good judgment. Just as weightlifters learned many years ago that you get stronger if you lift every other day rather than every day, meditators must learn to proceed in a skillful and wise manner. Of course, the path requires dedication, but if you push too hard you may actually regress.

Citizens of the air.” This story was told by the Master while at Jetavana. It is about a monk whose hut burned down.

Tradition says that a monk, having been given a theme for meditation by the Master, went from Jetavana to the land of Kosala. He lived there in a hut in a forest near a village. Now, during the very first month of his living there, his hut burned down. He told this to the villagers, saying, “My hut burned down. I live in discomfort.” They responded, “The land is suffering from drought just now. We’ll take care of when we have irrigated the fields.”

When the irrigation was over, they said they must sow the seeds first. When they were done sowing the seeds, they had fences to build. When the fences were built, they had to do the weeding and the reaping and the threshing. With one job following after another, three months went by.

After three months spent in the open air in discomfort, that monk had developed his theme for meditation but he could get no further. So, after the Pavāraṇā festival which ends the Rainy Season, he went back again to the Master. With due salutation, he sat down next to him. After kindly words of greeting, the Master said, “Well, brother, have you lived happily through the Rainy Season? Did your theme for meditation end in success?” The monk told him what had happened, adding, “Because I did not have a suitable place to live, my theme did not end in success.”

The Master said, “In bygone times, brother, even animals knew what suited them and what did not. How is it that you did not know?” And so saying, he told this story of the past.

Once upon a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta was born as a bird. He lived in a giant tree with branching boughs at the head of a company of birds. Now one day, as the boughs of this tree were rubbing one against each other, dust began to fall. This was soon followed by smoke. When the Bodhisatta saw this, he thought to himself, “If these two boughs go on rubbing up against each other like this, they will catch fire. The fire will catch hold of the old leaves, and then the whole tree will catch fire as well. We cannot live here. The proper thing to do is to go somewhere else.” And he repeated this stanza to the company of birds:

Citizens of the air, that in these boughs

Have sought a place to live, see the seeds of fire

This earthborn tree is breeding! Seek safety

In flight! Our trusted stronghold harbors death!

The wiser birds followed the Bodhisatta’s advice and rose up in the air at once and went to live elsewhere. But the foolish ones said, “It is always like this with him. He is always seeing crocodiles in a drop of water.” And so, not heeding the Bodhisatta’s words, they stayed where they were. In a very short time, just as the Bodhisatta had predicted, flames broke out, and the tree caught fire. When the smoke and flame arose, the birds were blinded by the smoke, and they were unable to get away. One by one they dropped into the flames and were destroyed.

The Foolish Birds

Figure: The Foolish Birds

“Thus, brothers,” the Master said, “in bygone times even animals who were living in the treetop knew what suited them and what did not. How is it that you did not know?” His lesson ended, he preached the Four Noble Truths at the close of which that monk won the Fruit of the First Path (stream-entry). Then the Master showed the connection and identified the birth by saying, “The Buddha’s disciples were the birds who listened to the Bodhisatta, and I myself was the wise and good bird.”