Jataka 37

Tittira Jātaka

The Harmonious Friends

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 respect for elders. This is not a popular theme in the West. It seems a little arbitrary, respecting someone just because they are older. But if you grow up in a culture that respects older people, it tends to work both ways. Young people respect their seniors, and seniors are expected to behave in a way that is worthy of respect. This point is made at the end of the story, where the partridge agrees to give wise advice in return for being given reverence.

A technical note is that in the Saṇgha, a nun or a monk’s age is based on how many rains retreats they have had, not on their age. So a monk who is 60 years old but has only had one rains retreat is junior to someone who is 30 years old but has been to 10 of them.

This use of seniority comes from Sakyan Law. This is the law that the Buddha learned when he was growing up when his father was the raja of Sakya.

They who honor age.” This story was told by the Master while on his way to Sāvatthi. It is about how the Elder Sāriputta was kept out of a night’s lodging.

When Anāthapiṇḍika finished building his monastery and sent word that it was complete, the Master left Rājagaha and went to Vesālī. He then set out again at his pleasure. The Six disciples (the misbehaving monks we met in Jataka 28) hurried on ahead, and before quarters could be set aside for the Elders, they took all of the available lodgings. They distributed these among their superiors, their teachers, and themselves. When the Elders came up later, there was no place for them to stay during the night. Even Sāriputta’s disciples, for all their searching, could not find lodgings for the Elder. Being without shelter, Sāriputta spent the night at the foot of a tree near the Master’s quarters, either walking up and down or sitting at the foot of the tree.

At early dawn the Master coughed as he came out. The Elder coughed too. “Who is that?” the Master asked.

“It is I, Sāriputta, sir.”

“What are you doing here at this hour, Sāriputta?” Then the Elder told his story, at the close of which the Master thought, “Even now, while I am still alive, the monks lack courtesy and respect. What will they not do when I am dead and gone?” That thought filled him with concern for the preservation of the Dharma.

As soon as day broke, he assembled the monks and asked them, “Is it true, brothers, that the followers of the Six went on ahead and kept the Elders among the Saṇgha out of lodgings for the night?”

“That is so, Blessed One,” they replied.

With a reproof to the followers of the Six and as a lesson to all, he addressed the Saṇgha and said, “Tell me, who deserves the best lodging, the best water, and the best rice, brothers?”

Some answered, “Someone who was a nobleman before he became a monk.” Others said, “Someone who was originally a brahmin, or a man of means.” Others said, “The man versed in the Rules of the Order, the man who can expound the Law, or the men who have attained the first, second, third, or fourth jhāna.” Others said, “The man who has attained the First, Second, or Third stage of awakening, or an Arahat, or one who knows the Three Great Truths (that all conditioned things are impermanent, that this leads to suffering, and this makes conditioned existence imperfect and undesirable), or one who has the Six Higher Knowledges (also called the six supernormal powers: magical powers, the divine ear, reading the minds of others, knowledge of former existences, the divine eye, and the destruction of all defilements).”

After the monks said who they thought was worthy of precedence in the matter of lodging and the like, the Master said, “In the Dharma that I teach, the standard by which precedence in the matter of lodging and the like is to be settled is not noble birth or having been a brahmin or having been wealthy before entering the Order. The standard is not familiarity with the Rules of the Order or with the Suttas. Nor is it the attainment of any of the four stages of jhāna or the attainment of any of the Four Stages of awakening. Brothers, in my religion it is seniority that claims respect of word and deed, salutation, and all due service. It is seniors who should enjoy the best lodging, the best water, and the best rice. This is the true standard, and therefore the senior monk ought to have these things. Yet, brothers, here is Sāriputta, who is my chief disciple, who has set the Wheel of the Dharma in motion, and who deserves to have a lodging next after myself. And Sāriputta spent the night without shelter at the foot of a tree! If you lack respect and deference even now, what will your behavior be as time goes by?”

And for their further instruction he said, “In times past, brothers, even animals came to the conclusion that it was not proper for them to live without respect and deference for one to another, or without the harmony of their common life. Even the animals decided to find out who among them was the most senior, and then to show him reverence. So they looked into the matter, and having found out which one of them was most senior, they showed him respect. And because of that they passed away at that life’s end to be reborn in heaven.” And so saying, he told this story of the past.

Once upon a time, near a great banyan tree on the slopes of the Himalayas, three friends lived together: a partridge, a monkey, and an elephant. But over time they lost respect and civility for one another, and they had no harmony in their lives. It occurred to them that it was not proper for them to live in this way. They decided that they should find out which one of them was the most senior, and that they should honor him.

As they were thinking about this, one day an idea struck them. As they sat together at the foot of that banyan tree, the partridge and the monkey said to the elephant, “Friend elephant, how big was this banyan when you first remember it?” The elephant said, “When I was a baby, this banyan was a mere bush. I used to walk over it, and as I stood next to it, its topmost branches used to just reach up to my belly. I’ve known the tree since it was a mere bush.”

Next the monkey was asked the same question, and he replied, “My friends, when I was young, I could stretch out my neck as I sat on the ground, and I could eat the topmost sprouts of this banyan. So I’ve known this banyan since it was very tiny.”

Then the partridge was asked the same question, and he said, “Friends, a long time ago there was a great banyan tree at this spot. I ate its seeds and excreted them here. That was the origin of this tree. Therefore, I have knowledge of this tree from before it was born, and I am older than both of you.”

Then the monkey and the elephant said to the wise partridge, “Friend, you are the oldest. From now on you will be honored and venerated. We will pay homage to you and respect your words and deeds. We will salute you, and we will follow your counsel. As for your part, from now on we ask that you give us your wise advice when we need it.”

Paying Homage to the Elder

Figure: Paying Homage to the Elder

From then on, the partridge gave them wise counsel. He established them in the Five Precepts, which he also followed. Being established in the Precepts and being respectful and harmonious together, they lived together in peace. And when their lives came to an end, they were assured of rebirth in heaven.

“The aims of these three,” the Master continued, “came to be known as the ‘Holiness of the Partridge.’ And if these three animals, brothers, could live together in respect and harmony, how can you, who have embraced the Rules of the Order that are so well-taught, live together without due respect and harmony? Therefore I proclaim, brothers, that you will respect the words and deeds of those who are most senior. You will salute them and be of service to them. They will be entitled to the best lodging, the best water, and the best rice. And never again will a senior be kept out of a lodging by a junior. If anyone keeps out his senior, then they commit an offense.”

At the close of this lesson the Master, as Buddha, repeated this stanza:

They who honor age are well versed in the Dharma.

Their reward is praise now and bliss hereafter.

When the Master finished speaking of the virtue of respecting age, he made the connection and identified the birth by saying, “Moggallāna was the elephant of those days, Sāriputta the monkey, and I myself the sage partridge.”