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Jataka 521

Tesakuṇa Jātaka

Walk Righteously

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


The Buddha did not talk much about politics, but he did urge kings to behave in a virtuous way. This Jātaka is quite famous because it is one in which he lays out a code of conduct for kings. It is also quite charming in that the beings who lay out this code of conduct are three birds. We are told that these birds were auspiciously born together in the same nest even though they are of different species. One is an owl, one is a mynah bird, and one is a parrot.


This is what I ask.” This story was told by the Master while he was at Jetavana. It was told to the King of Kosala as an admonition.

Now this King came to hear the preaching of the Dharma. The Master addressed him in the following terms: “A king, sire, ought to rule his kingdom righteously, for whenever kings are unrighteous, then his officers are also unrighteous.” And admonishing him in the right way as related in the Catukkanipāta (The “Book of Fours” in the Aṇguttara Nikāya, The Numeric Discourses of the Buddha) he pointed out the suffering and the blessing involved in following or abstaining from evil courses of action. And he expounded in detail the misery resulting from sensual pleasures, comparing them to dreams and the like, saying, “In the case of these men,

No bribe can move relentless death, no kindness mollify,

No one in fight can vanquish death. For all are doomed to die.

And when they depart to another world, they have no other sure refuge except their own virtuous action. They must inevitably forsake low associations, and for their reputation’s sake they must not be careless. They must be earnest and exercise rule in righteousness. Even as kings of old, before the Buddha arose, abided in the admonition of the wise. They ruled righteously and departed to the heavenly city.” And at the request of the King, he told a story of the past.


Once upon a time Brahmadatta ruled in Benares and had no heir. His prayer for a son or daughter was not answered.

Now one day he went to his park with a large escort. After amusing himself for part of the day on the grounds, he had a couch set up for him at the foot of the royal sāl tree. After a short nap he awoke and, looking up to the sāl tree, he saw a bird’s nest in it. At the sight of it the desire arose in him to possess it. He summoned one of his attendants and said, “Climb the tree and see if there is anything in the nest or not.” The man climbed up and found three eggs in it. He told this to the King.

“Then be careful that you do not breathe on them,” he said. He spread some cotton in a basket then told the man to come down gently and place the eggs in it. When they had been brought down, he picked up the basket and asked his courtiers to what kind of bird did these eggs belonged. They answered, “We do not know, but the hunters will know.”

The King sent for the hunters and asked them.

“Sire,” they said, “one is an owl’s egg. Another is a mynah bird’s, and the third is a parrot’s.”

“Why are there eggs of three different birds in one nest?”

“Sire, when there is nothing to fear, what is carefully deposited does not perish.”

The King was pleased at this and said, “They shall be my children.”

He put the three eggs under the care of three courtiers and said, “These shall be my children. Carefully watch over them and when the young birds come out of the shells, let me know.”

They took good care of them. First the owl’s egg hatched. The courtier sent for a hunter and said, “Find out the sex of the young bird, whether it is a male or a female bird.”

He had examined it and declared it to be a male bird. The courtier went to the King and said, “Sire, a son is born to you.”

The King was delighted and gave valuable gifts to him, saying, “Watch carefully over him and call him Vessantara,” he sent him away. (In Buddhist mythology, Vessantara was the Buddha’s name in his last human life before he became the Buddha.) The courtier did as he was told.

Then a few days later the egg of the mynah bird hatched. The second courtier likewise got the huntsman to examine it and was told that it was a female bird. He went to the King and announced to him the birth of a daughter. The King was delighted and gave him many expensive gifts, saying, “Watch carefully over my daughter and call her name Kuṇḍalinī,” he sent him away. He also did what he was told.

After a few more days the parrot’s egg was hatched. The third courtier, was told by the huntsman who examined it that it was a male bird. He went and announced to the King the birth of a son. The King was delighted. He paid him liberally and said, “Hold a festival in honor of my son with great pomp, and call him Jambuka.” Then he sent him away. This courtier too did as he was told.

All these three birds grew up in the houses of the three courtiers with all the ceremony due to royalty. The King spoke of them as “my son” and “my daughter.” His courtiers joked with one with another, saying, “Look at what the King does. He goes about speaking of the birds as his son and his daughter.”

The King thought, “These courtiers do not know the extent of my children’s wisdom. I will make it evident to them.”

So he sent one of his ministers to Vessantara to say, “Your father wants to ask you a question. When should he come and ask it?”

The minister went to Vessantara, he bowed and delivered the message. Vessantara sent for the courtier who looked after him and said, “My father,” they tell me, “wants to ask me a question. When he comes, we must show him all due respect.” Then he asked “When is a good time for him to come?”

The courtier said, “Let him come seven days from today.”

On hearing this Vessantara said, “Let my father come seven days from today.” And with these words he sent the minister away.

The minister went and told the King. After seven days had passed the King ordered a drum to be beaten through the city, and then he went to the house where his son lived. Vessantara treated the King with great respect. He even had great respect paid to the King’s slaves and hired servants. The King, after eating a meal in the house of Vessantara, and enjoying great distinction, returned to his own palace. Then he had a big pavilion erected in the palace yard. Then, having made a proclamation throughout the city by beating a drum, he sat in his magnificent pavilion surrounded by a great retinue. He sent word to a courtier to bring Vessantara to him.

The courtier brought Vessantara on a golden stool. The bird sat on his father’s lap and played with his father. Then he went and sat on the stool. Then the king - in the midst of the crowd of people - questioned him as to the duty of a King and spoke the first stanza:

It is this I ask Vessantara. Dear bird, if you are blessed

To be one who reigns over men, what course of life is best?

Vessantara, without answering the question directly, reproved the King for his carelessness and spoke the second stanza:

Kaṁsa my sire, of Kāsi lord, so careless long ago,

Urged me his son, though full of zeal, still greater zeal to show.

(Apparently the King had omitted the entire verse.)

Rebuking the king in this stanza and saying, “Sire, a King ought to rule his kingdom righteously, abiding in the three truths.” Telling of a king’s duty, he spoke these stanzas:

First of all a king should put away all falsehood and anger and scorn;

Let him do what a king has to do, or else to his vow be forsworn.

By passion and desire led astray, should he err in the past, it is plain

He will live to repent the deed, and will learn not to do it again.

When a prince grows slack in his rule, untrue to his name and his fame,

Should his wealth all at once disappear, of that prince it is counted as shame.

It was thus that Good Fortune and Luck, when I asked, replied to me,

“In a man energetic and bold we delight, if from jealousy he is free.”

Bad Luck, ever wrecking good fortune, delights in men of ill deeds,

The hard-hearted creatures in whom a spirit of jealousy breeds.

Be a friend to all, Oh great King, so that all may their safety insure,

Bad Luck put away, but to Luck that is good be a refuge secure.

The man that is lucky and bold, One that over Kāsi does reign,

He will destroy - root and branch – his foes and to greatness will attain.

Great Sakka ever watches for courage in men with vigilant eyes,

For courage as virtue he holds, and in it true goodness espies.

Gandharvas, gods, angels and men, one and all, emulate such a king,

And spirits appearing stand by, of his zeal and his vigor do sing.

Be zealous to do what is right, nor, however tempted, yield to sin,

Be earnest in efforts for good—no slacker can bliss ever win.

Herein is the text of your duty, to teach you the way you should go,

It is enough to win bliss for a friend or to work grievous ill for a foe.

Thus did the bird Vessantara in a single stanza rebuke the carelessness of the King. And then in telling the duty of a king in eleven stanzas, he answered his question with all the charm of a Buddha. The hearts of the multitude were filled with wonder and amazement and there were innumerable shouts of applause. The King was overcome with joy. Then addressing his courtiers, he asked them what was to be done for his son, for having spoken thus.

“He should be made a general in the army, Sire.”

“Well, I give him the post of general,” and the King appointed Vessantara to the vacant post. From then on, placed in this position, he carried out his father’s wishes. Here ends the story of Vessantara’s question.

After some days had passed, the King, just as before, sent a message to Kuṇḍalinī. And, likewise, after seven days had passed, he paid her a visit. And returning home he again seated himself in the center of a pavilion. He ordered Kuṇḍalinī to be brought to him. When she was seated on a golden stool, he asked her about the duty of a king. She spoke this stanza:

Kuṇḍalinī, of royal birth, can you resolve my quest,

To one who’s born over men to reign, what course of life is best?

When the King thus asked her what are the duties of a king, she said, “I suppose, Sir, you are putting me to the test, thinking ‘What will a woman be able to tell me?’ So I will tell you, putting all your duty as a king into just two maxims.” And she repeated these stanzas:

The matter, my friend, is set forth in a couple of maxims quite plain—

To keep whatever one has, and whatever one has not to gain.

Take as counselors men that are wise, their interests clear to see,

Not given to riot and waste, from gambling and drunkenness free.

Someone who can guard you with care and your treasure with proper zeal,

As a charioteer guides his car, with skill steers the realm's common weal.

Keep our people well in hand; and duly take stock of yourself,

Never trust to another a loan or deposit, but act for thyself.

What is done or undone to your profit and loss it is well that you should know,

Ever blame the blame-worthy and to those that that deserve favor bestow.

You yourself, Oh great King, should instruct your people in every good way,

Lest your realm and your substance should fall to unrighteous officials a prey.

See that nothing is done by yourself or by others with too much speed,

For the fool that so acts without doubt will live to repent of the deed.

To anger one should never give in, for should it sad results overflow,

It will lead to the ruin of kings and the proudest of houses lay low.

Be sure that you never as king mislead your people to their cost,

Lest all men and women alike in an ocean of trouble be lost.

When a king from all fear is set free, and the pleasures of sense are his aim,

Should his riches and all disappear, to that king it is counted as shame.

Herein is a text of your duty, to teach you the way you should go,

Be an adept in every good work, to excess and to riot a foe,

Study virtue, for vice ever leads to a state full of suffering and woe.

Thus did Kuṇḍalinī also teach the King his duty in eleven stanzas. The King was delighted. He addressed his courtiers, saying, “What is to be given to my daughter as a reward for her having spoken in this way?”

“The office of treasurer, Sire.”

“Well then, I grant her the post of treasurer,” And he appointed Kuṇḍalinī to the vacant post. From then on she held the office and acted for the King. Here ends the story of the question of Kuṇḍalinī.

After a few days, the King, just as before, sent a messenger to the wise Jambuka. And after seven days had passed he went to see him. After being magnificently entertained he returned home and took his seat in the center of a pavilion in the same manner as before. A courtier placed the wise Jambuka on a stool bound with gold and came bearing the stool on his head. The wise bird sat on his father’s lap and played with him at length. Then he took his seat on the golden stool. The King, asking him a question, spoke this stanza:

We’ve questioned both your brother prince, and also fair Kuṇḍalinī.

Now, Jambuka, now you in turn the highest power declare to me.

Thus did the King, in asking a question of the Great Being, did not ask him in the way in which he had asked the others. Rather he asked him in a special way. Then the wise bird said to him, “Well, Sire, listen attentively, and I will tell you everything.” And like a man placing a purse containing a thousand gold pieces into an outstretched hand, he began his exposition of a King’s duty:

Amidst the great ones of the earth a fivefold power we see.

Of these the power of limbs is, sure, the last in its degree,

And power of wealth, Oh mighty lord, the next is said to be.

The power of counsel third in rank of these, Oh King, I name.

The power of rank without a doubt is reckoned fourth in fame.

And all of these a man that’s wise most certainly will claim.

Of all these powers that one is best, as power of learning known,

By strength of this a man is wise and makes success his own.

Should richest realm fall to the lot of some poor stupid wit,

Another will by violence seize it as he’s unfit.

However noble be the prince, whose lot it is to rule,

He is hard put to live at all, if he should prove a fool.

It is wisdom tests reports of deeds and makes men’s fame to grow,

Who is gifted with wisdom still finds pleasure even in woe.

None that are heedless in their ways to wisdom can attain,

But must consult the wise and just, or ignorant remain.

Who early rising shall always unweariedly give heed

To duty’s varied calls, in life is certain to succeed.

No one that’s bent on hurtful things or acts in listless mood

In all that he may undertake will come to any good.

But one that will unweariedly a rightful course pursue,

Is sure to reach perfection in whatever he may do.

To safeguard one’s store is to gain more and more,

And these are the things I would have you to mind;

For the fool by ill deeds, like a house built of reeds,

Collapses and leaves rack and ruin behind.

Thus did the Bodhisatta in all these points sing the praises of the five powers. Exalting the power of wisdom, like to one striking the orb of the moon with his words, he admonished the King in eleven stanzas:

Unto your parents, warrior King, act righteously. And so

By following a righteous life to heaven you, sire, shall go.

After uttering ten stanzas about the way of righteousness, still further admonishing the King he spoke the concluding stanza:

Herein is the text of your duty, to teach you the way you should go.

Follow wisdom and ever be happy, the Truth in its fulness to know.

Thus did the Great Being, as though he were floating down the heavenly Ganges, taught the Dharma with all the charm of a Buddha.

The multitude paid him great honor and raised innumerable shouts of applause. The King was delighted. Addressing his councilors he asked, “How should my son, wise Jambuka, with a beak like the fresh fruit of the rose apple, be rewarded for having spoken so wisely?”

“With the post of commander-in-chief, sire.”

“Then I offer him this post,” he said. He appointed him to the vacant office. From then on as commander-in-chief he carried out the orders of his father. Great honor was paid to the three birds, and all three of them gave instruction in both worldly and spiritual matters.

The Wise Counselors

Figure: The Wise Counselors

The King, abiding in the wise advice of the Great Being, was reborn in heaven by almsgiving and other good works. The councilors, after performing the King’s funeral rites, spoke to the birds and said, “My lord, Jambu, the King ordered the royal umbrella to be raised over you.”

The Great Being said, “I have no need of the kingdom. You exercise rule with all vigilance.” And after establishing the people in the moral law, he said “Execute justice.” He had righteous judgment inscribed on a golden plate, and then he disappeared into the forest. And his wise counsel continued in force for 40,000 years.


The Master on seeing this repeated these stanzas:

Hearing these strains that Highest Truth did teach

Set forth by holy sage in wisest speech,

The glorious beings to their heavenly home

Once more with joy and gratitude did come.

The holy sage’s words strike on the ear

Pregnant with meaning and in accents clear.

Who gives good heed and concentrates his mind

Upon their special thought will surely find

The path to every stage of ecstasy,

And from the range of tyrant death is free.

Thus did the Master bring his teaching to a climax in arhatship and saying, “Not now only, but formerly also, there was a rain of flowers at the burning of the body of Mogallāna.” He revealed the Four Noble Truths and identified the birth: “Sālissara was Sāriputta, Meṇḍissara was Kassapa, Pabbata was Anuruddha, Devala was Kaccāyana, Anusissa was Ānanda, Kisavaccha was Kolita, and Sarabhaṅga was the Bodhisatta. This is how you are to understand the birth.”