Jataka 54

Phala Jātaka

The Fruit Story

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

One thing that I enjoy about this story is the appreciation that the monks have for the expertise of the gardener. This is a common them in the Buddhist texts. The Buddha himself often used various trades as examples of the skills that one must develop as a meditator.

This seemingly simple story shows an example of three important qualities that are developed in meditation and Buddhist practice in general. These are 1) the ability to observe, 2) the resulting insights that arise, and 3) discernment. One reason that we develop a quieter mind is that a noisy mind is too distracted to observe. This quality of observation leads to the arising of insights. These insights are then analyzed. This latter quality is the Pāli word “pañña”,” which is often translated as “wisdom.” But Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu prefers the word “discernment.” “Wisdom” sounds too much like a “thing,” something that you carry around in your head. “Discernment” is an active quality. It is the ability to practice wisdom in the present moment depending on the conditions.

Note also that in this story, the Bodhisatta is the only person who is able to discern the situation with the poisonous fruit. However, it is a very important point in the Buddha’s teaching that anyone can develop these qualities. The Buddha was a human being, just as we are all human beings. And whatever quality one human being can develop, another one can develop as well.

When near a village.” This story was told by the Master while at Jetavana. It is about a lay brother who was skilled in the knowledge of fruits. It appears that a certain wealthy nobleman of Sāvatthi had invited the Saṇgha with the Buddha at their head for their daily meal. He seated them in his pleasure garden, where they were regaled with fine rice and cakes. Afterwards he asked his gardener to go around with the monks and give mangoes and other kinds of fruits to them. In response to this request, the man walked about the grounds with the monks. He could tell by a single glance up at the tree what fruit was green, what nearly ripe, and what quite ripe, and so on. And what he said always turned out to be true. So the monks went to the Buddha and told him how expert the gardener was, and how, while standing on the ground, he could accurately tell the condition of the hanging fruit. “Monks,” said the Master, “this gardener is not the only one who has knowledge of fruits. A similar knowledge was shown by the wise and good of former days as well.” 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 merchant. When he grew up, he traded with five hundred wagons. One day he came to a place where the road led through a great forest. Halting at the outskirts, he gathered the caravan and addressed them, saying, “Poison trees grow in this forest. Do not eat any leaf, flower, or fruit with which you are unfamiliar without first consulting me.” Everyone promised to be very careful, and they began the journey into the forest.

Now just within the forest border there was a village, and just outside that village there was a What-fruit tree. The What-fruit tree resembles a mango in its trunk, branch, leaf, flower, and fruit. It also resembles the mango in taste and smell, the fruit - ripe or unripe – also mimics the mango. If eaten, it is a deadly poison and causes instant death.

(It is not clear what a “What-fruit tree” is. However, the mango is related to poison ivy, and it is possible to have an allergic reaction to mango if you eat the skin. While it is rare, it is possible for this allergic reaction to cause death.)

Now some greedy fellows, who went on ahead of the caravan, came to this tree. Thinking it was a mango, they ate its fruit. But others said, “Let us ask our leader before we eat it.” They stopped by the tree, fruit in hand, until he came up. Seeing that it was not a mango, he said, “This ‘mango’ is a What-fruit tree. Do not eat its fruit.”

Having stopped them from eating, the Bodhisatta turned his attention to those who had already eaten. First he gave them with an emetic (something that makes you vomit), and then he gave them the four sweet foods to eat (raisins, cane sugar paste, sweet yogurt, and honey) so that in the end they recovered.

The Fruits of One’s Actions

Figure: The Fruits of One’s Actions

Now on former occasions caravans had halted beneath this same tree, and many people died from eating the poisonous fruit that they mistook for mangoes. On the next day the villagers would come, and seeing them lying there dead, they would throw them by the heels into a secret place. Then they would take everything from the caravan, wagons and all.

And on the day of our story these villagers rushed out at daybreak to the tree for their expected spoils. “The oxen must be ours,” some said. “And we'll have the wagons,” others said, while still others claimed the cargo as their share. But when they came breathless to the tree, the whole caravan was there, alive and well!

“How did you know this was not a mango tree?” demanded the disappointed villagers.

“We didn't know,” the members of the caravan said. “It was our leader who knew.”

So the villagers went to the Bodhisatta and said, “Man of wisdom, how did you know this tree was not a mango?”

“Two things told me,” the Bodhisatta replied, and he repeated this stanza:

When a tree grows near a village

One that is not hard to climb, it is plain to me,

And I do not need any further proof to know,

That no wholesome fruit can grow there!

And having taught the Dharma to the assembled multitude, he finished his journey in safety.

“Thus, monks,” the Master said, “in bygone days the wise and good were experts in fruit.” His lesson ended, he showed the connection and identified the birth by saying, “The Buddha's followers were the people of the caravan, and I myself was the caravan leader.”