Jataka 71

Varaṇa Jātaka

The 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

One of the most interesting aspects of this story is how in the story in the present, the monk tries to compensate for his laziness by pushing himself too hard. As a result, he falls and breaks his hip. Over-striving is a common problem among Buddhist practitioners. There are people who want to push very hard in order to attain meditative accomplishments. But the mind – like the body – can only develop at an appropriate pace. It is always a balance between not pushing hard enough and pushing too hard.

There are a number of details in this story that make it sound like it was from a later time. The monks meditate “in their cells” which sounds more like they were in a Buddhist university. The story in the past refers to a maid who made their breakfast. This would not have been done during the Buddha’s time. Also, the style of practice sounds like a more formalized, later style.

Learn from him.” This story was told by the Master while at Jetavana. It is about an Elder named Tissa the Squire’s Son. Tradition says that one day thirty young gentlemen of Sāvatthi, who were all friends of one another, took perfumes and flowers and robes, and set out with a large following to Jetavana in order to hear the Master preach.

Arriving at Jetavana, they sat awhile in several enclosures, including the enclosure of the Iron-wood trees, the enclosure of the Sal-trees, and so forth. They waited until evening when the Master passed from his fragrant sweet-smelling perfumed chamber to the Dharma Hall where he sat down on the gorgeous Buddha seat. Then, with their following, these young men went to the Dharma Hall. They made an offering of perfumes and flowers, bowed down at his blessed feet that were glorious as full-blown lotus-flowers and bore the Wheel of the Dharma imprinted on his soles! (In Indian lore, a Buddha has a Dharma Wheel imprinted on the soles of his feet.)

Taking their seats, they listened to the Dharma. Then the thought came into their minds, “Let us take the vows, so far as we understand the Dharma preached by the Master.” Accordingly, when the Blessed One left the hall, they approached him, and with due respect they asked to be admitted to the Saṇgha. And the Master did admit them to the Saṇgha.

They were able to win the favor of their teachers and directors, and so they received full ordination After five years’ residence with their teachers and directors, by which time they had learned by heart the two Abstracts (Dharma texts), they knew what was proper and what was improper, had learned the three modes of expressing thanks, and had stitched and dyed robes.

At this stage, wishing to embrace the ascetic life, they obtained the consent of their teachers and directors and approached the Master. (It seems from this that they had learned the proper way to behave as monks, but had not yet learned to meditate.) Bowing before him they took their seats, saying, “Sir, we are troubled by the round of existence, dismayed by birth, decay, disease, and death. Give us a meditation theme that will free us from the elements that perpetuate existence.” The Master turned over in his mind the 38 themes of meditation, and from them he selected a suitable one which he taught them. (In the Theravada text “The Visuddhimagga” there are actually 40 subjects for meditation. Here they only reference 38 of them.) And then, after getting their theme from the Master, they bowed, and with a ceremonious farewell passed from his presence to their cells. And after gazing on their teachers and directors, they went forth with bowl and robe to embrace the ascetic life.

Now among them was a monk named the Elder Tissa the Squire’s Son. He was a weak and irresolute man, a slave to the pleasures of food. He thought to himself, “I will never be able to live in the forest, to strive with strenuous effort, and to subsist on scanty portions of alms food. What is the point of my going? I will turn back.” And so he gave up, and after accompanying those monks for a while, he turned back.

As for the other monks, they came in the course of their alms-pilgrimage through Kosala to a certain border village. There they stayed in a wooded spot for the rainy season. After three months’ striving and wrestling, they got the germ of Discernment and won Arahatship, making the earth shout for joy. At the end of the rainy season, after celebrating the Pavāraṇā festival (the celebration held at the end of the rains retreat), they set out to tell the Master the attainments they had won.

Coming in due course to Jetavana, they laid aside their bowls and robes, paid a visit to their teachers and directors, and being anxious to see the Blessed One, they went to him. With due respect they took their seats. The Master greeted them kindly, and they announced to the Blessed One the attainments they had won, receiving praise from him. Hearing the Master speaking in their praise, the Elder Tissa the Squire’s Son was filled with a desire to live the life of a recluse all by himself. At that same time, those other monks asked and received the Master’s permission to return to live in that same place in the forest. And with due respect they went to their cells.

That night, the Elder Tissa the Squire’s Son was inspired to begin his quest at once. He practiced the method of sleeping in an upright posture by the side of his plank bed with excessive zeal and ardor. Soon after the middle watch of the night, he turned around and fell down, breaking his thigh bone. He had such severe pain that the other monks had to care for him, and as a result they were prevented from leaving.

Accordingly, when they appeared at the appropriate hour to wait on the Buddha, he asked them whether they had not just yesterday asked his permission to leave that day.

“Yes, sir, we did, but our friend the Elder Tissa the Squire’s Son, while practicing the methods of a recluse with excessive vigor, dropped off to sleep and fell, breaking his thigh. That is why our departure has been prevented.”

“This is not the first time, monks,” the Master said, “that this man’s backsliding has caused him to strive with excessive zeal and to delay your departure. He delayed your departure in the past also.” And hereupon, at their request, he told this story of the past.

Once upon a time at Takkasilā University in the kingdom of Gandhāra, the Bodhisatta was a teacher of world renown. He had 500 young brahmins as pupils. One day these students set out for the forest to gather firewood for their master. Among them was a lazy fellow who came upon a huge forest tree which he presumed to be dry and rotten. So he thought that he could safely indulge in a nap first, and later he could climb up and break some branches off to carry home. And so he spread out his outer robe and fell asleep, snoring loudly.

All the other young brahmins were on their way home with their wood tied up in bundles when they came upon the sleeper. They kicked him in the back until he woke up. Then they left him and went their way. He sprang to his feet and rubbed his eyes. Then, still half asleep, he began to climb the tree. But one branch, which he was tugging, snapped off, and as it sprang up, the end struck him in the eye. Clapping one hand over his wounded eye, he gathered green limbs with the other. Then climbing down, he bundled his wood, and after hurrying home with it, flung his green wood on the top of the others’ bundles.

Figure: The Lazy Brahmin

Figure: The Lazy Brahmin

That same day it so happened that a country family invited the master to visit them on the next day so that they might give him a brahmin feast. The master called his pupils together, and telling them of the trip they would make to the village on the next day, said they could not go fasting. (This was apparently so they would have the strength to make the journey.) “So have some rice gruel made early in the morning,” he said, “and eat it before starting out. There you will have food given to you for yourselves and a portion for me. Bring it all back with you.”

So they got up early next morning and roused a maid to get them their breakfast ready earlier than usual. She went off to get wood to light the fire. The green wood lay on the top of the stack, and she laid her fire with it. She blew and blew but could not get her fire to burn, and at last the sun came up. “It's broad daylight now,” they said, “and it’s too late to start.” And they went off to their master.

“What, you are not yet on your way, my sons?” he said.

“No, sir, we have not started.”


“Because that lazy so-and-so, when he went wood gathering with us, lay down to sleep under a tree. And to make up for lost time, he climbed up the tree in such a hurry that he hurt his eye and brought home a lot of green wood which he threw on the top of our dried wood. So, when the maid who was to cook our rice gruel went to the stack, she took his wood, thinking it would of course be dry. And she could not light the fire before the sun came up. And this is what prevented us from leaving.”

Hearing what the young brahmin had done, the master exclaimed that a fool’s doings had caused all the mischief and repeated this stanza:

Learn from him who tore green branches down,

That tasks deferred are brought to tears at last.

Such was the Bodhisatta’s comment on the matter to his pupils. And at the close of a life of charity and other good works, he passed away to fare according to his karma.

The Master said, “This is not the first time, monks, that this man has thwarted you. He did so in the past as well.” His lesson ended, he showed the connection and identified the birth by saying, “The monk who broke his thigh was the young brahmin of those days who hurt his eye. The Buddha’s followers were the rest of the young brahmins, and I myself was their brahmin master.”