Jataka 91

Litta Jātaka

The Poison Dice

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 mindfulness, specifically being mindful of how we use material items. Buddhists have always used material things as sparingly as possible. This is because everything that we consume comes with a cost. That should not make us feel guilty; that is how the system works. But when we consume too much, we show disrespect to the disruption we cause through the over-consumption of food and other material things.

The original translation makes an interesting point about this story, and that is that the “bad guy” in the story does not appear in the story in the beginning, so we never know who he is when the Buddha tells it. It is possible that “in the present” he was reborn in a non-human realm.

He swallows the die.” This story was told by the Master while at Jetavana. It is about using things thoughtlessly.

Tradition says that most of the monks of that day were in the habit of using robes and so forth that were given to them in a thoughtless manner. And their thoughtless use of the Four Requisites (food, clothing, shelter, and medicine) would prevent their escape from the doom of rebirth in hell and the animal world. Knowing this, the Master taught the importance of virtue and showed the danger of the thoughtless use of material things. He urged them to be careful in the use of the Four Requisites, and he established this rule, “The thoughtful monk has only one thing in mind when he wears a robe, namely, to keep off the cold.” After laying down similar rules for the other Requisites, he concluded by saying, “Such is the thoughtful way in which the Four Requisites should be used. To use them thoughtlessly is like taking deadly poison. And there were those in bygone days who did inadvertently take poison through their thoughtlessness, to their extreme dismay.” So saying, he told this story of the past.

Once on a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta was born into a prosperous family. When he grew up, he became a gambler who played with dice.

There was a dishonest gambler who used to play with him. He would keep on playing while he was winning. But when his luck turned, this gambler broke up the game by putting one of the dice in his mouth and pretending it was lost. Then he would leave.

“Very well,” said the Bodhisatta when he realized what was happening. “We’ll take care of this.”

So he took some dice, infused them at home with poison and dried them carefully. Then he took them with him to the gambler who he challenged to a game. The gambler agreed. The dice-board was made ready and play began. No sooner did the gambler begin to lose than he popped one of the dice into his mouth. Catching him in the act, the Bodhisatta remarked, “Swallow away. You will find out what it really is soon enough.” And he uttered this stanza of rebuke:

He swallows the die quite boldly, not knowing

What burning poison lurks unseen.

Aye, swallow it, gambler! Soon you’ll burn within.

But while the Bodhisatta was speaking, the poison began to work on the gambler. He grew faint, rolled his eyes, and doubled over with pain fell to the ground.

Figure: The Pain of Thoughtlessness

Figure: The Pain of Thoughtlessness

“Now,” said the Bodhisatta, “I will save the rascal’s life.” So he mixed some medicinal herbs and administered them until vomiting ensued. Then he administered a drink of ghee with honey and sugar and other ingredients, and this made the fellow well again. Then he warned him not to do such a thing ever again. After a life spent in charity and other good works, the Bodhisatta passed away to fare thereafter according to his karma.

His lesson ended, the Master said, “Monks, the thoughtless use of material things is like the thoughtless taking of deadly poison.” So saying, he identified the birth in these words, “I myself was the wise and good gambler of those days.”