sunset

Jataka 123

Naṇgaḷisa Jātaka

The Plough Beam

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


In this story my impression is that the story in the present offers a clearer teaching than the actual Jātaka Tale. The story in the present gives a common teaching of the Buddha about right speech. That is that an important aspect of right speech is timeliness. Something you say may be true and it may be helpful, but it may not be the right time. For example, if someone is upset or angry, it may not be the best time to offer constructive criticism.

The Jātaka Tale itself seems to be more about simple stupidity. The dull student’s comparison of everything he sees to “the beam of a plough” sounds like that old line about the Model T Ford: “You can have any color you want as long as it is black.” Nonetheless, the inept student had the admirable quality of devotion. Life is never black and white.

For universal application.” This story was told by the Master while he was at Jetavana. It is about the Elder Lāḷudāyi who is said to have had a knack for always saying the wrong thing. He never knew the proper occasion for the proper teaching. For instance, if it was a festival, he would croak out a gloomy text, “Without the walls they lurk, and where four crossroads meet.” (This is a reference to a passage in the Khuddaka Pātha. It is a somewhat dark passage called the “Tirokudda Kanda — Hungry Shades Outside the Walls.”) If it was a funeral, he would burst out with “Joy filled the hearts of gods and men,” or with “Oh may you see 100, nay 1,000 such happy days!”

Now one day the monks in the Dharma Hall commented on his inappropriate choices for speaking and his knack of always saying the wrong thing. As they sat talking, the Master entered, and, in answer to his question, was told the subject of their discussion. “Monks,” he said, “this is not the first time that Lāḷudāyi's folly has made him say the wrong thing. He has always been as inept as he is now.” So saying he told this story of the past.


Once upon a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta was born into the family of a rich brahmin. When he grew up, he was well educated, and he became a world-renowned professor with 500 young brahmins as his students.

At the time of our story there was one student among the young brahmins who always had foolish notions in his head and always said the wrong thing. Like the other students, he was learning the texts as a pupil, but because of his folly he could not master them. But he was a devoted attendant of the Bodhisatta and ministered to him like a slave.

Now one day after supper the Bodhisatta laid down on his bed. The young brahmin washed and perfumed his hands, feet, and back. As the youth turned to go away, the Bodhisatta said to him, “Prop up the feet of my bed before you go.” And the young brahmin propped up the feet of the bed on one side without problem, but he could not find anything to prop it up with on the other side. Accordingly he used his own leg as a prop and spent the entire night in this way. When the Bodhisatta got up in the morning and saw the young brahmin, he asked him why he was sitting there. “Master,” the young man said, “I could not find one of the bed supports, so I put my leg under the bed to prop it up instead.”

Moved at these words, the Bodhisatta thought, “What devotion! And to think that it should come from the worst pupil of mine. I wonder how can I can teach him more successfully?”

It occurred to him that the best way to teach him was to question the young brahmin after he returned from gathering firewood and leaves. He would ask him about something that he had seen or done that day. Then he would ask him what it was like. “For,” the master thought, “this will lead him to make comparisons and to reason. The continuous practice of comparing and reasoning will enable me to teach him.”

Accordingly he sent for the young man. He told him that he wanted him to come to him every day after he had gathered firewood and leaves, and to report what he had seen during the day. The young man promised he would.

So one day he saw a snake. He said, “Master, today I saw a snake.”

“What did it look like?”

“Oh, like the beam of a plough,” he said.

(The blades of a plough are connected to the beam which in turn is connected to the harness.)

“That is a very good comparison. Snakes are like the beams of ploughs,” said the Bodhisatta, who began to have hopes that he might at last succeed with his pupil.

Another day the young brahmin saw an elephant in the forest and told his master about it.

“And what is an elephant like?” the Bodhisatta asked.

“Oh, like the beam of a plough,” was the reply.

His master said nothing. He thought that because the elephant’s trunk and tusks looked like the beam of a plough, perhaps this made his student speak in this way.

On the third day the student was invited to eat sugar cane. He told his master about this.

“And what is a sugar cane like?”

“Oh, like the beam of a plough.”

“Now that is a very bad comparison,” his master thought, but he said nothing.

On another day, the students were invited to eat molasses with cheese and milk. This too was duly reported.

“And what are cheese and milk like?”

“Oh, like the beam of a plough.”

Then the master thought to himself, “This young man was perfectly right in saying a snake was like the beam of a plough, and was more or less right in saying that an elephant and sugar cane are like the beam of a plough. But milk and cheese take the shape of whatever container they are placed in. This comparison makes no sense. This dullard will never learn.” So saying he uttered this stanza:

For universal application he

Employs a term of limited meaning.

Plough beams and cheese alike are unknown to him.

The fool asserts the two things are the same.

Figure: The Dull Student and the Exasperated Teacher

Figure: The Dull Student and the Exasperated Teacher


His lesson ended, the Master identified the birth by saying, “Lāḷudāyi was the dullard of those days, and I was the professor of world-wide renown.”