Jataka 146

Kāka Jātaka

(Another) Crow 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

Here is another in the Monks Behaving Badly series.

Our throats are tired.” This story was told by the Master while he was at Jetavana. It is about a number of older monks. Before they had ordained, they were rich and wealthy squires of Sāvatthi. They were all friends, and tradition tells us that while they were engaged in good works they heard the Master preach. At once they cried, “We are old. What meaning do a house and home have for us? Let us join the Saṇgha, following the Buddha’s lovely doctrine, and make an end of our sorrow.”

So they divided their belongings among their children and families, and, leaving their tearful kindred, they went to ask the Master to receive them into the Saṇgha. But once they were admitted, they did not live the life of good monks, and because of their age they failed to master the Dharma. (Buddhism combines a reverence for age with mild contempt for older novices who think that they can give up their mundane lives and withstand the rigors of the training. In the Theravāda tradition, you cannot ordain after the age of 55.)

Just as they had in their lives as householders, now too they lived together. They built a cluster of neighboring huts for themselves on the edge of the monastery. When they went in search of alms, they usually went to their wives’ and children’s houses and ate there. In particular, all these old men were maintained by the wealth of the wife of one of them, who supplied them with fine sauces and curries.

However, she fell ill and died. The aged monks went back to the monastery. They bemoaned the death of their benefactress, the giver of sauces. The noise of their lamentation caused the other monks to go to them to find out what was going on. The aged men told them how their kind benefactress was dead, and that they cried because they had lost her and would never see anyone like her again.

Shocked at such impropriety, the monks talked together in the Dharma Hall about the cause of the old men’s sorrow. When the Master entered the Dharma Hall, he asked what they were discussing and they told him. “Ah, monks,” he said, “in times past, this same woman’s death made them go about weeping and wailing. In those days she was a crow. She was drowned in the sea. These men were trying to empty all the water out of the sea in order to save her, when the wise of those days saved them.”

And so saying he told this story of the past.

Figure: Not Really in the Spirit of the Monk’s Life…

Figure: Not Really in the Spirit of the Monk’s Life…

Once upon a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta was born as a sea sprite (fairy). Now a crow with his mate came down in search of food to the sea-shore. Just before they arrived, some people had offered a sacrifice of milk, and rice, and fish, and meat and strong drink and the like to the Nāgas (serpent deities). The crow and his mate ate freely of the sacrifice, and they drank a great deal of the spirits. So they both got very drunk. Then they wanted to frolic in the sea. They were trying to swim on the surf when a wave swept the crow’s mate out to sea and a fish came and gobbled her up.

“Oh, my poor wife is dead,” cried the crow, bursting into tears. Then a crowd of crows were drawn by his wailing to the spot to find out what was bothering him. When he told them how his wife had been carried out to sea, they all began to weep. Suddenly the thought struck them that they were stronger than the sea and that all they had to do was to empty it out and rescue their comrade! So they set to work with their bills to empty the sea with their mouths, going to rest on dry land when their throats were sore from the salt water.

And so they worked until their mouths and jaws were dry and inflamed and their eyes bloodshot and they were ready to drop from weariness. They turned to one another in despair and said that their efforts were in vain, for no sooner had they got rid of the water in one place than more flowed in. They would never succeed in bailing the water out of the sea. And, so saying, they uttered this stanza:

Our throats are tired, our mouths are sore,

The sea refills itself forevermore.

Then all the crows started to praise the beauty of her beak and eyes, her complexion, her figure and sweet voice. They said that it was her excellent qualities that had provoked the sea to steal her from them. But as they talked this nonsense, the sea sprite made a phantom appear from the sea and cause them to run away. In this way they were saved from their foolishness.

His lesson ended, the Master identified the birth by saying, “The aged monk’s wife was the hen-crow of those days, and her husband was the male crow. The other aged monks were the rest of the crows, and I was the sea sprite.”