Jataka 148

Sigāla Jātaka

(Still Another) Jackal 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

There is a twist in this story. We get a fairly conventional tale about lust. The twist is that it is the Bodhisatta who is the lustful jackal. But this also shows how through various lifetimes the Bodhisatta is – as Larry Rosenberg puts it – learning his way out of suffering.

There is some lovely poetic imagery in this story. While it makes it a little harder to understand, I have left it largely un-edited.

Once bitten, twice shy.” This story was told by the Master when he was at Jetavana. It is about subduing sensual desires.

We are told that some 500 rich friends, sons of merchants of Sāvatthi, were inspired by the Master’s teachings to give their lives and hearts to the Dharma. They joined the Saṇgha and lived in Jetavana in the park that Anāthapiṇḍika paved with gold.

(After Anāthapiṇḍika first met the Buddha, he wanted to build a monastery for him. He came across a park that belonged to Prince Jeta, the son of King Pasenadi of Kosala. Anāthapiṇḍika offered to buy the park from the prince but the prince refused. When Anāthapiṇḍika persisted, the prince joked that he would sell him the park only if he covered it with gold coins, which Anāthapiṇḍika did.)

Now in the middle of one night they began to feel lustful. In their distress, they decided to give in to the lust even though as monks they had renounced it. The Master raised aloft the lamp of his omniscience to see the passion that had gotten hold of the monks in Jetavana.

Reading their hearts, he perceived their lust and desire. Like a mother who watches over her only child or a one-eyed man cares for the one eye that he still had, the Master watches over his disciples. In the morning or in the evening, at whatever hour their passions overwhelm them, he will not let his faithful be overpowered. In the same hour he subdues the raging lusts that overcome them. The thought came to him, “This is like when thieves break into the city of an emperor. I will reveal the Dharma straightway to these monks. In subduing their lust, I will raise them up to arhatship.”

So he came out from his perfumed chamber, and in sweet tones he called for the venerable Elder, Ānanda, Treasurer of the Faith. The Elder came forward and with due respect and stood before the Master to know his pleasure. Then the Master told him to assemble all of the monks who lived in that quarter of Jetavana in his perfumed chamber. Tradition says that the Master thought that if he summoned only those 500 lustful monks, they would know that he was aware of their lust, and this would prevent them from hearing the Dharma. Accordingly, he summoned all the monks, not just those who were lustful.

Ānanda went from cell to cell summoning the monks until they were all assembled in the perfumed chamber. Then he prepared the Buddha-seat. In stately dignity like Mount Sineru (Mount Sineru/Meru/Sumeru is the name of the central world-mountain in Buddhist cosmology) resting on the solid earth, the Master seated himself on the Buddha-seat. Glory shined around him with paired garlands upon garlands of six-colored light. They divided and divided into masses the size of a platter, the size of a canopy, and the size of a tower, until, like shafts of lightning, the rays reached to the heavens above. It was like a brilliant sunrise stirring the ocean to the depths.

With reverent obeisance and reverent hearts, the monks entered and took their seats around him. They surrounded him like an orange curtain. Then in a beautiful voice like Mahā-Brahma the Master said, “A monk should not harbor three evil thoughts: lust, hatred, and cruelty. Never think that wicked desires are a trivial matter. Such desires are like an enemy, and an enemy is no trivial matter. Given the opportunity, they bring only destruction. Even if a desire is small when it first arises, it only has to be allowed to grow in order to work utter destruction. Desire is like poison in food, like the itch in the skin, like a viper, like the thunderbolt of Indra, to be always rejected, ever to be feared. Whenever desire arises, immediately, without allowing it to harbor even for a moment in the heart, it should be expelled by thought and reflection like a raindrop that rolls off the leaf of the lotus. The wise of former times so hated even the smallest desire that they crushed it out before it could grow larger.” And so saying, he told this story of the past.

Once upon a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta was reborn as a jackal. He lived in the forest along the river.

Now an old elephant died by the banks of the Ganges. The jackal, finding the carcass, congratulated himself on finding such a fine source of meat. First he bit the trunk, but that was like biting a plough handle. “There’s nothing to eat there,” the jackal said. Then he took a bite at a tusk. But that was like biting bones. Then he tried an ear, but that was like chewing the rim of a basket. So he tried the stomach, but that was as tough as a grain basket. The feet were no better, for they were like a mortar. Next he tried the tail, but that was like the pestle.

“That won’t do either,” the jackal said. Having failed to find an edible part, he tried the rear and that was like eating a soft cake.

“At last,” he said, “I've found the right place.” He ate his way right into the belly where he made a plentiful meal off the kidneys, the heart, and the rest. He satisfied his thirst with the blood.

When night came he lay down inside. As he lay there, the jackal thought, “This carcass is both food and a house to me. Why should I leave it?” So he stayed there, living in the elephant’s innards and eating away.

Time went on until the summer sun and the summer winds dried and shrank the elephant’s hide. The entrance by which the jackal had got in closed and the interior was in darkness. Thus the jackal was, as it were, cut off from the world and confined in the inner space between the worlds.

Figure: Trapped Inside an Elephant Carcass!

Figure: Trapped Inside an Elephant Carcass!

After the hide, the flesh dried up and the blood was exhausted. In a frenzy of despair, he rushed back and forth beating against his prison walls in a fruitless attempt to escape. But as he bobbed up and down inside like a ball of rice in a boiling saucepan. Finally a tempest broke and the downpour moistened the shell of the carcass and restored it to its former state.

Light shone like a star through the way by which the jackal had got in. “Saved! saved!” the jackal cried. He backed into the elephant’s head and rushed head-first at the outlet. He managed to get through, but he lost all his hair along the way. He sat down and surveyed his hairless body, which was now as smooth as a palm-stem. “Ah!” he exclaimed, “this misfortune has happened to me because of my greed and my greed alone. From now on I will not be greedy or get into the carcass of an elephant ever again.” And he expressed his terror in this stanza:

Once bitten, twice shy. Ah, great was my fear!

Of elephants’ innards from now on I’ll steer clear.

And with these words the jackal ran off. Never again did he look at that or at any other elephant’s carcass. And from then on he was never greedy again.

His lesson ended, the Master said, “Monks, never let desires take root in the heart but pluck them out whenever they spring up.” He preached the Four Noble Truths at the end of which those 500 monks won arhatship, and the rest won varying lesser degrees of liberation. The Master identified the birth as follows, “I was the jackal of those days.”