Jataka 159

Mora Jātaka

The Peacock

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 story starts out ominously looking like another one in which the attractiveness of a woman is the theme. But that turns out to be a very minor part of the story, and ends up being more about the fruits of virtuous behavior.

One other theme here is the use of a “pirit chant,” a protective chant. These have been largely excised out of Western Buddhism. But they have a tradition that goes back to the time of the Buddha.

There he rises, king all-seeing.” The Master told this story while he was at Jetavana. It is about a backsliding monk. This monk was taken before the Master who asked, “Is it true, monk, as I hear, that you have regressed?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What have you seen that made you lapse?”

“A woman dressed up in magnificent clothes,” he said.

Then the Master said, “It is no wonder that an attractive woman should tempt a man like you! Even wise men, who for 700 years have committed no offense, on hearing a woman’s voice have transgressed in a moment. Even the holy become impure. Even they who have attained the highest honor have come to disgrace. How much more likely this is to happen to the ordinary man!” And he told a story of the past.

Once upon a time, when Brahmadatta was the King of Benares, the Bodhisatta was reborn as a peacock. The egg that contained him had a shell as yellow as a kaṇikāra bud (a gold colored flower). When he broke the shell, he became a golden peacock, fair and lovely, with beautiful red lines under his wings.

In order to find a safe place to live, he traveled over three ranges of hills, and he settled in the fourth one on a plateau of a golden hill in Daṇḍaka (a forest in ancient India). When day dawned, as he sat upon the hill watching the sun rise, he composed a Brahma spell to keep himself safe in his own feeding ground. The spell began “There he rises”:

“There he rises, king all-seeing,

Making all things bright with his golden light.

I worship you, glorious being,

Making all things bright with your golden light,

Keep me safe, I pray,

Through the coming day.”

He worshipped the sun in this way with this verse. Then he repeated another verse in worship of the Buddhas who have passed away:

“All saints, the righteous, wise in holy lore,

I do honor these, and their aid implore.

All honor to the wise, to wisdom honor be,

To freedom, and to all that freedom has made free.”

Uttering this charm to keep himself from harm, the peacock went off to find food.

After flying about all day, he came back and sat on the hilltop to watch the sun go down. Then as he meditated, he uttered another spell to preserve himself and ward off enemies. This one began “There he sets”:

“There he sets, the king all-seeing,

He that makes all bright with his golden light.

I worship you, glorious being,

Making all things bright with your golden light.

Through the night, as through the day,

Keep me safe, I pray.”

“All saints, the righteous, wise in holy lore,

I do I honor these and their aid implore.

All honor to the wise, to wisdom honor be,

To freedom, and to all that freedom has made free.”

Uttering this charm to keep himself from harm, the peacock fell asleep.

Now there was a savage who lived in a certain village of wild huntsmen near Benares. One day when he was wandering about the Himalaya hills he noticed the Bodhisatta perched upon the golden hill of Daṇḍaka, and he told this to his son.

It so happened that on that day one of the wives of the King of Benares, Khemā by name, saw a golden peacock giving a Dharma discourse in a dream. She told this to the King, saying that she longed to hear the discourse of the golden peacock. The King asked his courtiers about it, and the courtiers said, “The Brahmins will be sure to know.”

The Brahmins said, “Yes, there are golden peacocks.” When asked “where?” they replied, “The hunters will be sure to know.”

The King called the hunters together and asked them. Then this hunter answered, “O lord King, there is a golden hill in Daṇḍaka, and a golden peacock lives there.”

“Then bring it here. Do not kill it. Make sure that you take it alive.”

The hunter set snares in the peacock’s feeding ground. But even when the peacock stepped on it, the snare would not close. The hunter tried for seven years, but he could not catch him. Finally the hunter died. And Queen Khemā too died without getting her wish.

The King was angry because his Queen had died for the sake of a peacock. He had an inscription made upon a golden plate that said, “Among the Himalaya mountains is a golden hill in Daṇḍaka. A golden peacock lives there, and whoever eats its flesh becomes forever young and immortal.” He put this into a casket.

After his death, the next King read the inscription and thought, “I will become ever young and immortal.” So he sent another hunter after the golden peacock. Like the first hunter, he failed to capture the peacock and died in the quest. The same thing happened to six successive kings.

Then a seventh king arose. He also sent out a hunter. The hunter observed that when the golden peacock came into the snare, it did not shut, and that he recited a charm before setting out in search of food. He went to the marshes and caught a peahen (a female peacock). He trained her to dance when he clapped his hands and to cry at the snap of finger. Then, taking her along with him, he set the snare. He fixed its uprights in the ground, early in the morning before the peacock had recited his charm. Then he made the peahen utter a cry.

The sudden sound of the female’s note aroused desire in the peacock’s breast. Leaving his charm unsaid, he went towards her and was caught in the net. Then the hunter grabbed him and took him to the King of Benares.

The King was delighted at the peacock’s beauty. He ordered a seat to be set for him. Sitting on the offered seat, the Bodhisatta asked, “Why did you have me caught, O King?”

“Because they say that anyone who eats you will become immortal and have eternal youth. So I want to have eternal youth and immortality by eating you,” the King said.

“So be it. All who eat me become immortal and have eternal youth. But that means that I must die!”

“Of course it does,” the King said.

“Well, if I die, how will my flesh give immortality to those that eat it?”

“Your color is golden. So it is said that those who eat your flesh become young and live so forever.”

(The PTS edition notes: “Perhaps because they are supposed to live as long as gold lasts. On the same principle, pieces of jade are placed in the coffin of the Chinese to preserve the soul of the dead. Groot, in a work on Chinese religions, quotes a Chinese writer of the 4th century who says, "He who swallows gold will exist as long as gold. He who swallows jade will exist as long as jade," and recommends it for the living.”)

“Sir,” replied the bird, “there is a good reason for my gold color. Long ago, I ruled over the whole world. I reigned in this very city. I kept the Five Precepts, and I made all the people of the world do the same. For that I was reborn after death in the Realm of the Thirty-Three Gods. I lived out my life there, but in my next birth I became a peacock because of some unskillful act. However, I am gold because I had previously kept the Precepts.”

“What? Incredible! You were an imperial ruler who kept the Precepts! And born gold-colored as the fruit of them! Give me some proof!”

“I have one piece of evidence, sire.”

“What is it?”

“Well, sire, when I was the monarch, I used to pass through the air seated in a jeweled car. This car now lies buried in the earth beneath the waters of the royal lake. Dig it up from beneath the lake, and that will be my proof.”

The King approved the plan. He had the lake drained. He had the chariot dug out. And so he believed the Bodhisatta. Then the Bodhisatta addressed him:

“Sire, except for Nirvana, which is everlasting, everything else, being composite in their nature, are unsubstantial, impermanent, and subject to arising and passing away.”

The Golden Peacock’s Dharma Talk

Figure: The Golden Peacock’s Dharma Talk

Then giving a discourse on this theme he inspired the King to keep the Precepts. Peace filled the King’s heart. He gave his kingdom to the Bodhisatta and showed him the highest respect. The Bodhisatta returned the gift, and after staying for a few days, he rose up in the air and flew back to the golden hill of Daṇḍaka. His parting words of advice were: “O King, be heedful!” And the King for his part remained faithful to the Bodhisatta’s advice. And after giving alms and doing good deeds, he passed away to fare according to his karma.

This discourse ended, the Master taught the Four Noble Truths and the backsliding monk attained stream-entry. Then the Master identified the birth: “Ānanda was the King of those days, and I was the golden peacock.”