by Wayne Ren-Cheng
The traditional Jataka Tales, stories of Siddhartha’s previous lives before awakening, are meant to teach lessons in moral thought and ethical action. Siddhartha was viewed as having lived lives as beggar and king, holy man and untouchable, eagle and hummingbird, lion and rabbit, water nymph and deva; in each he learned lessons of wisdom, wisdom that would eventually lead him to his life as Siddhartha, then as the Awakened One.
Siddhartha is the historical Buddha of our time. What about the future Buddha? The Awakened One told us, “I am not the first Buddha to come upon this earth; nor shall I be the last. Previously, there were many Buddhas who appeared in this world. In due time, another Buddha will arise in this world, within this world cycle.” Viewing this as a truth then those previous lives have been, or are currently being lived right in this moment.
What are the lives of the future Buddha? What lessons have the future Awakened One learned?
With all this, I will endeavor to write some Future Buddha Jataka Tales. Like the traditional tales the bodhisattva can arise as any sentient being because all sentient beings might be a Buddha.
Traditional Jataka Tales often begin with the words, ‘Once upon a time when . . .’, to denote events and people from their past. These Future Jataka Tales will begin with ‘In this time . . .’ to show their more immediate connection to our present moment.
Future Buddha Jataka: Suffering Calf
In this time there was a man born in India into the vaishya (business) caste. He studied and practiced the ways of ahimsa (non-violence) throughout his life, eventually attracting others by his speech and actions. Over time he was looked upon as a guru of ahimsa, a man whose life could be set forth as an example of living a non-violent life. Many people gathered in his ashram (sangha) to experience his wisdom.
One day a man, Adarsh (meaning ideal), who took care of the cows of the village came to his Guru with a problem. “Teacher, there is a calf recently born who is suffering. Born lame in his right front leg, with great oozing sores down that leg and beginning to spread across its chest it is in a lot of pain. I try to feed it the softest grains, warm milk just gotten from its mother, and fresh shoots of grass that I pre-chew for the calf, all of which it refuses. It cannot walk or run like he other calves because it quickly becomes winded, his breath wheezing and shallow. It is living in the violence of disease and I am not certain what to do.”
The Guru gathered together the cow-herder along with his two wisest students. They discussed the issue for three days before the Guru asked them for their opinions. One said, “Our vow of ahimsa requires us to make the calf as comfortable as possible so to limit suffering. It could be moved to a separate field and given a soft bed to lay on. Someone could sit with it, talk softly to it and sing songs of beauty and content. Then, when it dies give it an appropriate burial rite.” The Guru nodded.
The other said, “A calf so ill could pass along its disease to the other cows in the village. It should be harnessed and taken to a far field, its throat slit and its body burned.” The Guru nodded.
The Guru turned to the cow-herd. “What is your opinion?” The cow-herd responded, “I do not want the other village cows to fall ill if the disease were to spread. It causes me anguish to see the calf in such pain and suffering waiting for it to die. Teacher, my mind and body are at odds. The thoughts that arise are of compassion and non-violence while I suffer right along with the calf.” The Guru nodded.
“Let us go to this calf.” The Guru, the cow-herd, and the two students found the calf at the outskirts of the village. It stood trembling, leaning against a bodhi tree. From a distance they could all hear its labored breathing and see its tongue hanging loose like a dry piece of cloth. “This calf is suffering. The cow-herd is suffering. All who see the suffering of this calf also suffer.” The Guru took a sharp blade from under his robe. He stepped close to the calf and with a smooth motion he slit the animal’s throat. Ignoring the blood gushing out he sat down, gently pulling the calf’s head to his lap. The Guru held the young animal close until the life left its eyes.
The responses to his action were immediate. “Teacher, you have killed. You have acted violently.” This was the response of both of his ‘wise’ students. The cow-herd looked relieved and bowed deeply to the teacher.
“Now that action was non-violent because it was wholly unselfish, inasmuch as the sole purpose was to achieve the calf’s relief from pain and suffering. Some people may name this an act of violence. I call it a surgical operation. I would do exactly the same thing with my child, if he were in the same predicament. My point is that non-violence as the supreme law of our being ceases to be such the moment you talk of exceptions.”
ALL ABOUT SITUATIONAL RESPONSE WHILE KEEPING TO THE INTENT OF ANY VOW.
The foundation of this tale arose from a question posed to Mahatma Gandhi by a Professor Mays in January 1937. More about this can be found in The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, page 396, The Efficacy of Non-Violence, Oxford University Press, 1987.