Siddartha Gautama, the Buddha, didn’t become a Buddha overnight. It took him many lifetimes, or so the story goes. In each of those stories, the Buddha is often considered a Bodhisattva — almost a Buddha. The Jataka Tales are collection of stories of the Buddha’s previous lives as a virtuous animal. The other day I was reading a Jataka tale to my daughter from Rafe Martin’s retelling called “The Hungry Tigress”.
Our story that night was “The Hare’s Sacrifice” which tells the tale of the Buddha’s incarnation as a hare. In this story, the Boddhisattva hare decided to offer himself up as food to a hungry stranger even though other food was available for the stranger but the hare wanted to do something noble. The hare shook off the fleas in his fur to spare their lives and then jump into a fire as an offering. But the fire was cold as ice and the rabbit was spared because the stranger was really the King of the Gods, Shakra, who was testing the noble Bodhisattva. As a reward, Shakra drew a picture of the hare on the moon — which is the source of Japanese seeing a rabbit on the moon, instead of a man like Westerners do.
At this point my 11 year-old daughter said, “That is stupid!”. She called this great Buddhist literature “stupid”. She went on, “The rabbit didn’t have to die, he was just going out of his way to kill himself when he didn’t have to. He could have lived longer and helped a lot more people, but he chose to die.”
She was right. Out of the mouth of babes.
Questions for readers (chose one or more):
- Do you consider this great literature? Is my daughter narrow-minded to see this as “stupid”.
- Would you consider this part of the Buddhist Canon or part of Buddhist Scripture? Read my post on Jewish Scripture before you answer.
- What do you think of this theme of the gods testing us? Read my post on Harischandra and the Book of Job before answering.
- Which do you see more easily — the man or the rabbit on the moon? 🙂
- You can actually read the four-page story yourself on Google Books here, just search for “The Hare’s Sacrifice. Or you can read another version here searching for “The Hare’s Self-Sacrifice” – in this story the fire turns into a cluster of lotuses. This wiki article on the Moon Rabbit summarizing the story and tell similar ones from other cultures.
- Readers of this post will see similarity of this story with the story of Job and of Harischandra. Testing by the gods are in all ancient literature it seems.