The Hare’s Sacrifice: a stupid Buddhist story

Rabbit_on_MoonSiddartha 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.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

13 responses to “The Hare’s Sacrifice: a stupid Buddhist story

  1. I don’t think the story is so much about Buddhism as it is about a theme that’s common in Asia: a traveler comes to the hut of a poor man (sometimes woman). In most Asian cultures, a host is honor-bound to feed a guest, but the poor man has nothing to give the traveler; so he kills his wife/child/only ox or donkey on which he depends for his livelihood and feeds the flesh to the traveler. Sometimes the traveler is revealed to be a god, who instantly restores the life of the slain person or animal and amply rewards the poor man for his generosity. Sometimes the traveler discovers what the poor man has done for his sake and promises to make it up to him. Years later, the traveler becomes king or a famous general and makes good on his promise. Anyway, the moral of the story seems to be that sacrifice is an honorable gesture and deserving of reward, whether immediate or delayed. I never understood how cannibalism could be considered honorable, but there’s a lot I don’t get about ancient Asian traditions and culture.

    I should add the Moon Rabbit is not really a Buddhist myth, either. It’s derived from a folktale common to East Asia. But the rabbit’s offering to kill itself contradicts Buddhist canon, which says that all life is sacred, and to take it, even one’s own life, is wrong. I’d call this story just one example of how Buddhism adopted many different practices and myths from local cultures and indigenous religions. It’s theorized that Buddhism became popular in Asia because it was so open to local traditions and didn’t demand that people give up their old beliefs to follow it. But sometimes there’s an obvious conflict between Buddhism and folktale. One doesn’t have to accept one above another, or either one. I doubt the historical Buddha would have expected one to.

  2. @ Hangaku Gozen
    Indeed, to keep the post short, I did not go into the facts that the Buddhist stories borrow from a long pre-Buddhist oral tradition.
    As you know, there are many types of Buddhism, and some do not disallow self sacrifice (consider self-burnings of some Buddhist monks).

    But as you rightly point out, the moral seems to be:

    “Sacrifice is an honorable gesture and deserves reward”.

    Which is a moral governments have used to send soldiers to war. My daughter was pointing out that stupidity can be wrapped in simple stories — I applauded her.

  3. TWF

    Define “great literature”. 😉

    If viewed as a parable, I think that it does what it is intended to do. And, like most parables, it requires that we limit our focus to the message and context being conveyed because, otherwise, they fall apart and appear silly, wrong, etc. when viewed in the larger context of real life. As you know, most (if not all) of Jesus’ parables have the same kind of problem.

    In the larger sense, I think the gods testing us is just a little means of providing self-assurance to ourselves that the suffering we endure, particularly for what is “good” or “right”, will no go unrewarded, despite the appearances at the time.

    I don’t see a rabbit or a man in the moon. The blotches are so random and fuzzy that you can see just about anything you want in them.

  4. Adam

    This story is kind of junk in a modern context. However, I own Martin’s Endless Path and have read a few of them to my son who will be 5 tomorrow. He likes Prince Five Weapons, The Blue Bear, and Great Joy the Ox. I thought the Hungry Tigress would maybe have been a bit too graphic for him but I think the moral of the story would be difficult to translate for a 4-5 year old.

    Your daughter is right on the money with that one.

  5. @ TWF,
    It does not surprise me that you don’t see the rabbit — you are an Engineer. And you did not really experience God when you were a Christian — and thus you left Christianity. You don’t have the hyper-pattern recognition that us superstitious kinds have. My world is probably filled with more illusions than yours — colorful and false! 😉

    @ Adam,
    Yeah, we like many of the other stories. Cute to hear that you son is older now and you are able to read to him! I remember when he was just born, it seems.

  6. I liked the story and would consider it great literature.

    1) It’s an etiological story to explain why there is an image of a rabbit on the moon.

    2) It suggests true value is found only in giving what costs you something since anyone can give away what costs them nothing. What stood out to me was the parallels between the animals. Each one is tested. The first two stole the food from others that they then give back in charity, while the third acquired it from nature. The hare actually sacrifices something.

    3) While I don’t know much about Buddhism, I imagine this idea of extreme self-sacrifice has additional resonance within a Buddhist framework.

  7. I think TWF would agree with you. I think that like people, myths can be judged on many levels: they can contain good and bad themes simultaneously.

  8. Earnest

    Even someone as blinded to the follies of religion as myself can see this is contrived. Unnecessary vs. necessary sacrifice. Unless the lesson is that dumb-ass hares jump into fires for no reason at all.
    I often see the rabbit in the moon now that I know the story.

  9. Connie

    But the hare didnt die!

  10. @ Connie, Right, sort of like Jesus, but he had to volunteer to die just to be virtuous. Both are silly sacrifices.

  11. I think your daughter missed the message of this story due to her inability to understand the story in context, and only you are to blame for that.
    In the introduction to the Jatakas the Bodhisatta-to-be is told by the last Buddha to be unstinting in his generosity.
    Generosity, as the first perfection, is the basis for all the others.
    Throughout Jatakas the first injunction when any discourse is delivered is to give: donations to the poor, food to guests and, most auspiciously of all, food, support and honour to holy men.
    Stories of the boundless generosity of the Bodhisatta, to the extent that he offers his own body or even parts of it, are frequent in the Jatakas.
    Among the most famous of these is the Sivi Jataka (499), where the Bodhisatta offers his own eyes but has his vision restored by Sakka. In the Vessantara Jataka (547), in which the Bodhisatta givesaway his wife and children, Sakka again intervenes and, masquerading as a brahmin, asks Vessantara for his wife, but returns her without committing any violation.
    If the Bodhisatta does die through his actions he immediately experiences a heavenly rebirth: generosity is simply felt in Buddhist countries to bring good luck.
    ‘The story of the hare’ is cited almost universally as fulfilling the first perfection: the fact that it is generosity offered to a holy man, on an uposatha day, renders it particularly auspicious and to this day, those who look up at the Moon (except Donald Trump perhaps) can see the image of the selfless hare, a kind of archetypal message reminding the selfish of the importance of charity.

  12. @ Richard Gmail,
    Read my reply to Hangaku above. I think it is YOU who has missed the point, and only YOU are to blame. And I think you missed the point because you love to preach and listening will not stand in your way.

  13. Thi

    Richard you are knowledge about Buddhism. The Bodhisatta have to fulfill 30 perfections (called paramis ) through aeons and aeons countless lives to finally achieve to be a Sammasambuddha.

    Sabio you are ignorant about Buddhism. Your daughter’s inability to understand. Pick up all true jatakas tales and read!

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