Atthasadda Jataka (#418)

temple painting of Atthasadda Jataka

The Bodhisatta was once an ascetic who lived in the Himalayas. One time he went down to a city to get salt and vinegar and he slept in the royal park. One midnight the king heard eight ominous sounds – from a crane, a crow, a weevil, a cuckoo, a deer, a monkey, a gnome, and a private Buddha (those who reach enlightenment on their own and do not teach the path to others) – and was terrified. The next morning he consulted his chaplains, who told him this was an ominous warning of impending danger and said performing a large sacrifice was the only way to stop it. The king told them to arrange it, so they began gathering animals.

A wise student of the eldest chaplain urged him to cancel the cruel slaughter, which would lead to rebirth in hell. But the chaplains told the student to shut his mouth because they wanted to eat the abundant fish and flesh that would come after the sacrifice. The student went to find a pious ascetic who could change the king’s mind, and in the royal park he met the Bodhisatta. He explained about the king hearing eight sounds and the Bodhisatta said he knew their meanings, but it was not proper for him to go address the king. But if the king came to see him in the park, he would explain. So the student went to the palace and told the king there was an ascetic who understood what the king had heard, and the king rushed to his park to meet him.

The king saluted the Bodhisatta, who explained the sources of the sounds and assured him they were in no way connected to danger.

  • The crane moaned because the pond where he lived had dried up and he was half-dead of hunger, but this was his ancestral home and he did not want to leave. At the Bodhisatta’s suggestion, the king ordered an advisor to go fill the pond with water.
  • The crow nested over the doorway of the elephant stable and a one-eyed mahout destroyed its nest with his hook every time he passed through the door on his elephant, so the distressed crow angrily vowed to peck out his other eye. The king replaced the mahout.
  • The weevil was trapped at the peak of the palace roof and had eaten all the fig wood, but could not eat the harder woods, so it lamented its fate. The king sent a servant to set the weevil free.
  • A pet cuckoo living in the palace called out that it wanted to escape its cage and return to the forest. The king set the bird free.
  • A pet deer living in the palace missed its mate and yearned to lead his herd again. The king set the deer free.
  • A pet monkey living in the palace was filled with passion and wanted to enjoy the company of females again. The king set the monkey free.
  • A gnome kept at the palace had been married to a sylph, a spirit of the air, and he missed her dearly. One time they had climbed to the peak of a mountain and played with flowers, not noticing the time until the sun was setting. She safely led him down the mountain in the darkness and this memory made him cry from the pain of desire. The king set the gnome free.
  • A private Buddha living in the Himalayas had reached his end and decided he would enter nirvana in the king’s park so there would be a sacred festival to honor his relics. He flew to the palace, sang the song of ecstasy that lights up the entrance to nirvana, and died under a flowering sal tree. The Bodhisatta took the king to see his body.

Hearing the truth put the king at ease. He set free all the sacrificial creatures, threw a seven-day sacred festival to burn the private Buddha’s body, and built a stupa for the relics where the four high roads met. The Bodhisatta preached about righteousness to the king and then returned home.

In the Lifetime of the Buddha

One night King Pasenadi, a righteous ruler and devoted supporter of the Buddha, heard the cries of four beings who dwelled in hell – the sounds “du,” “sa,” “na,” and “su;” one from each of the four – and was terrified to death. His chaplains told him this was an ominous warning of impending danger to either his kingdom, property, or life and said performing the fourfold sacrifice (killing four of each kind of living creature; from men, bulls, horses, and elephants down to small birds) was the only way to stop it. The king told them to arrange it right away. Excited that they would be paid very well for the ceremony, they dug a sacrificial pit and began gathering animals.

King Pasenadi’s exceptionally wise chief queen, Mallika, noticed the chaplains were very happy and when the king told her about what had happened, she suggested he consult the Buddha. So the king went to the monastery and told the Buddha what he had heard and what his chaplains were going to do about it. The Buddha explained that these cries from hell did not foretell danger, rather they came from men who were condemned to eons of boiling liquid torture in iron cauldrons for committing adultery and they wanted to send warnings to people on Earth. They had risen like foam to the edge of the cauldron and tried to yell out words of warning, but were only able to speak the first syllable before sinking down. The first, who uttered “du,” was trying to say “Due to living an evil life, we are suffering.” The others wanted to say “Sad fates we are suffering ceaselessly,” “Nay, we are doomed by fate for the bad things we did on Earth,” and “Soon we will be reborn and live virtuously.” The Buddha then told King Pasenadi this story about another king in a similar situation who had called off a large animal sacrifice. The king was relieved and set all the animal victims free.

The king and the chaplain’s student were earlier births of Ananda and Sariputta, two of the Buddha’s top disciples.

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