Baka Jataka (#38)

painting of Baka Jataka

The Bodhisatta was once a tree fairy and lived alongside a lotus pond. A smaller pond elsewhere in the forest was full of fish, but it was the dry season and the water had dropped very low making food scarce and the water hot. A wicked, clever crane saw this as an opportunity to eat all of these fish. He proposed carrying the fish one by one from their pond to the larger, better lotus pond. Knowing that cranes are the enemy of fish, they were skeptical, but the crane said he would take one fish to swim in the lotus pond and then bring it back as proof. They sent a very large fish, which the crane could not swallow, and when he returned he told them the lotus pond was wonderful, so all the fish agreed to move. The very large fish was the first to go, but this time the crane dropped it in the fork of a tree, pecked it to death, and picked the bones clean. And one by one all the other fish met the same fate, their bones piling up at the base of the tree.

The last resident of the small pond, a crab, really wanted to move to the lotus pond, but he did not trust the crane and assumed the fish had been eaten. He told the crane that he was afraid he might drop him if he rode in his beak like the fish did, but his claws were very strong and could hang onto the crane’s neck. Not suspecting any tricks, the crane agreed. When the crane veered toward the tree, the crab protested and the confident crane told him he was going to eat him like he did all the fish. But the crab replied that he was tricking the crane, not the other way around. “If I am going to die, then you will too,” and squeezed the crane’s neck to make his point. The crane began to cry and tremble from fear and agreed to put the crane in the lotus pond. And as he landed on its bank, the crab snipped off the crane’s head. The Bodhisatta praised the crab, preaching, “There is no reward for tricking people with deceit. See what the crane got in the end,” and the animals of the forest applauded his wisdom.

In the Lifetime of the Buddha

One of the Buddha’s disciples was a masterful tailor and disciples often came to him to have their robes sewn. But this robe-making disciple was also devious. He would take people’s brand-new cloth and give them robes he had sewn out of old cloth, hiding the imperfections with a dressing made of starch so the patches would not show until after the robe was washed.

When a simple village tailor who regularly ran the very same ruse heard about this cultured, urbane disciple, he decided to scam the scammer. He put on one of his own sham robes and went to visit the monastery. When the robe-making disciple saw it, he wanted to have it, so he agreed to exchange some brand-new cloth for it. And when the robe-making disciple washed it, he found he had been cheated and all the other disciples heard about it.

The crane and crab were earlier births of the robe-making disciple and the village tailor. When the Buddha heard some disciples discussing this incident, he told them this story so they knew the robe-making monk had been equally dishonest in the past and also got swindled by the village tailor back then.

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