The Bodhisatta was once a potter. The lake near the village where the Bodhisatta got his clay was connected to a river in the rainy season, but as the waters receded in the hot season the lake and river split off from each other. Fish and turtles have mystical knowledge of the weather, and knowing a drought was coming they swam into the river; except for one stubborn turtle who did not want to leave the place where he was born. When the lake dried up he dug a hole and buried himself in the mud to wait for the rains to return.
One day when the Bodhisatta came to get clay he dug his spade into the soil and cracked the turtle’s shell. The turtle, dying in agony, told the Bodhisatta of his regret about staying behind when the others left. The Bodhisatta took the dead turtle back to the village and told the residents how and why it met its demise, explaining the peril of cravings and desires. He preached with the skill of a Buddha and not only did his neighbors follow the advice, but his lesson was retold across the whole of India for seven thousand years.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
A disease broke out in a family’s home and the parents told their son to make a hole in the wall (so as to not be seen coming out the door by the ghosts causing the disease) of their home and escape to safety. When the disease had run its course, the son returned to the now empty home and dug up the family treasure to start a new life.
One day he took offerings to the Buddha, and when he told him how he escaped death the Buddha told this story so the son knew he had done a wise thing.
The turtle was an earlier birth of Ananda, one of the Buddha’s top disciples.