Kunala Jataka (#536)

temple painting of Kunala Jataka

The Bodhisatta was once a varicolored-cuckoo. He lived in a delightful, bountiful Himalayan forest and was king of a large flock. Three thousand five hundred hens served him as he went about between gardens, orchards, and mountain peaks: he rode on a stick held in the beaks of two cuckoos with five hundred hens flying below to catch him if he fell; five hundred flying above to block out the heat of the sun; five hundred flying on each side to block heat or cold, grass or dust, wind or dew; five hundred flying in front to prevent collisions and attacks; five hundred flying behind to speak gentle, sweet words of motivations; and five hundred flying hither and thither to bring him fruits. Though these servant hens were of high-born rank and worked without fault, because they were women the Bodhisatta insulted them daily as wicked, absentminded, and ungrateful.

Nearby lived the king of the speckled-cuckoos, a friend of the Bodhisatta with a sweet voice and joyful eyes. He flew in a similar flock of female servants, but he always gave thanks and praise. One time the speckled-cuckoo king suggested the Bodhisatta be kind to his servants, and the Bodhisatta rudely asked “What kind of fool are you to be won over by women?”

One day the speckled-cuckoo king fell ill and was near death. His servants went and asked the Bodhisatta to come heal him. After cursing them and saying he hoped they die, the Bodhisatta took a variety of medicines to his friend and, because the servants went away, stayed to care for him for a few days until the sickness passed. The speckled-cuckoo said he was disgusted with his servants for leaving him. The Bodhisatta saw this as an opportunity to preach about the deceitfulness, ingratitude, and immorality of women, and as word spread that he’d be giving a sermon, a great crowd of gods, humans, and animals gathered in a valley to hear him.

The Bodhisatta declared to the vast assembly sitting before him that women enjoy destroying men as much as lions enjoy killing their prey. They are, he said, as cruel as snakes, as greedy as goblins, as crooked as deer horns, as arrogant as merchants, as dangerous as poisoned drinks, as destructive as flooded rivers, as deadly as covered pits, and as insatiable as hell. When he was finished discussing women’s myriad faults, the Bodhisatta told eight stories of women he knew from past lives as examples of why men should never trust them.

  • Once when the Bodhisatta was a prince, he married a princess who he later learned was a tramp. She was as high-bred as a woman can be: conceived by one king and lovingly raised by a second after he killed her biological father in battle and took her mother as war booty.

    When she came of age, an assembly of men was held in the palace courtyard for her to choose a husband. The Bodhisatta and his four younger brothers, all as beautiful as golden statues and educated by a world-renown teacher at Taxila, had just arrived in the city at that moment in time. They all fell in love at first sight and, to the annoyance of her father, she married all five princes.

    The princess had a hunchbacked servant and was so driven by lust that when her husbands were away, she slept with him too. In secret she told each of her six lovers that he was her favorite and he would become the king after her father died. They all believed her.

    One day she was sick and all of her husbands were in the room massaging her head, hands, and feet while the hunchback sat nearby. As she lay there, she sent subtle signs to each of them, that only they understood, expressing her favoritism for them.

    The Bodhisatta noticed her sending signs to everyone and grew suspicious, so he had the men step out and they all told what the signs meant to them. Disgusted that she was sleeping with a loathsome hunchback, they lost their infatuation not just for her, but for all women, and renounced the world, going off to the Himalayas to live as ascetics.
  • Once when the Bodhisatta was a goldsmith, he and his friends set up a tent at a festival to have fun eating and drinking. After one of them got drunk and vomited he said, “Praise be to the white nun,” a good luck blessing that local people often spoke. The white nun was a revered ascetic who lived in the cemetery and was steadfast in her austerities. The Bodhisatta mocked his friend for paying honor to a woman, because they were unstable, and bet him one thousand coins that in one week he could bring her to the festival drunk and in fancy clothes.

    The Bodhisatta went to the cemetery dressed as an ascetic and pretended to worship the sun. Because he stood boldly in the middle of the cemetery, the white nun assumed he had developed miraculous powers and she went to pay respect. The first two days the Bodhisatta completely ignored her and on the third he told her to go away. On the fourth and fifth days he made pleasant small talk, and on the sixth, he struck up a conversation.

    They discussed their time living as ascetics, the Bodhisatta lying about everything. She had renounced the world twelve years ago and skipped four out of every five meals, but confessed she had not yet attained a holy calm. He said he hadn’t attained it either and lamented that he got neither the joy of worldly pleasures nor the bliss of renunciation – and just then and there he decided to become a householder again, living comfortably on his family’s vast wealth.

    The white nun, lacking strength due to her womanhood, fell in love with the Bodhisatta and asked if he would take her with him and get married. He agreed and went back to his house where they slept together, and then went to the festival where she got drunk and he won the bet.
  • Once when the Bodhisatta was a garuda king1 he’d often take the form of an extremely handsome young man and join games of dice with a human king. Word of his beauty spread around the palace and one day the gorgeous queen consort came to see him. They caught each other’s gaze and fell in love. By his supernatural powers the garuda stirred up a raging storm over the city and in the darkness fled with the queen to his remote island home where they lived happily together. Nobody knew what happened to the queen, so the Bodhisatta continued to come play dice at the palace.

    The king sent one of his minstrels out to find his missing queen, ordering him to explore every land and sea until he found her. Eventually he took passage on a merchant ship and while out on the ocean the men asked him to play his lute for them. He warned them his songs were so good they would excite the fish and the boat would be wrecked, but they did not believe him and insisted. As he sang and played, fish splashed about and a giant sea creature leapt out of the water, falling on the ship and splitting it into two.

    Blown by the wind, the minstrel floated on a plank and came to the Bodhisatta’s island home where the run-away queen recognized and welcomed him. He told her his story of how he got to the island, and she brought him back to her home to take care of him. They became lovers, he hiding away whenever the Bodhisatta was at home.

    After a month and a half, some merchants landed on the island to gather water and firewood and the minstrel sailed back home with them. The king and garuda were in the midst of a dice game when he arrived at the palace, and he told of his adventure and confessed his love for the queen in a song. The Bodhisatta was full of regret for not guarding his love from other men sufficiently and, now knowing what a wicked woman she was, gave her back to the king, never returning to the palace.
  • Once the Bodhisatta was a king’s commander-in-chief. Before this king was born, his father was slain and his pregnant mother was seized by the rival king who conquered the kingdom. The victorious king made her his queen consort. When her son was born she worried that her new husband would consider her child as the son of his enemy and kill him. So she had her nurse lay him in the charnel ground covered by a course cloth.

    The infant’s deceased father had been reborn as the boy’s guardian angel and he used his powers to make a she-goat in the cemetery feel affection for the boy and feed him milk to keep him alive. Eventually the goatherder, who was childless, found the boy and brought him home to raise him. Because his wife had no milk, the she-goat continued to suckle it. But from the time they took the boy in, two or three goats started dying daily. Unable to stop the curse, he put the boy in a clay pot and cast it down the river where a poor man who made a living repairing old rubbish found him on the riverbank near the palace. He and his wife were also childless, so they fostered the boy.

    Shortly after abandoning her son, the captured queen had a daughter with the king. The abandoned boy learned his father’s trade and when he grew up he often went to the palace to mend old things. When the princess saw him, it was love at first sight and they began a secret relationship in the palace. Eventually the servants found out and told the king who called for the man to be executed because of his low-caste. But the guardian spirit took over his mother’s body and she told the king who the boy really was. The king summoned the nurse, the goatherder, and the repairman and confirmed the story.

    Because of his royal blood, the king married the pair and sent him back to rule his father’s land with his daughter as queen. He’d not gotten an education, so the king hired the Bodhisatta as his teacher and also appointed him commander-in-chief. Although she loved her husband, eventually the queen and the Bodhisatta started an affair. Soon after she also started sleeping with the Bodhisatta’s assistant.
  • Once the Bodhisatta was a brahmin youth who lived in a town between two kingdoms. When the king of one kingdom conquered the other he brought back the chief queen, who at the time was pregnant, and made her his own. The king had no children and when she gave birth to a son, the king cherished the boy. When the son grew up, the king sent him back to rule over the land that had belonged to his father.

    Later, his mother longed to see her son and traveled to the other city. On the way she stopped at the mid-point town and when she saw the handsome Bodhisatta she took him as a lover. After enjoying herself in town for a few days, she continued on and visited her son. On the return trip home, she stopped again for several more days of passion with the Bodhisatta. Not long after she returned home, she told her husband she wanted to visit her son again and this time spent two more weeks with the Bodhisatta.
  • Once when the Bodhisatta was a king’s wise chaplain, a loathsome, misshapen man lived up against the palace wall in the shade of a rose apple tree whose branches drooped down onto the wall. One day the beautiful queen consort saw the loathsome man from her window and fell madly in love with him. Soon after, she instigated an affair. Each night, after the king fell asleep, she climbed out her window on a cloth rope and crossed over the palace wall via the rose apple tree. After taking her pleasure, she returned to her room, covered herself with perfume, and lay down by the king’s side.

    One day, after he made a solemn procession around the city and was returning home, the king saw the pitiful loathsome man and asked the Bodhisatta if any woman would ever be with him. This man heard the king and, full of pride, told the tree it was the only one who knew his secret. The Bodhisatta noticed his reaction and deduced what the queen was doing. The Bodhisatta told the king his suspicion, and though he was doubtful, that night the king only pretended to fall asleep and followed the queen out the window. Her lover slapped the queen for coming late and one of her special lion-head earrings fell out and landed right at the king’s feet. He picked it up and returned to bed.

    The next morning the king summoned the queen to come before him wearing all the jewelry he had ever given her. She came with only one earring, saying the other was with the goldsmith. To humiliate her further, the king summoned him to expose her lie. Then he threw the missing earring at her feet and ordered the Bodhisatta to chop off her head. The Bodhisatta asked the king to spare her life because she was only acting the way all women do, and he offered to prove it.

    The king left the kingdom in the care of his mother and the two men set out into the countryside in disguise. Not far outside the city they encountered a wedding celebration and the Bodhisatta told the disbelieving king he could have sex with the bride right then. The Bodhisatta rushed in front of the procession and set up a screen around the king. When the bride’s carriage passed them, the Bodhisatta began to cry and said his pregnant wife was inside the screen and there was no woman to help with the delivery. The father-in-law, thinking that helping the woman give birth would be auspicious and help him have a large family in the future, sent the bride in. When the bride stepped inside the screen she fell in love at first sight with the king and she gave herself to him. Back outside, she announced that it was a beautiful baby boy.

    The men continued their journey around India and the Bodhisatta convinced the king all women were the same. When they returned home the king spared the queen’s life, but had her evicted from the palace and chose a new chief queen. The loathsome man was sent away too, and the rose apple branch over the wall was cut off.
  • Once when the Bodhisatta was a wise, righteous king he fell in love with a poor woman who had deformed hands, feet, mouth, eyes, and nose: punishment for scowling at a private Buddha (those who reach enlightenment on their own and do not teach the path to others) in a past life. But she also gave that same private Buddha a lump of clay for him to use to tidy up his cave, and for this she was rewarded with a miraculously soft touch. The Bodhisatta met her by accident one night while out wandering around the city. Not paying attention and thinking he was someone else, the deformed woman casually grabbed the Bodhisatta’s hand as he walked by. Her soft touch caused him to lose control and despite her being hideous to look upon and desperately poor, he immediately asked her to marry him. She said yes, of course.

    Every night he went to her home and returned to the palace before sunrise so nobody would know about their relationship. Even she didn’t know who he really was because he always wore a disguise. Despite his shame, he was perfectly faithful to her, never so much as even looking at another woman with lust.

    One day the deformed woman’s father suffered a bloody discharge and the only remedy was a constant supply of rice gruel prepared with milk, ghee, honey, and sugar; which they could not afford. The mother asked her daughter if her new husband could help. She answered that he must be poorer than them to have married an ugly wretch like her, but she would ask.

    That evening the Bodhisatta found his wife in a sad state, and when she told him why he realized he could use this opportunity to bring her into his palace without becoming a despised laughingstock. He promised to get her the food she needed, and the next night he came with two baskets made of leaves: one filled with food and the other having his jeweled crown inside. He told her to serve her father the rice from one basket today and save the second basket for the next day, and she did as told.

    In the morning, the royal attendants couldn’t find the crown and the Bodhisatta ordered the whole city searched, with no success. Then he told them to go through the houses of the poor people living outside the city gates. When the crown was found in the deformed woman’s parents’ house all three of them were brought before the Bodhisatta (who pretended ignorance of the whole matter) and denied stealing the crown. She said her husband gave the package with the crown to her, and she didn’t know who her husband was because he only came at night and she had never seen his face. But she could identify him by the touch of his hand.

    As he had secretly planned all along, the Bodhisatta ordered a screen erected in the palace courtyard and all male citizens were brought to be tested by reaching through and touching her. Everyone was filled with disgust at the start, but once they touched her, they behaved like madmen and had to be beaten away by the king’s servants.

    Now that people understood her charm, the Bodhisatta could admit his love publicly and he reached through the screen to reveal himself. He invited his deformed wife into the palace and made her his chief queen.

    After living in the palace a while, the deformed wife had a dream of being the chief queen for two kings. She told the Bodhisatta and he summoned his dream interpreters. The king’s jealous other queens had bribed the interpreters and they lied, telling the Bodhisatta the dream foretold she would bring a hostile king to fight him and he would die. They told him he could save his life by putting her on a boat and setting it adrift down the river, and he did so.

    As she floated downstream between two kingdoms, she passed another king who stopped the ship to seize its cargo. Seeing the deformed woman, he wondered if she was a goblin. But when she told her story, he helped her disembark and the moment he took her hand he was inflamed with passion and made her his chief queen.

    Eventually the Bodhisatta wanted his wife back and led his army to get her, telling the other king to surrender her or go to war. Advisors for both kings got the point across that nobody should die for the sake of a woman and convinced the kings to share her, seven days in one kingdom and then seven in the other. They each built cities on opposite shores of the river, and when she crossed between them each week in a boat she had sex mid-stream with the boatman, a lame, bald old man.
  • Once when the Bodhisatta was a king his beloved queen consort took a palace servant as a lover. After the Bodhisatta fell asleep she’d climb out the window to meet him, then when she returned to their room she’d wash up and go back to bed. One night the Bodhisatta noticed her body was cold under the covers and he got suspicious. So the next night he pretended to fall asleep, followed her when she left, and saw her getting intimate with the servant.

    The next day the Bodhisatta summoned the queen and exposed her affair in front of his advisors. Though her offence deserved death, mutilation, or imprisonment, because all women are sinners, the Bodhisatta just stripped her of her high rank and chose another chief queen.

His past-life stories complete, the Bodhisatta spoke more about womenkind’s wickedness. They are as vicious as a black snake, he said, and as ravenous as fire. They are fickle, ungrateful, and treacherous creatures who care not for duty’s call and are numb to affection. They ignore what’s right, only obeying their heart’s desires. They are unreliable with a mind like a shifty monkey and always leave you behind in times of trouble. You have as much chance of catching the wind in a net as getting a woman to obey you. His tirade complete, there was applause and shouts of “Bravo, well said!”

The vulture king called out from the audience that he too had first-hand experience with women’s faults. Women are vile wretches, he said, and cannot be trusted. Their shame knows no bounds and they make no distinction between true and false. Unrestrained in lust, they court men without regard to love and hate. Like parasites infesting a tree and cows eating only the choicest plants, women seek riches.

When the vulture king had finished his speech, a renown ascetic added that women’s ways are as perplexing as fish in the sea, annoying as thorns, and as dangerous as blazing fires. And even the holiest men fail when tempted by their seduction.

Finally, the Bodhisatta spoke again with a few further words about the dangers of women. It’s safer to talk to a goblin or a snake than a woman, he said, because men can be defeated by women’s charm. With just a smile, women can secure men’s wealth, but even after they are bedecked with gold and jewels they still sin against their husbands. Men who are famous and revered lose their respect when they fall under the sway of a woman and can end up on a dreadful path. To get to heaven men must overcome their libido and not fall under the sway of women.

After giving another round of applause, the various gods and creatures returned to their abodes. The speckled-cuckoo king and all the others took the Bodhisatta’s advice about women to heart and received great merit for doing so.

In the Lifetime of the Buddha

The Buddha told this story to help five hundred new disciples who were dissatisfied. It all began with a quarrel between the Buddha’s Sakya clan and a neighboring clan over who should get the water for their crops when their shared dam ran low at the end of the dry season. As tempers flared, people came to blows and the two clans declared war on each other.

The Buddha went to quell the feud, and when they saw him every man threw down his weapon to listen to him speak. The Buddha said life was more valuable than water and then told five stories from his past lives to convince the men to settle their dispute peacefully.

  • To explain the futility of fighting, the Buddha told the Phandana Jataka (#475), in which he was a tree fairy. A branch fell off his tree onto a lion. Angry from the pain, the lion told a carpenter to cut down the Bodhisatta’s tree for making wheels. To get revenge, the Bodhisatta told the carpenter to use the lion’s skin to strengthen the wheel, so the lion died.
  • To condemn blindly following others, the Buddha told the Daddabha Jataka (#322), in which he was a lion. A hare heard a bael fruit fall out of a tree with a loud thud and feared the earth was coming to an end, so he took off running as fast as he could. Tens of thousands of other animals heard his warning and joined in the exodus, all without ever looking back. The Bodhisatta knew the earth was not breaking apart and stopped the stampede with his roar. He asked if anyone had actually seen the earth breaking apart, and no one had. So he and the hare went back to the place he heard the sound to investigate and saw the fruit lying on the intact ground.
  • To prove that sometimes the weak can defeat the strong, the Buddha told the Latukika Jataka (#357), in which he was an elephant. When his herd passed by a nest full of hatchlings, a mother quail begged the Bodhisatta to protect her children from being stepped on, so he stood over the nest until all of his elephants had passed. Later an evil rogue elephant came by, and when he heard the quail’s pleas he intentionally trampled the chicks and urinated on their mangled corpses. The quail cursed the elephant and vowed revenge, stating that a strong mind was more powerful than a strong body. The mother quail helped a crow, a fly, and a frog and then enlisted them to return the favors by helping her murder the rogue elephant. The crow pecked out the elephant’s eyes to blind him, the fly laid eggs in his eye sockets to cause him maddening pain, and the frog croaked causing the elephant to follow him in the assumption that he was in water; but the frog had jumped down a cliff and the elephant fell to his death.
  • To promote unity, the Buddha told the Rukkhadhamma Jataka (#74), in which he was a tree fairy. A new king told all the fairies of the forest they could go live anywhere they pleased. Despite the Bodhisatta telling his relatives to stay in the forest with him, some chose to go live in big stand-alone trees near towns where they knew they would get the most honor and offerings. One day a storm blew down all the lone trees, so these fairies lost their homes, while trees packed together in the forest suffered no damage. This showed that families should stick together.
  • To show that unity brings victory and division brings destruction, the Buddha told the Sammodamana Jataka (#33), in which he was a quail. He told the other quails that anytime they were caught in a hunter’s net, they should stick their heads through the mesh and fly away together. When they worked together like this, the hunter could catch none. But one day while feeding, a quail accidentally stepped on another’s head. He apologized, but the other quail remained angry and the two bickered for a long time. Knowing that conflict compromised their safety, the Bodhisatta took his flock elsewhere in the forest. When the hunter returned and cast his net, the entrapped quails argued about who should begin lifting, and this gave the hunter time to pick up the net and kill them.

The Buddha finished his discussion with a lesson on self-control and non-attachment, and everyone renounced war, feeling grateful to the Buddha for saving their lives. As an act of atonement, each of the clans sent two hundred fifty princes to become disciples. They collected morning alms together in both of the clans’ cities and were given great honor. But these men had ordained out of respect for the Buddha, not due to a desire for spiritual growth, and over time they became discontent; and the feelings worsened when they received messages from their former wives.

To help them overcome their dissatisfaction, the Buddha flew them to the beautiful valley in the Himalayas where he had been the cuckoo and preached about the wickedness of women through this past-life story. The trip and the story erased their longing for their wives. Fully understanding that women create problems and should be avoided, they all attained arahantship and were able to fly home with their own supernatural powers.

The speckled-cuckoo king was an earlier birth of Laludayi, an elder disciple of the Buddha who was quite stupid and often said one thing when he meant another. The vulture king and ascetic were Ananda and Sariputta, two of the Buddha’s top disciples.

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