The Bodhisatta was once an antelope. He lived in a forest near a lake and was close friends with a woodpecker and a tortoise. One night he got caught in a noose trap and his friends came to help. The turtle started gnawing through the leather straps and the woodpecker went to the hunter’s home to buy them extra time. Knife in hand, the hunter left his house at dawn and the woodpecker uttered a cry and flew into his face. Taking this as a bad omen, the hunter went inside and lay down for a while. Then he tried to outsmart the bird by going out through the back, but the woodpecker had predicted this and struck him in the face again.
The hunter didn’t try to leave again until after the sun had risen. The woodpecker took off to let the others know he was on his way. Just before the hunter arrived, the tortoise snapped through the strap and the Bodhisatta took off into the woods. But the tortoise, his mouth smeared with blood, was too weak with exhaustion to move and the hunter put him in a bag.
To return the favor, the Bodhisatta let the hunter see him and pretended to be weak. So the hunter took chase, following the slow-moving Bodhisatta through the forest. Once he was far enough away the Bodhisatta took off at full speed back to his friends. He ripped open the bag and let the tortoise out. When the hunter returned, all three friends were gone.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The hunter was an earlier birth of Devadatta, a disciple of the Buddha who became his nemesis. When he was informed that Devadatta had made plans to kill him, the Buddha told this story to his disciples so they knew that Devadatta had also tried to kill him in the past.
The woodpecker and tortoise were earlier births of Sariputta and Moggallana, two of the Buddha’s top disciples.