The Bodhisatta was once an ascetic. He lived in a forest and had a pigeon, snake, jackal, and bear as neighbors, and they used to listen to him preach. One day, while these animals were out seeking food, each suffered misfortune; afterward they went to the Bodhisatta’s hut.
While the pigeon was foraging with his mate, a hawk swept in and carried her off and ate her. The pigeon was tormented by his loss, and he vowed not to eat again until he had learned to subdue his desire.
A gorgeous white bull having fun tossing dirt with his horns scared the snake, and when he tried to crawl back into his hole, the bull accidentally stepped on him. Angered, the snake bit and killed the bull. Villagers came in sadness and buried the bull with honor, and the snake felt terrible guilt over killing another creature. He vowed not to eat again until he had learned to subdue his anger.
The jackal found a dead elephant. He tried to eat the trunk, tail, belly, and tusks, but these were all too hard. Then he bit into the anus, which was as soft as ghee. He ate all the way into the belly and stayed there for days in total contentment, eating when hungry, drinking the blood, and sleeping on the lungs. When he was ready to leave, the jackal found that the wind and sun had shrunk the elephant’s skin, and his rear entrance was closed. He was trapped for many days and grew thin and yellow. But then it rained, and the skin softened, opening his path ever so slightly. He backed into the head and ran at top speed, forcing himself through a hole so tight that his body was bruised and his fur was scraped completely off. Ashamed, he vowed not to eat again until he learned to subdue his greed.
The bear left the forest and went to a village for food. When the villagers spotted him, they beat him away. Covered in blood and with a fractured skull, he vowed not to eat again until he learned to subdue his greed.
While the animals were lying in misery beside the Bodhisatta’s hut, a private Buddha (those who reach enlightenment on their own and do not teach the path to others) living up in the Himalayas divined that the Bodhisatta was destined to be a perfect Buddha, but had not yet reached mystic ecstasy in this life because he remained full of pride for his noble family. He came down to help the Bodhisatta quench his pride and perfect his wisdom, and he took a seat on the Bodhisatta’s stone slab. “Curse you, you good-for-nothing, bald hypocrite!” the angry Bodhisatta yelled when he saw him there. “Why are you sitting on my seat?” The private Buddha calmly introduced himself and said the Bodhisatta would someday fulfill the ten perfections of character and become a perfect Buddha named Siddhartha. Knowing this, he said, there was no reason for the Bodhisatta to take pride in his present noble birth. The Bodhisatta was shocked and speechless. His lesson taught, the private Buddha floated off through the air back to his home. The Bodhisatta was overcome with grief that his pride had robbed him of the chance to kiss the private Buddha’s feet and ask about his future, so he vowed not to eat again until he learned to subdue his pride.
The Bodhisatta went to his leaf hut and sat on a pile of twigs, meditating until he entered a mystic trance and overcame his pride. Then he came out to talk with the four animals, asking why they were fasting. They told him. The animals noticed that the Bodhisatta was also fasting, which he usually did not do, and he told them about his encounter with the private Buddha. Because they managed to change their attitudes, all five ended up in heaven when their time came.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
One time the Buddha preached about the importance of observing the holy days to a crowd of both disciples and lay followers. His sermon focused on the latter, and he told this story to show that keeping the holy-day traditions, including fasting, is an ancient practice and can help subdue passion and lust.
The pigeon, snake, jackal, and bear were earlier births of Anuruddha, Sariputta, Moggallana, and Maha Kassapa, four of the Buddha’s top disciples.