The Bodhisatta was once a hare. He lived in the forest and had three friends, a monkey, a jackal, and an otter, who he advised on moral matters. One evening before a holy day, he reminded them that giving alms brings great rewards, so they should feed any beggars who happen to approach them. Early the next morning, they all went out to get food to bring back to their homes to eat later when breaking their fasts. The otter found a string of seven fish that a fisherman had buried in the sand for safekeeping, the jackal entered the hut of a field watcher who wasn’t at home and took a lizard and a jar of curds, and the monkey gathered mangoes in the forest. Because he ate only grass, the Bodhisatta did not gather any food, and he realized he would be unable to offer anything to any beggars who came his way. But he vowed to give his own flesh if needed.
The throne of Indra, king of the gods, became warm as the Bodhisatta made his selfless pledge, and when Indra divined the reason, he disguised himself as a brahmin priest and put the Bodhisatta to the test. Indra first visited the otter and said that if he could get some food for breaking his fast, he would be able to do his priestly duties. The otter offered him the seven fish and asked him to stay in the forest for a while. Indra replied that he would come back later for the food. He then made the same request and got the same offers from the jackal and monkey before approaching the Bodhisatta. Upon hearing Indra’s request, the Bodhisatta was filled with joy and told him to prepare a fire, which he did. The Bodhisatta shook himself three times to avoid killing any insects living in his fur and then jumped into the flames, like a swan landing amidst lotuses.
To his surprise, the Bodhisatta felt no heat and wondered what was happening. Indra then revealed himself and explained that he had come to test the Bodhisatta’s virtue. He told Indra that he would have done the same for even the lowliest person, and Indra said the Bodhisatta’s virtue should be known for a whole eon, so he squeezed a mountain and used its essence to paint a picture of the hare on the moon for all to see.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
For one week, a certain landowner was exceptionally generous in donating fancy food to the Buddha and his disciples, and on the seventh day he gave them robes and other requisites. The Buddha told the man that taking delight in providing charity was a wonderful thing. Then the Buddha told him this story so he knew that in the past he himself had done something similar.
The otter, jackal, and monkey were earlier births of Ananda, Moggallana, and Sariputta, three of the Buddha’s top disciples.