16 – The Baby Quail
Not even fire can destroy the power of speech purified by truth; knowing this, who would not always endeavor to speak the truth?
Once the Bodhisattva lived in a forest as a baby quail. Together with his many brothers, he lived in a nest built with great care by his parents on a vine in the middle of a thicket, firmly protected by a strong covering of grass. Having emerged from the egg only a few days before, his wings were not yet developed, and in his small, weak body his tender limbs were barely discernible.
Yet even in such a life, the Bodhisattva had not lost his awareness of the Dharma, and refused to feed on any of the living beings brought by his mother and father. Instead he sustained himself on the vegetable food they gathered, such as grass seeds, figs, and the like. Nourishment so coarse and insufficient did not help his wings develop, nor his body to grow strong, so he remained weak and immature, while the other young quail, who ate anything given them, became strong and fully fledged. Such, indeed, is the way of the world: Those who avoid deciding what is truly right eat everything and thrive, while those who desire to live in accord with righteousness eat only certain foods, and endure hardships. As the Bhagavat has said: The shameless lead happy lives. It has also been said in the scriptures that the life of the brazen crow, bold and impetuous, is easy, though mired in wickedness. The modest who strive after purity, the humble who aim to be aware ― these lead more difficult lives.
Now it happened that one day an enormous conflagration erupted in the forest not far from the quails’ nest. First there was an awesome noise, then clouds of billowing smoke, and finally, moving tongues of flame shot forth in all directions, destroying groves and thickets. The poor forest animals were terrified.
Excited by the whirling wind, the fire danced and leapt, stretching its darting arms every which way, and shaking its disheveled hair of smoke. Crackling and cackling, it stole the courage and strength of all in its path. Swiftly it jumped as if in anger on the grasses, which seemed to take flight before the roaring wind; but glittering sparks covered the clumps and blades of grass, and they were instantly consumed. The forest itself appeared to shriek with pain as crowds of birds took flight and beasts raced by trying to escape the thick, dark smoke.
Urged on by the violent winds, the flames followed the grasses and shrubs, and the blaze came closer and closer to the nest. The young quail, screeching wildly in confusion and fear, all flew up, every bird for himself, with no concern for one another. Only the Bodhisattva, whose body was so weal: and wings so unformed, made no such effort. He knew his own strengths and was not disturbed.
As the impetuous fire approached and was about to seize the nest, he spoke calmly: “My feet are not strong enough to deserve their name, my wings are unable to fly. My parents you have put to flight. I have nothing worth offering a guest such as you. Therefore, fire, turn back!”
No sooner had the Great Being uttered these words, hallowed by Truth, than the fire subsided. Though fanned by winds, though raging in the underbrush, it stopped of its own accord, as if blocked by a swollen river.
To this day, any forest fires reaching that famous spot in the Himalayas, however high its flames, however strong the wind, will abate and lose its force like the most ferocious serpent when charmed by a spell.
The sea can no more transgress its boundaries, or the virtuous ignore the Dharma taught by the Muni, than can fire defy the Truth. Knowing this, the wise never abandon their devotion to true speech.
From this story, then, one can see how words purified by Truth cannot be overcome even by fire. And with this in view, one realizes the importance of speaking the truth. This story is also relevant when praising the qualities of the Tathagata.