22 – The Noble Geese
Even when in distress, the virtuous display right conduct of a kind impossible for the non-virtuous. How much more perfect their conduct must be when they are favored by fortune!
Once the Bodhisattva took birth as a king of the geese named Dhritarachtra, ruler of a vast flock living on Lake Manasa. Sumukha was his commander-in-chief, the protector of the king’s hundreds of thousands of subjects. Only slightly less exalted than the king himself, Sumukha was well skilled in the management of the king’s affairs, for he knew clearly what constitutes correct policy, and had a prodigious memory for events spanning vast extents of space and time.
Born of an illustrious family, Sumukha was endowed with constancy, honesty, and courage, his natural nobility embellished by talent, courtesy, and modesty. Distinguished by the purity of his conduct and mode of life, he was always vigilant, always clever, and his skill in management was faultless. Capable of enduring endless hardship, in military matters he was fearless, and he loved his king deeply. Sumukha was, indeed, a previous incarnation of the Buddha’s disciple Ananda. Together, the king of the geese and his commander instructed their flock like a teacher and his principal disciple, or like a father and his eldest son. As they taught the birds peaceful conduct and practices, their obvious mutual respect and affection caused their perfections to shine all the brighter. They were an example for all, and were admired by gods, nagas, yakshas, vidyadharas, holy men, ascetics, and many other beings.
As wings know no purpose but to support a bird in flight, so these two had no goal but to support the Dharma and to protect their flock. Thus favored, the flock gained great happiness and prosperity, just as men do when upheld by righteousness. Lake Manasa thus became a place of magical splendor. Massed together, the birds resembled an expanse of shimmering lotuses; in flight, they were like banks of clouds drifting across the sky. Their voices, clear and lovely, brought to mind the sound of the anklets of women dancing.
Enchanted by the wonderful virtues of the King of Geese — so intent on benefitting all beings ― and by the glory of Sumukha, crowds of siddhas, rishis, vidyadharas, and gods gathered above the lake to extol their qualities: “Their majestic bodies are like pure gold, their speech is articulate and clear. Virtue rules their conduct and their policy. Though in outward form they are geese, their conduct indicates an identity far more exalted.”
Full of wonder, yet free from jealousy, the deities spread word of these two perfect geese throughout the world. The news reached even to the councils of kings―and Brahmadatta, ruler of Varanasi, began to hear about the king of the geese and his commander-in-chief from his trustworthy advisers and from the foremost brahmans. The king became increasingly curious about these two geese, and so he said to his ministers-of-state who were expert in many branches of science:
“Gentlemen! Now is the time to put your cleverness to the test. You must discover some way for me to catch at least a glimpse of these two most amazing geese.”
The ministers let their thoughts roam the paths of devious action, and in a short time they returned to their king with a suggestion:
“Your Majesty,” they said, “because all beings seek happiness, the promise of happiness is an irresistible lure. Therefore, in one of your forest glades, let Your Majesty build a beautiful lake like the one where the geese now reside. But let it surpass the brilliance of their Lake Manasa. If you loudly proclaim it a sanctuary for all birds, perhaps news of the beauty of the lake and its possibilities for pleasure will excite the curiosity of the geese and draw them near. Consider, Your Majesty: A pleasure once obtained loses its charm, but pleasures merely heard of are irresistible.”
The king accepted their proposal. Soon a great lake rivaling the magnificence of Lake Manasa was created in a park not far from the capital.
A basin of purest water embracing a rainbow of flowers ― lotuses and water lilies, white lotuses and red. Flowering trees, their leaves shimmering in the light, encircled the lake as if they had come to gaze upon it. Hovering over the surface was a swarm of bees attracted by the laughing lotuses rocking on the gently trembling waves. The kumuda flowers, opening at the gentle touch of the moonbeams, seemed like patches of moonshine piercing through the foliage.
The pollen of the utpala blossoms ornamented the shore, as if drawn there by the finger-like waves. Like a painting made with golden lines, the leaves and filaments of the lotus flowers covered the shore with a golden sheen. The calm transparent water revealed the contours of the many fish as clearly as if they were swimming through the sky. Elephants, dipping their trunks in the cloistered pools, blew forth cascades of spray like broken strings of pearls; the waves driven onto the rocks and scattered into the air seemed to dissolve in sparkling dust. The pollen of the flowers, the musk of the elephants, and the sweet perfumes of goddesses scented the waters. So brilliant was the lake at night that the stars, the wives of the moon-god, gazed in the waters as in a mirror while myriad birds sang their sweet songs.
Such was the lake created by the king, and given by him to the birds for their sole use and pleasure.
In order to gain the birds’ trust, the king ordered a proclamation to be repeated day after day throughout the region: “This lake, covered with lotuses and water lilies, has been created solely for the enjoyment of the birds. The king guarantees their total safety.”
It was the time when autumn draws back a dark curtain of clouds and reveals a horizon clear and shining; a time when lakes with their brilliant water and clusters of lotuses are lovely to behold. It was a time when the moon is at its fullest, her rays sending forth their greatest power; a time when the earth is covered with the glory of harvest. It was a time when young birds feel the urge to wander. Soon the king’s lake was alive with the songs of thousands of birds, carefree and gay.
Not long after, a pair of geese from the Bodhisattva’s flock, in their autumn explorations, happened to fly over Brahmadatta’s realm and spied the lake. They saw its shining and sweet-scented lotuses open and glowing like flame; they saw its white lotuses, unfolding as if bubbling with laughter. They heard the echoing calls of many birds, the humming of the bees; they smelled the scent of the pollen scattered by the cool gentle breeze gliding over the waves. Although accustomed to Lake Manasa, the two geese were wholly captivated by the loveliness and splendor of this lake.
“Our whole flock must come here!” they thought (since we all generally think first of closest friends when we find some such pleasure). In order to enjoy themselves a while, they stayed at this lake near Varanasi until the next rains. Then, when armies of clouds advanced like hosts of the Daityas; when lightning began to flash like brandished weapons; when the festive troops of peacocks performed their dances, parading their fans and crying out as if exulting at the triumph of the clouds; when even smaller birds became loquacious; when brisk winds blew cool with the scent of the forest trees; when flocks of cranes were silhouetted against the sky like the teeth of dark clouds; at that time, when flocks of geese cried out softly, impatient, anxious, eager to move on, then it was that the two returned to their home on Lake Manasa.
After paying respect to their king, they told of their travels: “South of Mount Himavat, Your Majesty,” they said, “in a place called Varanasi, a human king named Brahmadatta has bequeathed to the birds a lake of marvelous beauty, filled with the most indescribable delights. All the birds can enjoy themselves there as fearlessly as if they were at home. Once the rains are over, Your Majesty should travel there.”
On hearing about the lake, the whole flock of geese grew eager to see it, but the Bodhisattva fixed an inquiring gaze on Sumukha, his commander-in-chief, and asked: “What do you think of this, Oh my commander?”
Sumukha bowed his head and replied: “I think it unwise for Your Majesty to go. What reason is there to leave our bountiful home? We have everything we need here. The delights described are nothing but temptation.
“Moreover, human hearts are false, and the compassion they proclaim is deceitful ― under the guise of sweet words, men conceal a cruel nature. Birds and beasts express their true feelings in their calls; men are the only animals who produce sounds with meaning contrary to their intentions. My lord: Men’s words may seem wholesome and full of good intention, but remember that merchants spend money only in hope of future gain. By relying on men’s words, we will surely come to harm. No matter what they say, we must be very careful.
“But should the lure prove irresistible, let us not stay long ― let us resolve beforehand simply to go to the lake, enjoy its beauty, and return in short order. Such is my advice.”
As it happened, the flock of geese could not restrain their curiosity. Again and again they pleaded with the Bodhisattva to set out for the lake, until finally, one bright autumn night, under the purest rays of moon and stars, the king of geese complied with their request. Accompanied by Sumukha and all the other geese, he set out like a moon-god attended by white autumn clouds.
As soon as the flock beheld the splendor of the lake, they were overwhelmed with wonder and gladness. And so they glided gracefully to its surface, where their beautiful forms added to the brilliance of the lake. Their delight soared as they wandered over its waters ― as we would wander through a park, delighting in its great variety. And there upon the lake the geese heard the king’s proclamation of safety, and witnessed the freedom of the birds already living there. Soon they forgot Lake Manasa entirely.
The guardians of the lake quickly reported the geese’s appearance to the king: “Your Majesty, two of the most perfect geese have appeared at the lake; they must be the ones of which we have heard, such are their qualities. They are surrounded by a retinue of thousands, and their wings shine like gold; their beaks and feet shine even brighter. They are of great size, and beautifully formed. No other birds could be as beautiful.”
At once the king ordered his most skilled fowler, a man renowned for his expertise in snaring birds, to trap the geese. Promising to do so, the fowler carefully surveyed all the places where the two were most frequently seen. Then, while the rest of the flock wandered over the lake, cheerful and free and trusting, the trapper set strong snares well-concealed.
In no time at all the king of the geese was caught by the foot in a trap. Such is the perniciousness of misplaced trust: Aroused by the subtle machinations of those who falsely inspire confidence, it dispels all thought of danger, breeding carelessness and lack of awareness.
For fear a similar misfortune might befall the others, the Bodhisattva issued a special cry, warning the geese of danger.
In an instant, alarmed at the capture of their lord, the geese, shrieking discordant noises like soldiers whose chief warrior has been captured, flew into the sky wildly, without any regard for each other.
But a heart bound by love does not notice imminent peril: Sumukha, commander-in-chief, did not move from the side of his king. To such a one, sorrow aroused by the distress of a friend is worse than death.
“Go quickly, Sumukha,” said the Bodhisattva. “It is not wise to linger. How can you be of any help to me while I am in this state? Consider your own life.”
Sumukha replied: “If I were to leave, I would still be bound by old age and death ― but if I stay, no final death can ensnare me. I have always attended you in prosperity, my lord. How could I leave you in calamity? If I were to abandon you for the sake of such a small thing as my life, where would I find shelter from the rain of blame? How could I leave you in your distress? Whatever fate befalls you, I will gladly share it.”
“What fate awaits a bird ensnared but the kitchen?” asked the Bodhisattva. “How can that prospect tempt one who is in free possession of body and mind? What profit do you see for me or for yourself, or for our flock in both our deaths? One might sooner distinguish level and unlevel ground in the dark than find the gain in such a course of conduct. What benefit. what profit in your death?”
Sumukha replied: “How is it, Oh king of birds, that you cannot perceive the profit in following the path of right action? Honoring the Dharma always reaps the greatest gain. Knowing the great benefit of the Dharma, I see great good for myself. And so I do not cling to life.”
“Truly,” replied the Bodhisattva, “such is the Dharma of the virtuous, that a dutiful friend will never abandon a friend in distress, even at the cost of his life. You have observed the law of right action well. But grant me this last request, and fly away. It is your duty, Oh wise one, to fill the gap I leave.”
And so the two of them were expressing their mutual affection when the fowler, Nishada, burst upon them, rushing forth like the lord of death. When the geese saw him coming, they fell silent. Having watched the flock as they flew away, the fowler had suspected some were caught, and was dashing from trap to trap in search of his prey. Upon discovering the two geese, he gazed upon them, enthralled by their beauty. Thinking the two were caught, he reached down and shook the snares. But when he realized only one was trapped, the other loose and free, his astonishment multiplied. Approaching Sumukha, he spoke:
“That bird is caught, its freedom lost. He cannot fly, though I approach. But you have not been ensnared; you are free to go! Your wings are under your own power! Why did you not fly up into the sky as I approached?”
In human language distinct and clear, its beauty showing the firmness and virtuous nature of the speaker, Sumukha replied: “You ask why I do not leave although I am able to fly? The answer is simple. You may have gained power over this great bird by means of your trap ― and caused him great suffering by ensnaring his feet. But his power over me is stronger still: He has ensnared my heart with his virtues.”
Awestruck, the hairs on his body standing on end, Nishada asked once more: “What is this bird to you that you stay by him? All the others, in great fear of me, flew straight into the sky and left him.”
Sumukha answered: “He is my king, my friend, my benefactor, and I love him no less than life itself. He is in great danger. And so I will never leave him, even to save my life.'”
Observing a feeling of wonder and admiration growing in the fowler, Sumukha continued: “Now, dear friend, if an hour talk might have a happy ending. What glory you would win in setting us free!”
“I wish you no harm,” said the fowler. “It is not you I have caught. Why don’t you just fly away and join your kin? How happy they will be to see you!”
But Sumukha did not move. “If you truly wish me no sorrow, then grant me this request: Take me and let him go. Our bodies are of equal size, our age the same. If you are content to capture only one bird, taking me will cost you nothing.
“Think this over well! Wouldn’t you like to have me for your very own? Tie me up first, if you wish, and then release the king. By granting my request at no loss to yourself, vou will gain the undying friendship of the whole flock. Set their lord at liberty, that they may once more see him shining like a moon in the clear sky.”
The fowler, accustomed to a cruel trade, was hard-hearted by nature. But he was deeply touched by Sumukha’s clear expression of selfless love and gratitude ― spoken in a tone so sweet but firm. Overcome with admiration and respect, he joined his palms and bowed to Sumukha, saying: “Well said. Well said, Oh Noble One! Even in the realm of gods and men such selflessness ― to give up one’s life for another ― is most rare. I will pay you homage and set your king free. Who could harm one who is dearer to you than your life?”
And so the fowler, listening more closely to the voice of compassion than to the orders of his sovereign, released the king of the geese from the snare. Seeing his king set free, Sumukha fixed a look of love on the fowler, and said: “By releasing the king of geese, you have made all of us who are your friends eternally grateful! May you be blessed with beneficent friends for thousands of years! But for the present, so that your labor will not have been in vain, come take us both on your shoulder pole, free and unbound, and carry us to the palace to present to your king. When he sees the king of the geese and his commander-in-chief, he will no doubt be so pleased that he will shower you with more riches than you ever dreamed of.”
Thinking that the king at all events should see this wonderful pair of geese, the fowler agreed to the request. Placing the birds in baskets, unbound and unharmed, he delivered them to the king.
“May it please Your Majesty to accept this wondrous gift,” he said. “Here is the famous king of the geese and his commander-in-chief.”
The king gasped in amazement and pleasure at the sight of the two geese gleaming like two pieces of new-minted gold. “How did you manage to capture them unhurt and untied? Why do they willingly stay in the hands of one on foot when they are able to fly away?”
The fowler bowed to the king and related his miraculous tale: “Upon arriving at the lake, I set many cruel snares in pools and ponds, at the places where the geese tended to gather. Proceeding unsuspectingly, this foremost of geese caught his foot in a hidden snare. The other, though free, stood steadfast by his side when I arrived, and in a human voice articulate and sweet, pleaded with me to take him instead ― in ransom for the life of his king. His plea, springing from his readiness to sacrifice his own life, carried great power.
“The effect of his soft words and great actions on behalf of his master was so great that I was converted to respect: and so I freed his lord, binding instead my own cruel temper. Rejoicing at the release of his king, the other addressed many thanks and blessings to me. In gratitude, he instructed me to carry them both to you so that my labors should not go unrewarded. Thus he has arrived at your palace of his own accord, together with his master. These two, though they have the form of birds, possess the nature of Dharma masters.”
These words filled the king with joy and wonder. He gave the sovereign goose a golden throne spread with a costly cover, soft cushions at its back, its headrest covered with lustrous jewels, a throne well-suited to a king. For Sumukha, he offered a throne of bamboo, one fit for a chief minister. Then the Bodhisattva, considering the time appropriate for speech, addressed the king in a voice that rang like a bell:
“I hope you are in good health, Oh health-deserving prince, and that your glorious body glows with strength. I hope your other body bides as well ― the one comprising your virtues. Does it often breathe forth the breath of spiritual words and discourses? Have you dedicated yourself to those in need and to the task of protecting your subjects? Do you justly administer rewards and punishments, increasing both your own glory and your people’s affections? Do you encourage your people’s welfare?
“Have you the assistance of honest and devoted ministers who are devoted to the welfare of your people and skilled in management? I hope you attend to all these matters well?
“Do you set free the impulse of compassion when your vassal-kings plead for mercy, yet all the while refrain from falling into that insidious sleep of carelessness, unthinking trust? Do the virtuous applaud your efforts to secure the Dharma, and is your fame increasing? Do your enemies have but sighs to hurt them?”
The king answered all these questions in the affirmative, his pleasure showing his calm and tranquil ways. “Now having met with your holiness,” he added, “my joy and welfare are complete in all respects. For I have long wished to meet with you. But this fowler who captured you in his snare did you no harm, I hope, with his pain-inflicting stick? It so often happens that knaves are excited to sinful action when birds fall as their prey.”
The Bodhisattva replied: “I did not suffer, Oh great king, nor did the fowler treat me in any way like an enemy. Seeing Sumukha resolute by my side, seeing him stay by my side out of love for me though not caught himself, your fowler was amazed and addressed me with great kindness. After releasing me from the snare, he showed me both respect and honor. For this reason Sumukha asked him to bring us here, wishing him only good. May our arrival signal his great happiness!”
“Having shown such kindness to you, this fowler deserves a high reward,” the king replied. “I have longed for the sight of you, and I bid you both welcome. You are indeed a feast for my eyes.” And so the king showered Nishada with fabulous wealth, after which he again addressed the king of geese: “This whole realm is yours ― pray put aside all formalities and tell me how I may serve you. My riches are at your disposal. Desires of friends frankly expressed give more pleasure than wealth itself; honesty among friends is a great virtue.”
Then the king, wishing to converse openly with Sumukha, gazed with admiration on that noble face, and said: “But perhaps, as a new acquaintance, you feel such openness is not quite suitable. Still, we may at least speak as equals, and with words not un-sweet. I hope that you will favor me with conversation. Grant me the gift of your friendship, and increase the joy in my heart.”
On this invitation, Sumukha, commander-in-chief of the geese, bowed respectfully to the human king and replied: “A conversation with Your Highness who is the equal of Indra is a great joy indeed. Who would not feel grateful for such an opportunity? But would it not have been outrageous insolence for a mere attendant to interrupt the dialogue of two great kings? Such behavior is not for the well-bred. Therefore, great prince, I was silent. I ask your pardon, if you will grant it.”
The king smiled warmly. “Justly does the world delight in the greatness of your virtue. Justly has the king of geese made you his friend. Modest behavior such as yours is displayed only by those who have subdued their inner self. I hope with all my heart that this friendship now begun will never be broken. Indeed, the meeting of the virtuous always leads to friendship.”
The Bodhisattva, understanding the strength of the king’s love and desire for friendship, replied: “Following your most generous impulse, you have treated us both as your dearest friends, though we have just met. Whose heart would not be won, illustrious prince, by such treatment? No matter what you may later ask of us, no one can dispute that here and now you have demonstrated the essence of hospitality.
“But this is no wonder for one who has subdued the self, one who cares only for the interest of his subjects, one who is as firmly intent on asceticism and contemplation as a Muni. You had only to follow the promptings of your nature to become a storehouse of virtues.
“Virtue is the source of the satisfaction which comes from such praise as I have now given you. In the strongholds of vice no bliss endures. Knowing this, what sentient being would ever resort to the wrong path?
“Military might, strength of wealth, successful policy none of these will carry a prince to the heights he may obtain simply by walking the path of virtue. Virtue is accompanied by even such joy as attends Indra, the king of gods. Virtues alone are the wellspring of humility, the source of glory. Increasing like the moon, lovelier than moon glow, virtues appease the ferocious, the jealous, the angry, and the proud, no matter how deeply their selfishness is rooted in hatred. The magnificence of sovereignty rests upon virtue alone.
“Oh sovereign, instill the love of virtue in your people. Set them an example by the unparalleled splendor of your modesty, for the people love to imitate their leaders. The first concern of a king is the good of his subjects ― the path leading to virtue brings bliss in both this world and the next.
“Rule with love for the Dharma, and may the lord of the gods watch over you always. But now, Oh King, though your presence erases the sorrows of all who remain near, we must leave you. The sorrow of our fellow geese draws us to them.”
The king approved the words of the Bodhisattva, and dismissed the holy geese with words both honorable and kind. Followed by Sumukha, as if by his reflected image, the Bodhisattva rose into the sky, which was as dark-blue as a spotless sword blade, and soon rejoined his flock. And all who saw him were filled with utmost joy.
Sometime later, together with his flock, the king of geese, his heart completely filled with compassion for his neighbor, once more visited the king to discourse more fully on the Dharma. And the king, with head respectfully bowed, honored him in return.
From this story one can see how the virtuous, even when fallen into the state of animals, will behave in a manner which the impious can never hope to imitate. What can one say of the acts of the virtuous when favored by fortune? This account is also relevant when praising the qualities of spiritual friends ― to show how one with such a friend can be successful even in the most difficult circumstance. This account also exemplifies the fact that Ananda was a companion to the Buddha in many previous births, sharing the vicissitudes of the Bodhisattva, cherishing him with affection and veneration for a long time.