24 – The great ape


When the virtuous are injured by others, they cry less for their own pain than for the merit thus forfeited by those who have injured them. At one time the Bodhisattva showed just this.

Near the Snow Mountains lies a blessed region, rich and inviting, fragrant as the sweetest of aloes, its mantle of magnificent forests as lush as dark silk. Birds of myriad colors and shapes enhance the landscape, which is so harmonious in shape and color that it appears to express a grand design. Here celestial beings sport in the clear waters of spring-fed mountain streams that flow over rocky ledges and tumble down cliffs in great waterfalls. Humming bees abound, and breezes fan the flowering trees. Here, the Bodhisattva once took birth as a great ape that lived alone.

Even in that animal state, the Bodhisattva had not lost his awareness of the Dharma: Kind, infinitely patient, and of a sweet and firm nature, he was blessed with an imperishable compassion boundless as the sky. For though the earth, with its forests, great mountains, and deep oceans, has perished countless times though water, fire, and wind, the great compassion of the Bodhisattva is never destroyed. This huge ape lived like an ascetic, subsisting exclusively on the simple fare of leaves and fruits, and bringing whatever aid he could to the creatures within his sphere.

One day it came to pass that a certain farmer, having gone in search of a stray cow, completely lost his way. Unable to determine his location from the star map of the sky, he wandered utterly at random, until finally he reached the domain of the great ape. There, exhausted by hunger, thirst, heat, and fatigue, his heart ablaze with a fire of misery and his mind oppressed with the weight of his despair, he threw himself down at the foot of a tree. Casting hungry looks here and there, he spotted a number of sour tinduka fruit lying scattered on the ground. The pangs of his hunger made their bitterness seem sweet, so sweet, in fact, that he began to search for their source.

He did not have far to look. Rooted in a rocky slope at the edge of a waterfall, the tree grew out over the precipice, its branches laden with the heavy clustered fruit, tawny and inviting. Filled with craving, the farmer mounted the slope and, climbing the tree, reached a branch heavy with fruit. In his eagerness to obtain the fruit he crawled out to the very end of the branch. Suddenly, unable to bear his weight, the branch snapped, as if chopped off by a hatchet.

With a great cry he fell headlong over the cliff. Holding onto the branch for dear life, he fell into the ravine and into a pool of deep water which was surrounded by steep rock walls. The leaves of the branch cushioned his fall, preventing any broken bones, and he was able straightaway to climb out of the cold water. But looking in all directions he could find no escape from the forest chasm.

Realizing that he would soon starve to death, he burst into tears, the arrow of despair piercing his heart. Overwhelmed by distress, he cried out: “Alas! Here in the midst of a remote forest, far from any human ears, I have fallen into a pit-like a wild beast caught in a trap. No one, no matter how carefully they search, will ever find me ― except Death.

“No relatives or friends can hear my cries ― only the swarms of mosquitoes who come to drink my blood. I shall never again see the loveliness of gardens and groves, arbors and streams, the sky resplendent with its jewel-like stars. I sit here in total darkness, while the black night of this pit hides me from the world.” Thus lamenting, he passed many days in the deep pit, sustained solely by the water of the pool and the few tinduka fruit that had fallen with him.

Now, the great ape happened to wander through that part of the forest in search of food. Beckoned by the branches of the tinduka tree rustling in the wind, he climbed the tree, and peering over the waterfall, saw the emaciated body of the man lying at the bottom of the pit, eyes and cheeks sunken and pale, obviously weak from hunger. The compassion of the great ape was instantly aroused. Entirely forgetting his own search for food, he fixed his gaze on the man far below and, in a human voice, called out:

“You there, what are you doing in this pit inaccessible to men? Who are you and how came you to be here?”

The man in the pit, casting his eyes on the great ape, bowed with folded hands in awe and supplication. “A mere man am I, O glorious god,” he replied. “I lost my way in the forest. Trying to obtain fruit from that tree, I found only disaster. In this awful place, far from friends and kin, catastrophe has befallen me. I beseech you, O protector of monkeys, to rescue me.”

A person in distress, without friends or family to help, imploring assistance with anxious face and folded hands, would evoke feelings of mercy in the heart of even his greatest enemy. For a Great Being, such a one arouses the greatest compassion. Filled with boundless pity, the Bodhisattva comforted the man with kind words:

“Do not think that all is lost because you have fallen into this pit and have no friends to help you. Whatever friends could do, I can do as well. Do not be afraid.”

After these soothing words, the Bodhisattva threw down more tinduka and other fruit, and then went off a little way to prepare himself for the task before him. First he found a stone the weight and size of a man, and attached it firmly to his back to test his ability to carry the man up out of the pit. Learning the measure of his strength and convinced that he could do it, he returned to the cliff and descended to its bottom.

Gently he said: “Climb upon my back and cling fast while I draw forth both you and my body’s usefulness. For indeed, as the wise know, the body is a useless thing unless it can be of service to others.”

After bowing with reverence to the great ape, the man climbed upon his back. Then the ape, stooping with the pain of his heavy burden, yet with unswerving firmness of mind, climbed with great difficulty up the sides of the rock, thus succeeding in the rescue. Though he felt profoundly elated, the Bodhisattva was so exhausted that his gait was unstable and wavering; finding a slab of cloud-gray stone, he lay down to rest. Pure of heart, suspecting no danger from the one he had just saved, he trustingly said:

“This part of the forest is full of fierce beasts of every kind. Therefore, while I recover from my efforts, please keep watch lest some animal destroy both me and its own future happiness. Keep careful guard over us both. I am utterly weary and must rest.”

With feigned sincerity the man promised: “Do not fear. I will stay here and guard both of us. Sleep, sir, as long as you like, and do not awaken until you are fully refreshed.”

But as soon as the Great Being had fallen asleep, evil thoughts sprang up in the man’s mind. “Why should I stay here any longer?” he thought. “What can I live on ― roots acquired with great difficulty or fruit found by chance? With such food I will never recover my strength. If I am weak and hungry, how can I ever escape this wilderness?”

“The body of this ape would give me ample food for my journey. True, he has done me a service, but the teachings which provide for times of distress surely apply here ― therefore I may feed upon him. But I can kill him only while he sleeps this sleep of quiet trust; not even a lion could conquer him once he is awake. There is no time to lose.”

That scoundrel’s mind was so caught up in dark greed that his gratitude, his knowledge of what is right, and his innate compassion were utterly destroyed. Ignoring his body’s weakness and heeding only his desire to kill, he took a huge stone and threw it on the head of the great ape.

But his body was still weak and trembling, and he acted too hastily; the stone, far from sending the ape into the deeper sleep of death, merely roused him. Rather than dashing the ape’s head to pieces, it only bruised a temple, and fell to earth with a loud thud.

Jumping up quickly, the Bodhisattva looked around to discover his attacker. But he saw no one except the man he had saved ― his face ashen, his manner dejected, he betrayed himself by his shameful dismay. Sudden fear had tightened the man’s throat, drops of sweat fell from his body, and he could not lift his eyes. It did not take long for the ape to realize who had meant him harm.

Forgetting his pain entirely, the Bodhisattva felt only sadness and compassion for this man who had thrown away all hope of happiness by his action. Without anger or agitation, eyes filled with tears, the Bodhisattva said in a sorrowful voice: “Friend! How is it that you, a human being, could be capable of such an act? How could you conceive it, much less attempt it, you who swore you would make every effort to protect me from danger?

“Had I felt the smallest bit of pride in accomplishing your rescue, you have hereby destroyed it ― for you have done something far more difficult than I have done. Having been saved from the mouth of Death, scarcely back from one abyss, you have fallen headlong into another!

“How could this have come to pass? O foul ignorance, vile and cruel, that draws the miserable into far deeper distress with false hopes of gain. You have ruined yourself, and kindled a fire of sorrow within me. You have tarnished your reputation, contradicted your love of virtue, and destroyed your ability to be trusted. Now you are a target for every arrow of reproach. Is all this worth what you hoped to achieve?

“The pain of my wound grieves me far less than the thought that on account of me you have plunged into evil, and no one, not even I, has the power to erase that deed.

“Now come with me. Stay by my side. Do not stray from my sight, for you are not to be trusted. I will guide you out of this dangerous forest to the path that leads to civilization. Roaming here alone, weak and not knowing your way, you would be assailed by those who would do you great harm and undo all I have done.”

And so the Great Being led the man to the border of the forest. Having shown him the way, he said once more: “Now, friend, you have reached the edge of civilization, and you can leave this dangerous forest. May you have a happy, journey, and may you avoid evil actions ― for the harvest of evil is very painful.”

Thus, filled with compassion, the great ape taught the man as if he were a disciple. Then he returned to his home in the forest. But the man, tortured by the blazing fire of remorse, was no sooner left alone than he was struck by a hideous attack of leprosy. His face and skin became covered with bursting sores that spread putrid matter all over his body. From that moment on, no matter where he went, he became an object of fear and loathing. So hideous was his distorted form that in neither appearance nor voice did he resemble a human being ― so clearly embodied was his pain. Thinking him to be a demon, people everywhere, out of fear, drove him away with stones and clubs and the harshest of words.

One day as he wandering like a deer through a forest, he was discovered by a king who was hunting in the woods. Seeing the man’s most horrible appearance, his garments reduced to dirty rags that barely covered him, the king spoke to him in a curious voice tinged with fear:

“Your body is disfigured with leprosy, your skin spotted with ulcers. A more pale, emaciated, and miserable creature I have never seen. What are you? Preta, ghost, demon, or ghoul? What living being could display such a host of diseases?”

Bowing to the king, the man replied in a tremulous voice: “I am a man, Your Majesty, not a spirit.”

The king then asked him how he had fallen into such a wretched state, and the leper confessed his wicked action, and added: “My suffering now is simply the blossom of the tree I planted ― an act of treachery against a friend. I do not doubt the ripened fruit will come to be more miserable still. Therefore, Oh king, you must consider a treacherous deed against a friend to be your greatest enemy. Always look with kindness upon all who are kind to you.

“Those who turn against their friends will surely find a wretched existence in this world, not to think of the next. As their minds are stained with covetousness and other vices, what will befall them then cannot be imagined. Those, how-ever, whose minds are filled with love and affection for friends, reap the trust of all, and enjoy great benefits. A firm mind will gain them great happiness. With tranquility and humility they will confound their enemies and ultimately win the path to the higher realms.

“Knowing the consequences of good and bad conduct toward friends, O king, hold firm to the path of the virtuous, for whoever walks that road will undoubtedly attain happiness.”

From this story one can see how the virtuous grieve for the loss of virtue incurred by those who injure them rather than for their own pain. This account can also be used when discussing the great-mindedness of the Tathagata and when talking about the importance of listening with attention to the Dharma teachings. It is also to be recounted when dealing with the subjects of forbearance and faithfulness toward friends, and also when demonstrating the perniciousness of evil deeds.