25 – The fabulous Sharabha deer


The truly compassionate show love even for those with murder on their minds; even when they themselves are in great distress, they would never desert such beings.

Once the Bodhisattva took the shape of a sharabha deer who lived in a forest far away from the sound of man, a forest inhabited by many different kinds of animals. Trees and shrubs and thick high grass covered this remote land, which was untrod by travelers and bare of any trace of carts or other vehicles. It was, indeed, a land traversed only by rivulets and ant trails.

This sharabha was no common deer. Extraordinarily vigorous and swift, he was also distinguished by his beautiful color. Full of compassion, he felt nothing but friendliness towards all animals; he lived happily in the forest, always content, subsisting totally on grasses, leaves, and water. Although he had the shape of a forest creature, he nonetheless possessed the firm intellect of a man. The qualities of this deer, demonstrated by his mercy toward every sentient being, his forest retreat, and his simple fare, were like those of a yogin longing for total detachment. Thus he ornamented the forest by his presence. Now it came to pass that the king who ruled that land entered the forest on a hunt one day and travelled very near the dwelling place of the sharabha. Astride his swift horse, the king was eager to practice his hunting skills. Swift were his arrows, and swift was the chase. Drunk with excitement, carried away by the joys of the sport, he was soon separated no small distance from his retinue of elephants, chariots, and footmen.

Suddenly the king spotted the Great Being from a distance. Immediately resolving to kill the deer, he strung his bow with a deadly arrow, and spurred on his horse. But the Bodhisattva no sooner perceived the armed rider approaching than he took to flight ― not because he was powerless against his assailant, but because he wished to avoid any violence.

Running swiftly from his pursuer, the sharabha came upon a gaping chasm in the earth; leaping across it as if it were only a crack, he continued his flight. But when the king’s horse, following in quick pursuit, came upon the crevice, it hesitated, and without any warning whatsoever, stopped still. The king, bow in hand, was thrown from his seat headlong over the edge, just as a celestial warrior falls into the ocean. His eyes fixed on his prey, he had not noticed the ravine, and through lack of awareness, had been flung from his horse.

No longer hearing the sound of hooves at his back, the Bodhisattva thought: “Perhaps the king has quit the chase.” Looking behind, he saw the rider less horse standing on the brink of the great ravine, and he considered: “No doubt the king has fallen over the edge. No tree spreads its luxuriant foliage as an invitation to rest; no lake with water blue and pure as a lotus invites one to bathe. Certainly the king did not dismount to hunt on foot in this place of wild and ferocious animals; nor is there any brush in which he might be hiding. Without a doubt, the king has fallen into that ravine.” Upon reaching this irrefutable conclusion, the Great Being at once felt great compassion for the one who had sought his life.

“Until a moment ago, the king possessed all the signs of royalty. He commanded a host of chariots, horsemen, footmen, and elephants armed with glittering weapons. Worshipped like the Lord of the Gods by crowds of devotees, he was sheltered by the loveliest umbrellas, and comforted by cool breezes from jeweled fans.

“Yet now he lies below in that great pit. Perhaps the fall has broken his bones; perhaps he has been knocked unconscious; perhaps he is moaning in pain. Alas! To what distress has he fallen? Common folk, inured to suffering, do not suffer nearly so much from their misfortunes as those of high rank. When princes are visited by calamity, they plunge into despair, accustomed as they are to great comfort.

“He will certainly be unable to escape by himself. If there is still some remnant of life left in the man, it would not be right to abandon him.” And so, impelled by his compassion, the Great Being approached the edge of the precipice and looked over the edge. There lay the king, his armor covered with dust, his diadem and garments in disarray, his body wracked with pain, his mind in abject, total despair.

Seeing the king in such a wretched state, the sharabha no longer thought of him as an enemy, but felt the monarch’s pain as his own. Tears welled up in his eyes, and his sweet and kind words showed his innate virtue as he spoke with courtesy and respect to the king:

“I hope you have not suffered any great harm, Your Majesty, when falling into this hell-like pit. Have you broken any limbs? I hope your pains are not extensive, O most distinguished of men. I am but a forest creature of these parts, reared upon your grass and water. Do not hesitate to trust in me, and do not be afraid. I have the power to rescue you. If you wish my help, simply command me, and I shall come to your aid.”

Such amazing speech from an animal touched the king deeply. Shame rose within him as he turned the situation over in his mind: “Is he speaking truth or falsehood? How can he possibly show mercy to me, his enemy, when only moments ago I was trying to kill him? And how could I have acted so wrongly toward this innocent one? How confounding is the sharp reproach of the gentle! It is I who am the brute; he bears but the shape of one. Surely he deserves to be honored by my acceptance of his offer.”

Having made his decision, the king replied to the deer: “My armor spared me any major injury; the pain I feel is bearable. Yet nothing caused by my fall is half so painful as the offense I have committed against such a pure-hearted being as you. Pray do not hold it against me that, relying on your outward shape and thus unaware of your real nature, I took you for a forest creature.”

Happy that the king had accepted his offer of help, the Sharabha, to determine the extent of his strength, put a stone the weight of a man on his back and walked here and there for some time. Confident at last, he descended into the ravine and spoke to the king most respectfully:

“You will have to put up with the necessity of touching me so that I may obtain joy by bringing you happiness. Mount my back, Your Majesty, and hold on tight!” The king did as he was told, climbing upon the deer’s back as if mounting a horse. With surpassing vigor and speed, the Sharabha, holding his chest high, leaped up the cliff like some carved stone horse shown rising in the air.

After carrying the king out of the abyss and reuniting him with his horse, the deer told the king the way back to the capital, and, with joy in his heart, started to turn back to his forest. But the king, overcome with gratitude for this service so modestly rendered, embraced the Sharabha and said:

“My life is yours, O Sharabha. You must consider as yours all that is within my power. Grant me the pleasure of visiting my capital and, if you will, come to live there. How could I set out for home alone, leaving you here in this dreadful place haunted by hunters, exposed to the elements night and day! Come, let us return to the city together!”

The Bodhisattva replied with sweet and humble words: “Your offer is suited to a lover of virtue such as yourself, O king, for virtues constantly practiced become an essential part of one’s nature. But please do not think that I could be happy taking up residence in your home. The pleasures of humanity are one thing, and those of forest creatures quite another.

“If, however, you truly wish to do something for me, what I ask is quite simple: Stop your hunting, O hero. Desist forever! The poor beasts of the forest, their minds dull and heavy, are deserving of your pity, not your arrows. Understand, Oh mighty ruler, that animals have the same feelings as men, desiring happiness and the absence of suffering. Keeping this in mind, is it not wrong for you to do to others what would cause unhappiness to yourself?

“Contemptible actions lead to loss of reputation, censure by the virtuous, and endless suffering. Root out that evil within yourself; attend to it as you would an illness, for it is truly your greatest adversary.

“O king, by pursuing meritorious actions, you will obtain the most highly esteemed royal dignity, and glory itself. Strengthen the ranks of benefactors, and enlarge your store of merit. Be bountiful, taking care to distribute gifts at the proper time and in the proper manner. Asking guidance from the virtuous, study well all the ways of right action. Transform your attitude toward all creatures, making it one of beneficence such as you would wish directed toward yourself. In this way you will achieve great merit, fame, and happiness.”

Thus did the Great Being bless the king, teaching him all that was necessary to ensure a blissful future life. And the king, thankfully accepting his words, watched with deep respect as the deer sped away to his home in the forest.

From this story one can see how the intensely compassionate show pity even to those who would harm them. When evil doers are in distress, the virtuous never abandon them, but always show compassion. This account is also to be told when praising great compassion, when praising the qualities of the Tathagata, and when discussing how to listen with attention to the Dharma.

This story is also helpful when demonstrating how enmity is appeased through forbearance, and also when treating of the virtue of patience. It shows that the high minded even when in the state of peace, always behave mercifully even toward those who attempted to kill them. So how could human beings who have taken the vows of a homeless life, be wanting in mercy towards animals? Thus, a truly pious must show mercy to all living being.

Chapter 26 – THE RURU DEER

It is not their own, but others’ suffering that the virtuous cannot bear: To the open-hearted, no suffering exists but that of others.

Once the Bodhisattva lived as a ruru deer in a remote forest, part of a vast wilderness far from the paths of men. All manner of plants bloomed there in glorious abundance: salas, bakulas, pivalas, hintalas, tamalas, naktamalas, vidula and nikula reeds, shrubs, thickets of shimshapas, tinisas, shamis, palashas, shakas; stands of kusha grass, bamboo, and reeds; kadambas, sarjas, arjunas, dhavas, khadiras and kutajas. And everywhere the creeping tendrils of vines veiled the outstretched branches of the trees.

A great many forest animals lived there as well: the ruru, prishata, and srimara deer, yaks, elephants, javaya oxen, buffaloes, harina and nyanku antelopes, boars, panthers, hyenas, tigers, wolves, lions, bears, and many more.

But the rarest and most unusual of all the animals was one ruru deer. His color was as brilliant as pure gold; his soft fur was dappled with spots of every color, shining like rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and aquamarines. With his mild blue eyes, incomparably large and bright, with his horns and hooves gleaming like gems, he seemed a moving treasury of jewels.

Knowing his body to be an extremely desirable object, and aware of the pitiless nature of man, the ruru deer frequented only the unknown forest paths. His keen intellect led him to avoid places made unsafe by hunters with their traps and nets, their snares and holes covered with twigs and baited with grain. He taught those animals who followed him to avoid such places also, leading them like a father and a teacher. Would not any creature, longing for happiness, honor such great beauty combined with such fine intelligence and such wonderful behavior?

Now at one time, in that wild part of the forest, the Great Being heard cries for help from someone who had fallen into a river swollen by the rains. Carried away by the swift current, a man was crying out:

“Help me! The river is carrying me off! There is no one to help me, no boat to save me! Quickly! My arms are so tired ― I am sinking! There is no shallow place! Help me! There is no time to lose!”

These piteous cries of distress struck the Bodhisattva to the core. As he rushed through the thicket he called out the comforting words he had used in hundreds of past lives to banish fear, grief, sadness, and fatigue. Even now, living as an animal, he succeeded in saying repeatedly and loudly in a human voice: “Do not be afraid! Do not be afraid!”

When the deer came out of the forest, he saw the drowning man in the distance, like a precious gift borne along by the river. As a brave warrior attacks a hostile army, the deer plunged into the swiftly flowing river, the thought of rescue more important than his own life. “Hold fast!” he told the man, who, overcome by fear and exhaustion, still managed to climb onto the ruru deer’s back

Despite the added weight of his burden and the violence of the current, the deer’s extraordinary nobility gave him the strength to reach the riverbank. Once safe on the shore, his pleasure at having saved the man was so great that he felt no weariness. He warmed the man’s cold limbs with the warmth of his own body, and then pointed the way out of the forest.

The extraordinary help the deer had provided, unusual even from the closest of friends, touched the man deeply; and the beautiful form of the ruru deer intensified his admiration and respect. Bowing his head to the deer, he said: “Neither kin nor childhood friend would have been capable of the action you have just performed for my sake. My life is yours. If it could be used to bring you even some small benefit, I would be deeply honored. Whatever you would have me do, I would do to repay your kindness.”

The Bodhisattva replied respectfully: “Gratitude is never to be wondered at in the virtuous, as it proceeds from the very nature of the Dharma. But nowadays the world is so corrupt that even gratitude is considered a great virtue. Therefore, I ask only one thing: Do not tell anyone about the marvelous animal that rescued you. My beautiful form makes me too desirable a prey. As a rule, people’s hearts, filled with greed, have little mercy or self-restraint. And so, take care to guard your own virtue and my life as well. And remember! Treachery to friends can never lead to happiness.

“Do not be angry because I speak so bluntly. I am but a deer, unskilled in the deceitful human art of diplomacy. Indeed, deed, the clever and talented who feign honesty are precisely those who bring even the sincere under suspicion. So you will make me happy simply by doing as I have asked.”

The man promised to protect the deer, and, after bowing and circumambulating the Great Being, set out for home.

Now it so happened that the queen of that country was endowed with the power of prophetic dreams. Whatever she dreamt, no matter how extraordinary, always came to pass. And at that time, one morning about daybreak, she dreamt of the ruru deer. Sparkling with the brilliance of a heap of jewels, the deer, surrounded by the king and his assembly, stood on a lion throne, preaching the Dharma in an articulate and human voice. Fascinated by this vision, the queen awoke only when the drums were beaten to rouse the king. As soon as she could, she ventured to the king’s apartments where the king received her with the honor she deserved as well as with sincere affection.

Her bright eyes wide with wonder, her lovely cheeks flushed, her voice trembling from happiness, the queen presented the king with the account of her marvelous dream. “My lord,” she said at the end, “please try to find that deer. Its beauty will make your palace as resplendent as the sky which sparkles with the constellation of the deer.”

The king knew from experience to trust his wife’s visions. Partly to please her and partly to satisfy his own desire, he ordered all his huntsmen to search for the ruru deer. A proclamation was also made in his capital day after day:

“Somewhere in this kingdom exists a deer with skin of gold, its coat spotted with many colors shining like hundreds of jewels. This deer is celebrated in the sacred texts, and some have even seen it. Whoever can reveal the whereabouts of that deer to the king will be provided with fourteen acres and ten lovely women.”

And the man who had been rescued by the Bodhisattva heard this proclamation day after day, again and again.

He was a poor man, much afflicted by the sufferings of poverty, but he was also a mindful man, remembering the great gift he had received from the ruru deer. Torn between greed and gratitude, his thoughts swung from one direction to the other:

“What should I do ― follow Virtue or Fortune? Should I uphold the promise to my benefactor rather than the duty to maintain my family? Which is more important, the worldly existence or the heavenly one? Which code should I follow, that of the pious or that of the worldly? Should I taste glory or the modest joy of the anchorite? Which is more important, the present time or the time hereafter? Should I strive for riches or the good cherished by the virtuous?”

At last his mind, overcome by greed, came to this conclusion: “Once I have obtained great wealth, I shall be able to honor my kin and my friends, guests, and beggars; I will gain not only the pleasures of this world, but also happiness in the other.” With this resolve, he put out of his mind entirely the gift of the ruru deer and went to the king.

“Your Majesty, I know where the ruru deer dwells. To whom should I reveal it?” The king, full of joy, answered: “Friend, you may show him to me.” And so the king put on his hunting clothes and left the capital, accompanied by a large part of his army. Directed by the poor man, they arrived at the river. The king then encircled the surrounding forest with his forces, and joined by a few resolute and faithful men, the king himself, armed with bow and arrow, entered the thicket.

In a short time the man caught sight of the ruru deer, quiet and unsuspecting. He whispered to the king: “Your Majesty! There! There is the glorious deer. Look and be careful.” But as he raised his arm to point out the animal, his hand fell to the ground, as if cut off at the wrist with a sword. Thus do one’s actions, when directed against those honorable ones who perform great deeds, bear immediate fruit, provided there is little to counterbalance them.

So curious was the king to catch a glimpse of the ruru deer that he did not notice this strange happening. Peering into the middle of the forest which was dark as rain clouds, the king perceived a form shining with the splendor of jewels, brilliant like lightning flashing from the center of a black cloud.

Seeing the qualities of the ruru deer and entranced by its beauty, the king resolved to have the deer for himself. Drawing his bowstring, he crept up on the animal to be certain of hitting his target.

The Bodhisattva, however, hearing the noise of people on every side, already knew that he was surrounded. Seeing the king approach with his arrow ready, he realized there was no escape. In words distinct and articulate, he addressed the king in a human voice:

“Stop for a moment, mighty prince. Do not shoot me, Hero among men. First satisfy my curiosity, and tell me who revealed my home to you, far as it is from familiar paths. Who told you there existed a deer such as myself?”

The king, amazed by the human voice coming from the deer, turned the point of his arrow toward his guide. “This man,” he said. And the Bodhisattva, recognizing the guide, replied: “Alas! It is easier to pull a tree from a raging river than to save from drowning one who is ungrateful. This is how he returns the favor bestowed on him. How sad he could not see that this is not the way to benefit himself!”

The king became curious: “Your words alarm me,” he said. “I do not understand your meaning. On whose account do you speak so roughly? Is it human or spirit, bird or forest animal?”

The Bodhisattva replied: “No desire to point blame prompted my sharp words, Oh King. I spoke in order to prevent your guide from doing such a thing ever again. Who would use harsh language against those who have committed wrong actions? It is like rubbing salt into the wounds of their faults. Yet, even to his beloved child a doctor must apply whatever medicine the illness requires.

“Your guide was once swept away by the current of the river, and his plight moved me to pity; he whom I rescued has now created this mortal danger to me, Oh Best of Men. Truly is it said that contact with the wicked can never lead to happiness.”

The king turned to his guide and, with a look of harsh reproach, asked: “In truth, were you rescued from disaster by this deer?” And the man, sweating with fear, pale with misery and despair, answered shamefully: “Yes, I was.”

“Evil man!” cried the king. Placing his hand upon his bowstring, he added: “Do not think this a mere trifle. Anyone whose heart could remain unsoftened by such a gesture is a vile representative of his fellow men. He brings them only dishonor. Why should this vilest of men live one moment longer?”

With these words, the king grasped his bow in the middle and bent it back, intending to kill the miserable guide. But the Bodhisattva, moved by great compassion, placed himself in front of the man, saying: “Stop, Your Majesty. Pray, do not strike one already stricken!

“When he listened to the enticements of his enemy desire, at that very instant he was ruined, his good name lost, his virtue destroyed.

“Such is the way of the world: Like foolish moths drawn to a flickering light, people are lured by the prospect of riches. Little by little, the suffering they cannot bear erodes their integrity, until one day they fall, deluded by their desire. Take pity on this man, and restrain your anger. Indeed, if you promised him some reward for leading you to me, give it to him. For look, here I stand with bent head, awaiting your command.”

Such compassion and sincere desire to benefit the person who had caused him such great harm had a powerful effect on the king. The king’s heart was converted, and, looking with veneration at the ruru deer, he spoke softly: “Well said, well said, holy being. In showing such mercy to one whose cruelty against you is so clear, you display true humanity while we bear but the shape of men.

“Since you deem this knave worthy of your sympathy, and since he has been the cause of my meeting such a virtuous being, I will give him the wealth he so craves. To you I give permission to roam freely and safely in this kingdom, wherever you so desire.”

The ruru deer answered: “Illustrious King, your royal gift is not offered in vain: I accept. But first, tell me how I may be of service to you, that your coming here will prove fruitful.”

In response, the king honored the deer as his teacher, and then asked him to mount the royal chariot. Returning to the capital, he gave the deer a reception due an honored guest, and invited him to sit on the royal throne. There, the king, together with his wives, his officers, and attendants, urged the deer to preach the Dharma. Gazing upon the creature with reverence and gladness, they asked:

“People say many different things about the Dharma; you clearly understand it completely. Please explain it to us.”

The Bodhisattva, raising his voice and speaking distinctly and elegantly, with soft words said to the king and the assembly: “The Dharma, and all its divisions and subdivisions, all its rules and precepts, can be summed up briefly: Generate compassion for all living beings; abstain from killing, from stealing, and so on, and give pleasure to all.

“Consider, Your Majesty, if, through such mercy, people treated each other as they would treat themselves or their families, whose heart would ever harbor wicked thoughts?

“The cause of all disturbance is lack of compassion. It corrupts the body, speech, and mind; it harms the family no less than strangers. If those who strive for Virtue will only remember compassion, only good can result. Compassion engenders virtue, as a fruitful rain causes the crops to grow.

“Once impressed upon the mind, compassion destroys the inclination to harm any other; and the mind being pure, neither body nor speech can be corrupted. The desire to benefit others increases with pleasure, and from that pleasure, love, charity, patience, and other virtues flow, bringing tranquility and a good reputation.

“Because of their tranquility, those who are merciful will never arouse suspicion or apprehension in others. Trusted by everyone, they are treated by all as kin. If one’s heart is steeped in compassion, no dissension can bring disruption; if one’s heart is strengthened by compassion, the mind enjoys sweet coolness ― like a clear pool which no passion can agitate, no fire of anger destroy.

“Why say more? The wise firmly believe that all of virtue is contained in compassion. What virtue is there that is not the consequence of compassion? Always strive to show compassion to every living creature, treating them as if they were your own children, or as if they were yourself. By such pious conduct you will win the hearts of your people and glorify your royal station.”

The king praised these words of the wonderful ruru deer and, together with his citizens, grew intent on practicing the Dharma. And he granted his protection to every animal and bird throughout the realm.

From this story one can see how for the virtuous no suffering exists except that of others ― it is this they cannot bear; they do not mind their own suffering. This story is also to be recounted when praising the qualities of compassion, and when showing how the truly virtuous will benefit others even at their own expense. It also treats of the great harm which comes from harming those who are full of love.