27 – The monkey king


Those who walk the path of virtue can win over the hearts of even their fiercest enemies.

In the heart of the Snow Mountains is a blessed region. Watered by mountain currents clear as crystal, its soil is finely carpeted with herbs of healing powers. Hundreds of forest trees display an extraordinary variety of fruit and flowers, and throngs of birds fill the air with song.

In that forest the Bodhisattva lived as a monkey king. But even in that bestial form, his mind was formed by the constant practice of giving and compassion; depending on such friends as these, jealousy, selfishness, and cruelty would have nothing to do with him.

The monkey lived in a banyan tree, so tall that it seemed the lord of the forest. Like a mountain peak, it seemed to touch the sky; its thick, deep foliage was like a mass of clouds. Its long branches arched under the weight of large fruit, sweet and fragrant, and of a lovely bright color.

Now it so happened that one branch of this fruit tree hung over a river. The Bodhisattva, in his wisdom, told his troop of monkeys: “You must always prevent this one branch from bearing fruit; the day it does, none of you will taste the fruit of this tree again.” And so they took great care that this should not happen. For so it is that the virtuous, though fallen into the realm of animals, often retain a vestige of good fortune which they invariably use to increase the happiness of their comrades, just as humans care for close relations.

But then it happened that the monkeys overlooked one young and not very big fruit, hidden in the cavity of a leaf which had been curled up by ants. As that fruit developed, so did its fine color and aroma, its flavor and softness. Finally, when it had fully ripened and its stalk had loosened, it fell into the river and floated downstream, to where a king was accustomed to swim in the river with his harem.

There the fruit stopped, caught in the top of a net which marked the boundaries of a pond. And there the fruit rested, its aroma drifting through the air, overpowering all other odors. The sweet liquors, the flower garlands, the perfumes of the bathing women ― none had a fragrance so alluring as this fruit. The women breathed deeply with half closed eyes, intoxicated by the aroma. They cast their eyes about to find the source, looking curiously in all directions. When, at last they caught sight of the fruit trapped in the net, they could not keep their eyes from it. Even the king was curious to know its nature. He had the fruit brought to him, and, after having his physicians examine it, tasted it himself.

Its marvelous flavor provoked the king’s amazement as powerfully as a spectacle provokes the gasps of a crowd. Just as its color and smell had stirred his senses, now its flavor filled him with desire. Accustomed to the finest delicacies, the king became intent on storing an endless supply of this wonderful fruit.

“If one cannot enjoy such fruit, what benefit truly accrues from royalty?” he thought. “One who obtains such fruit is surely a king, and this without exercising royal power.”

Having decided to find the source of the fruit, he thought: “Most likely the tree that bore it is not too far away, and must stand on the riverside. That fruit could not have been in the water for long, for it kept its color, smell, and flavor, and showed no trace of damage. It should not be hard to find.”

Desiring to taste that flavor again, the king ceased his sport in the river. After having quickly secured the safety and order of his capital, he set out for the forest, surrounded by a large body of armed men. Up the river they marched, clearing their way through thickets haunted by wild beasts and passing through woodlands of great natural beauty, enjoying the rich experiences of the forest, frightening elephants and deer with the sound of their drums. Finally they reached the vicinity of the tree they sought, until then unseen by human eyes.

From a distance the foliage of the lord of trees appeared to be like a mass of clouds heavy with water, hanging low over the peak of a mountain; the other trees surrounding it looked as if they were nobles surrounding their sovereign.

An aroma more fragrant than that of ripe mangoes wafted from the tree toward the army as if bidding it welcome. The king at once knew this was the tree he sought. Then, as he came closer, he saw hundreds of monkeys running among the tree’s boughs and branches, devouring the fruit. Fury arose in him toward the creatures for robbing him of what he so craved, and he ordered his men to attack. “Beat them off! Get rid of them!” he cried harshly. “Drive them away, destroy them all, the scoundrels!”

The warriors strung their bows with arrows, all the while uttering loud cries to frighten away the monkeys. Some of the men picked up stones and sticks and spears and rushed at the tree as if attacking a hostile fortress.

The Bodhisattva, however, had heard the tumultuous approach of the royal army, for it moved with the uproar of a sea assaulted by violent winds. He saw the attack being made on all sides of his wonderful tree, saw the arrows, spears. stones, and sticks flying like showers of thunderbolts. And he beheld his monkeys, unable to do anything but shriek discordant cries of fear while looking up to him, their faces pale with terror and dismay.

Unafraid, unperturbed, overcome by compassion, the monkey king reassured his group. Then, intent on their rescue, he climbed swiftly to the top of the tree, and in one giant leap, flew to the hilltop nearby. It would have taken any other monkey many jumps to reach that spot, but the heroic one crossed it in a single bound, as if he were a bird: He jumped as if he flew. Compassion produced his strong determination, but heroism gave him strength and carried it to perfection. By the earnestness of his effort, he found the way to do it in his mind.

Once on the mountain slope, he found a bamboo cane, tall. strong, and deeply rooted, longer than the distance between the hill and the tree. Fastening its top to his feet, but leaving the root in the earth, he jumped back to his home. The distance was great, and with his feet so encumbered, the Great Being barely succeeded in seizing the nearest branch with his hands. But holding fast, he managed, by using his utmost strength, to keep the cane stretched taut, a link between the tree and the hilltop. Then, urgently, he ordered the troupe of monkeys to evacuate the tree.

Desperate for safety and bewildered by fear, the monkeys wildly scrambled over the body of their king, escape their only thought. But though his limbs grew weak and numb, his mind remained firm.

Beholding this, the king and his men were overcome with astonishment. Such a splendid display of strength and wisdom, combined with such great self-denial and compassion for others, would amaze any who heard of it; imagine, then, the effect on those who witnessed it!

The king said to his men: “That magnificent monkey has maintained his position for far too long ― he must be at the breaking point. His limbs are torn and bruised by the feet of the hordes of frightened monkeys escaping over his body. Surely he will be unable to extricate himself safely. Go, quickly, stretch a canopy underneath him; then shoot off the cane and the banyan branch simultaneously with your arrows.” And so it was done.

When the monkey fell, the king then ordered that he be gently lifted off the canopy and placed on a soft couch. There the monkey lay unconscious from pain and exhaustion. But after his wounds had been salved and lightly washed with butter and other medicinal ointments, he recovered his senses. The king approached, full of curiosity, admiration, and respect.

“You made a bridge for those monkeys with your own body, and rescued them without regard for your own life. What are you to them; what are they to you? If you consider me a person worthy of such confidence, pray tell me, foremost of monkeys. No small bonds of friendship could give one the strength to do such a deed.”

The Bodhisattva, in return for the king’s attempt to heal him, respectfully made himself known in the proper manner: “Those monkeys charged me with the task of being their ruler. And I, bound to them with the affection of a father for his children, accepted. They have always been quick to obey my orders. Oh mighty sovereign, such is the relationship between the other monkeys and myself Rooted over time, it has strengthened the natural ties of friendship which exist between animals of the same species. Dwelling together, we have strengthened our bonds to the mutual affection of kin.”

The king, filled with wonder, spoke again: “Yet ministers and officials are meant to serve their lord, not the king to serve his servants. Why did Your Honor sacrifice yourself for mere attendants?”

The Bodhisattva replied: “Yours is the way of political expediency, Your Majesty, but to me such is a bad lore. I find I cannot overlook suffering, even if that suffering belongs to strangers. How much more difficult it is to overlook the sufferings of those who are as close to me as the closest relations, their minds intent on worshipping me!

“When I saw the monkeys in great danger and overwhelmed by distress and despair, a great sorrow swept over me, leaving me no room to think of myself. I saw the bows bent, I heard the dreadful noise of their strings. I saw the glittering arrows fly up on all sides. Swiftly and without a moment’s hesitation, I jumped to the hill. There, a well rooted cane tied to my feet, I jumped once more, returning to my terrorized subjects, and reached out with my hands to grasp a branch which seemed to reach out to me.

“And while I lay stretched out between branch and reed, my comrades happily made their escape, running without hesitation over my body.” The king, wondering at the joy now emanating from the Great Being, questioned him again: “But what good have you obtained, spurning your own welfare and absorbing the disaster meant for others?”

The Bodhisattva replied: “My body may be broken, O king, but my mind is totally sound, having saved from suffering those I ruled for so long. I bear these pains patiently just as conquering heroes wear their ornaments.

“Now I have repaid my followers for their reverence and affection, repaid them for the prosperity we shared. Bodily pain does not grieve me, nor separation from my friends. Destruction of my pleasure does not grieve me, nor does death, whose approach I welcome as one would the coming of a festival.

“Look what I have won by falling into this wretched state: satisfaction, serenity, fame, fearlessness of death, honor from a king, and approval from the virtuous. But a ruler who does not show compassion will never know such virtues: He will obtain their opposite. For if a ruler be devoid of virtue, if he has destroyed his good renown, if vice has taken up an abode in him, what can he expect in his future besides the fiery flames of hell? For this reason I have explained to you, Oh powerful Prince, the power of both virtue and vice. Rule, therefore, with right action, for Fortune has the fickle nature of a woman. Protect your kingdom with the Dharma.

“A king must try to provide happiness for all: the men and animals of his army, his officials, his subjects in both town and country, those without protector, brahmans and shramanas, each and all, as if he were their father.

“Acting in such a way a king will enjoy prosperity, and his merit, wealth, and glory will increase both in this world and the next. With such action as distinguished the holy kings of old, may you always show compassion to your people, and may you be illustrious and happy!”

After thus instructing the king, who listened with the devout attention of a pupil, the monkey king departed his broken body and ascended into the heaven realms.

From this story one can see how those who act with virtue win the respect of all, even of their enemies. How important it is for those wishing to gain the affection of men to follow the way of the virtuous! This account is also appropriate when praising the qualities of the Tathagata, and when explaining how most beings cannot even bring about their own benefit, while the Bhagavat can bring about the benefit of everyone. This story is also relevant when explaining the importance of listening with attention to the preaching of the Dharma, when praising the qualities of compassion, and also when instructing princes how kings must be merciful toward their subjects. This story is also told to demonstrate how the virtuous show their gratitude.