34 – The Woodpecker


Even when provoked, the virtuous, being unaccustomed to such conduct, are incapable of committing a wicked act.

Once the Bodhisattva lived in a forest as a woodpecker, renowned for his beautiful feathers, so brilliant and many-colored. Owing to his inherent compassion, he refused to follow the sinful instincts of his kind, and abstained from injuring other living beings. He fed on sweet and savory flowers, fruit, and young shoots, and was content.

Manifesting his concern for others, he found occasion to teach the precepts of right living to help the distressed and to prevent the low-minded from untoward action. The multitudes of animals in that part of the forest thrived, protected by the Great Being in whom they had found a spiritual teacher, kinsman, physician, and king. The more they found themselves protected by the greatness of his mercy, the more their virtue increased.

One day when the Great Being was flying through the woods feeling compassion for all beings, he spied a lion with mane disheveled and dirty with dust, writhing painfully on the ground as if struck by a poisoned arrow. Moved by compassion, the woodpecker drew near and asked: “What has happened, O King of Beasts, to distress you so? Have you been too bold fighting elephants, or run too long and hard after some deer? Have you been hit by a hunter’s arrow? Or struck by some disease?

“Please say what grieves you, and what can be done. If it is within my power, I will do anything to benefit my friends. Anything I can do to cure you or bring you ease is yours for the asking.”

The lion replied: “Oh virtuous and best of birds, neither disease nor exhaustion has caused this discomfort, nor am I the victim of any hunter. A fragment of bone is sticking in my throat like the point of an arrow, and I am in agony. I can neither swallow it down nor throw it up. I need help from friends. If you know of any way to assist me, please try it!”

Because of the keenness of the Bodhisattva’s intellect, he quickly thought of a method to extract the bone. Lifting up a piece of wood, he said: “Open your mouth as wide as you possibly can.” Then, placing the stick tightly between the two rows of the lion’s teeth, the woodpecker hopped to the bottom of the lion’s throat. He seized the fragment of bone by one edge with the tip of his beak, and by gradually working the bone loose, he was able finally to pull it free. As he came out of the lion’s mouth with the bone, he kicked away the stick which had held the lion’s mouth open.

No doctor, however skillful and clever, would have succeeded in this operation; only the Bodhisattva, his keen intellect developed over hundreds of lifetimes, had the skill to accomplish it.

As soon as the woodpecker had removed the bone ― and with it, the lion’s anguish ― he felt no less happy than the lion at having relieved the suffering of a fellow creature. Such is the spiritual nature of the virtuous: They feel more happiness at easing another’s pain than at gaining their own happiness; they experience the misery and happiness of others as their own. Thus the Great Being, having relieved the lion’s pain, felt great joy. Having received the lion’s thanks, the Great Being took leave of the lion and went his way.

Sometime later it happened that the woodpecker, though wandering far and near, was unable to find any suitable food for many days, and he ached with hunger. Flying through the air on his wings of exquisite beauty, he saw the same lion feasting on the flesh of a young antelope newly killed; the lion’s mouth, mane, and claws were stained with blood, tinged red like a cloud in autumn twilight.

Now, though he was the benefactor of the beast, he could not bring himself to utter one word of request; modesty kept him silent. But because his need was great, he walked bashfully up and down in front of the lion.

The lion, though well aware of the woodpecker, did not invite him to join his meal. A benefit bestowed on the ungrateful is like an offering placed on cold ashes, like a seed sown on rock. Such a seed ripens into the fruit of ingratitude.

Then the Bodhisattva thought: “Surely the lion does not recognize me.” Approaching with more confidence, pronouncing the blessings spoken by mendicants, he asked for a share: “O Lord of Beasts, you who earn your livelihood by means of your prowess, great blessings will come to you in honoring a mendicant, one who provides the means by which you may gather merit and good repute.”

But the lion’s innate cruelty and selfishness left him unacquainted with the behavior of the pious, and so he shrugged off the sweet words of this blessing. Fixing a sidelong look at the Bodhisattva as if to consume him with the anger blazing from his eyes, he roared: “No more! Is it not enough that you are still alive after entering the mouth of a creature such as I? I can devour anything I please! I know nothing of mercy. Is it to insult me that you bother me again? Or is it that you wish to see the next world? Are you weary of life?” This harsh refusal filled the Bodhisattva with shame. Up into the sky he soared, speaking to the lion in the language of wings of the freedom and power of birds, and went his way.

A forest deity, indignant at the lion’s treatment of the woodpecker, followed the Great Being to the clouds to see what the bird himself felt. “Oh Exalted One among the birds, why do you, the lion’s benefactor, suffer this injury? You have the power of revenge; what good is it to show patience with such a shameless one? Though he may have great strength, you have the power to blind him in a flash, or to pluck the food from between his very teeth. Why suffer such insolence?”

The Bodhisattva, notwithstanding the lion’s ill treatment and the provocation by the god, replied in a way that showed the extreme goodness of his nature: “Enough of that talk. Such a way is not for me. The virtuous help those in distress out of mercy, not out of desire for gain. They do not care if the other understands this or not. What reason then for anger? Ingratitude can only harm the ingrate, for who would do them a second good turn? As for the benefactor, forbearance unquestionably leads to much renown in this world, and infinite merit in the next.

“Moreover, if a benefit is performed for its own sake, how can it be regretted? If done in hopes of receiving something in return, it is no benefit, but a loan. One may gain a spotless reputation through practice of virtue, but if one desires to retaliate against the ungrateful, one becomes like an elephant who, after bathing in the river, covers himself with dust.

“The one who does not know how to return a kindness will never know the glory inherent in gratitude ― but is that reason to destroy one’s own happiness? Whoever receives a service from the virtuous without returning friendship is simply to be left alone, but gently, without harshness or anger.”

The deity, rejoicing at such wisdom, exclaimed repeatedly: “Well said! Well said! Though you do not have matted hair or wear bark garments, you are a true ascetic. It is not dress that makes a Muni; those who practice virtue are those who have the purest hearts.” And after honoring the woodpecker in this way, the deity disappeared on the spot.

This story praises the qualities of the virtuous, showing how the virtuous, even when provoked, are incapable of acting badly, having never learned to do so. This story is also relevant when describing forbearance, to show how one who practices forbearance will rarely meet with enmity, rarely encounter reproach, and will be beloved and welcomed by many people. This account also praises adherence to tranquility. It demonstrates that the wise, by guarding their tranquility, preserve their own splendor. This story can be told when glorifying the Tathagata and praising the cultivation of good nature, to show how good nature, when truly cultivated, will never be lost, even if one falls to the state of a beast.