Sunday, May 11, 2014

Jataka: The Poisonous Trees

This is a story about how appearances can be deceiving, especially when ignorance is combined with greed. To see the occasion which prompted the Buddha to tell this story about his past life, here is the complete Phala-Jataka, The Fruit-Jataka. The word "phala" is extremely important in the Buddhist tradition, referring metaphorically to the "fruits" of one's actions. You can read more at Wikipedia: Phala.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Jataka Tales unit. Story source: Eastern Stories and Legends by Marie L. Shedlock (1920).


The Poisonous Trees

ONCE upon a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta was born a merchant. When he grew up, and was trading with five hundred wagons, he came one day to where the road led through a great forest.

Halting at the outskirts, he mustered the caravan and addressed them thus: "Poison-trees grow in this forest. Take heed that you taste no unfamiliar leaf, flower, or fruit without first consulting me." All promised to take every care; and the journey into the forest began.

Now just within the forest-border stands a village, and just outside that village grows a What-Fruit tree. That What-Fruit tree exactly resembles a mango alike in trunk, branch, leaf, flower, and fruit. And not only in outward semblance, but also in taste and smell, the fruit—ripe and unripe—mimics the mango. If eaten, it is a deadly poison, and causes instant death.

Now some greedy fellows, who went on ahead of the caravan, came to this tree and, taking it to be a mango, ate of its fruit. But others said, "Let us ask our leader before we eat"; and they according halted by the tree, fruit in hand, till he came up.

Perceiving that it was no mango, he said:—"This 'mango' is a What-Fruit tree; don’t touch its fruit."

Having stopped them from eating, the Bodhisatta turned his attention to those who had already eaten. First he dosed them with an emetic, and then he gave them the four sweet foods to eat; so that in the end they recovered.

Now on former occasions caravans had halted beneath this same tree and had died from eating the poisonous fruit which they mistook for mangoes. On the morrow the villagers would come, and seeing them lying there dead, would fling them by the heels into a secret place, departing with all the belongings of the caravan, wagons and all.

And on the day too of our story these villagers failed not to hurry at daybreak to the tree for their expected spoils. "The oxen must be ours," said some. "And we'll have the wagons," said others—whilst others again claimed the wares as their share. But when they came breathless to the tree, there was the whole caravan alive and well!

"How came you to know this was not a mango tree?" demanded the disappointed villagers.

"We didn’t know," said they of the caravan; "it was our leader who knew."

So the villagers came to the Bodhisatta and said, "Man of wisdom, what did you do to find out this tree was not a mango?"

"Two things told me," replied the Bodhisatta, and he repeated this stanza:—

"When near a village grows a tree
Not hard to climb, 'tis plain to me,
Nor need I further proof to know,
No wholesome fruit thereon can grow!"

And having taught the Truth to the assembled multitude, he finished his journey in safety.





(500 words)









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