Sunday, May 11, 2014

Jataka: The Spirit that Lived in a Tree

As you can see here, in the Buddha's previous incarnations, he was not always a human or an animal; in this story, he is the incarnation of a "tree spirit" who abides in the tree. The theme of self-sacrifice that you will see in this story is one of the most important themes in the jatakas overall.

You can read more about the Sal (Shala) tree at Wikipedia.

[Notes by LKG]

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



The Spirit that Lived in a Tree

AND it came to pass that the Buddha was re-born as a Tree-Spirit. Now there reigned at Benares at that time a King who said to himself: "All over India, the kings live in palaces supported by many a column. I will build me a palace resting on one column only—then shall I in truth be the chiefest of all kings."

Now in the King's Park was a lordly Sal tree, straight and well grown, worshiped by village and town, and to this tree even the Royal Family also paid tribute, worship, and honor. And then suddenly there came an order from the King that the tree should be cut down.

And the people were sore dismayed, but the woodmen, who dared not disobey the orders of the King, came to the Park with hands full of perfumed garlands, and encircling the tree with a string, fastened to it a nosegay of flowers, and kindling a lamp, they did worship, exclaiming: "O Tree! on the seventh day must we cut thee down, for so hath the King commanded. Now let the Deities who dwell within thee go elsewhither, and since we are only obeying the King’s command, let no blame fall upon us, and no harm come to our children because of this."

And the Spirit who lived in the tree, hearing these words, reflected within himself and said: "These builders are determined to cut down this tree, and to destroy my place of dwelling. Now my life lasts only as long as this tree. And lo! all the young Sal trees that stand around, where dwell the Deities my kinsfolk—and they are many—will be destroyed! My own destruction does not touch me so near as the destruction of my children: therefore must I protect their lives."

Accordingly, at the hour of midnight adorned in divine splendor, he entered into the magnificent chamber of the King, and filling the whole chamber with a bright radiance, stood weeping beside the King’s pillow. At the sight of him, the King, overcome with terror, said: "Who art thou, standing high in the air, and why do thy tears flow?"

And the Tree-God made answer: "Within thy realm I am known as the Lucky-Tree. For sixty thousand years have I stood, and all have worshiped me, and though they have built many a house, and many a town, no violence has been done to me. Spare thou me, also, O King."

Then the King made answer and said: "Never have I seen so mighty a trunk, so thick and strong a tree, but I will build me a palace, and thou shalt be the only column on which it shall rest, and thou shalt dwell there for ever."

And the Tree said: "Since thou art resolved to tear my body from me, I pray thee cut me down gently, one branch after another—the root last of all."

And the King said: "O Woodland Tree! What is this thou askest of me? It were a painful death to die. One stroke at the root would fell thee to the ground. Why wouldst thou die piecemeal?"

And the Tree made answer: "O King! My children, the young Sal trees, all grow at my feet: they are prosperous and well sheltered. If I should fall with one mighty crash, behold these young children of the forest would perish also!"

And the King was greatly moved by this spirit of sacrifice, and said: "O great and glorious Tree! I set thee free from thy fear, and because thou wouldst willingly die to save thy kindred, thou shalt not be cut down. Return to thy home in the Ancient Forest."

(600 words)









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