As we welcome 2016, the Year of the Monkey, I would like to share with you a traditional Buddhist Jataka Tale that holds much wisdom for us as we consider the direction of our lives for the year to come. It is said that Sakyamuni Buddha once told the story of a troop of monkeys that lived in a banyan fig tree by a river. The tree bore ample and delicious fruit and the monkeys lived comfortably, never needing to worry about what they would eat. The monkeys were led by a wise and compassionate king who warned them not to leave any fruit hanging on the branches that reached out over the river.
Despite the best efforts of the monkeys to keep those branches clear, a day came when they overlooked a piece of fruit that grew under a thick bunch of leaves. In time, the fruit ripened and fell into the river, which carried it downstream where it was discovered by the king who ruled the local people. The king assembled an expedition party and set off up the river in search of the tree that had borne the delicious fruit. When they finally found the tree, the king became enraged by the sight of so many monkeys eating the delicious fruit, while he had none for himself. He ordered his soldiers to attack the monkeys, and as arrows and stones rained down on them they could do nothing but scream out in terror.
Moved by great compassion for his subjects, the monkey king boldly leapt from the tree to the side of a mountain that stood nearby. He quickly found a tall bamboo stalk, and grasping the top of the stalk with his feet, he leapt back over to the tree to rescue the other monkeys. The bamboo stalk was just long enough for the monkey king to grab hold of the nearest branch of the tree with his hands while his feet clung to the bamboo stalk.
When the other monkeys saw that he had created a way for them to escape, they rushed across the bamboo stalk over to the safety of the mountainside, many stepping on the body of their king as they fled. After all his subjects had escaped, the monkey king continued to hold himself between the tree and the bamboo stalk, too exhausted and injured from the trampling to climb away to safety.
Moved by courageous compassion of the monkey king, the human king ordered two of his finest archers to simultaneously shoot down the banyan branch and the bamboo stalk while another group of his men held out a cloth sheet to gently catch the monkey king as he fell. Once the monkey king was brought down, the human king went to his side to express his admiration for the monkey king’s virtuous actions and ask him what motivated him to practice such generous kindness for his subjects, even though it was their duty to protect him as the king.
The monkey king replied by saying: “Your highness, though my body be shattered, yet my spirit has attained perfect well-being, inasmuch as I have relieved the distress of my subjects who I have ruled for so long.” He then went on to instruct the king on the path to realize happiness for himself, saying “Beasts of burden, army, country people, townsmen, ministers, the helpless poor, monks, and brahmins—the king should, like a father, endeavor to procure for them all a fruitful happiness. By increasing your merit, your wealth, your fame in this way, you will earn happiness both in this life and in the next.” (Once the Buddha Was a Monkey: Arya Sura’s Jatakamala, trans. Peter Khoroche, p. 191)
While the courage of the monkey king is truly remarkable, what I find most compelling about this story is the way in which he responds to the human king who, motivated by greed, ordered the attack on the monkey king’s subjects that led to his own pain and serious injury. Rather than expressing anger and vengeance toward the human king, he shows great compassion teaching him the path to realizing true peace and joy—which can only be found in serving and caring for others free of concern for one’s own comfort and convenience. We are told that this monkey king is the bodhisattva who would go to realize awakening in our world and become the true teacher or our world Sakyamuni Buddha.
When I think about the story above, I find that I am most like the greedy king, chasing after the things I want, without regard for the harm I may cause to others. I am grateful that just as the monkey king provided a wise teaching for that greedy king, Sakyamuni Buddha provides me with the Nembutsu, so that I may welcome the coming year with my path to a life a peace and bliss clearly illuminated by the Buddha’s wisdom.
Namo Amida Butsu