A Story of Compassion
- From our upcoming book, Wisdom in Buddhism
A Story of Compassion A story is told in the Jataka Tales of a land ruled by King Benares, in which a beautiful deer that is born with an unusual golden fur, silver antlers and eyes as bright as sparkling jewels. As this deer matured, there gathered around him a large herd and he became known as King Banyan Deer.
At the same time, in a distant part of Benares, another buck was born, equally splendid and as he grew up, a large herd gathered around him and he became known as Branch Deer.
The King of Benares was fond of eating venison and he regularly hundred and killed the deer on his land. When he hunted, he would go to the various villages and recruit the villagers to assist him. They would be told to drive the deer in one direction or another, until, eventually one of the deer would be unfortunate enough to suffer a deadly arrow from King Benares. These efforts drew the villagers away from their other duties and it became onerous over the years, for they set aside their farming, irrigating, grain grinding, family duties and whatever else to help their king. After some time the villagers gathered and agreed to make a deer park for the King of Benares, in which he and a few of his servants could hunt alone, without their help. And so the park was built. A large area of land was fenced in and the deer from the two herds were driven into the park and the gate closed and locked behind them. When the deer settled down, the villagers called on the King and told them of their efforts and the King was pleased. He could see the vast herds of deer and could now hunt without dragging all the villagers along. As he surveyed the herds before him, he caught sight of the two beautiful bucks, King Banyan Deer and Branch Deer. The King thought them so beautiful that he decreed no one should harm or kill them. They were to live a protected life within his new park. Still, once a day, the King would go hunting and kill a deer for his table that evening. Occasionally, the King was too busy, so he sent out his cook to hunt and butcher the deer, reminding him not to harm King Banyan Deer or Branch Deer. Whenever the deer saw the King or the cook coming into the park with their bows and arrows, they panicked. They knew what was coming. They’d run and panic, trampling each other, tripping over each other and causing much harm to themselves - some suffering great pain. Seeing all this King Banyan Deer called to Branch Deer and arranged a meeting of the herds. He began, “Death is inescapable for any of us. In the end, all things come to an end. However, this needless suffering from our own panic and resultant injuries can be avoided. The King only wants one deer each day, so we should choose for ourselves which deer will go to the chopping block and these injuries can be prevented. One day we shall choose a deer from among my herd and the next day a deer from the herd of Branch Deer. After considerable discussion, Branch Deer agreed. From that day on, one deer, alternating back and forth between herds, one deer came forward and put his or her neck on the chopping block. The cook simply took the life of the waiting victim and prepared the venison for the King. One day, by chance, the turn fell to a doe who was pregnant in Branch Deer’s herd. She went to Branch Deer and asked that she be excused from her sacrifice, at least until her fawn was delivered. Branch Deer replied, “No. We can’t change the rules and put your turn upon another.” With that the doe left. The distraught doe, having failed with Branch Deer, took her argument to King Banyan Deer. He replied, “Go in peace and I will change the rules and put another in your place. With that, King Banyan Deer went himself to the executioner’s chopping block and laid down his own neck upon it. Silence fell upon the deer park. Soon the cook came to kill the willing victim, but drew up short when he saw it was one of the deer that his King had forbidden him to harm. He was afraid to kill him, so he returned to King Benares and told him what he saw. The amazed king could not believe his ears and went himself to the deer park. He said to King Banyan Deer, “I promised not to take your life. Why have you come here like the others?” "A pregnant doe was unlucky this day to be the one to die. She asked me to spare her, for the sake of her unborn baby. I could not help but feel sorry and could feel her pain so I took her place to ease her suffering, for I could not ask anyone else to take her place. King Benares was overcome and tears welled up in his eye. “Even among humans I have not seen such compassion. To offer to share the suffering as you do. Such generosity to give your life for another. Arise! Neither you nor the doe and her unborn baby will be harmed.” “Are we the only ones to be spared, great king? What of the other deer in this park, our friends and our kin? Will they not also be spared?” “Having seen such a compassionate act, I cannot refuse your request. To your friends and kin in the park I grant their safety and their freedom,” replied King Benares. “What of my kin beyond the park, out on your land? Will they be killed? “No. They will not be killed. I will spare the lives of all the deer anywhere within my kingdom.
Still King Banyan Deer did not raise his head from the chopping block.
“It is good that the deer will be saved, but what of the other four-footed creatures. Will they too be saved?”
“They too shall be spared.”
“What of the birds, fish and other animals that dwell within your kingdom? Will they also be spared?”
“Yes. They too shall all be spared.”
Having pled for the lives of all creatures, and having received amnesty, King Banyan Deer arose and returned to his herd to live out a long and natural life.
For his part, King Benares ordered his military to open the gates of the deer park and the fences taken down so that no creature should be hemmed in and could enjoy freedom and safety within his lands.