Deer, Magpie, and the Turtle
The children from the village Uruvela often visited the Buddha in the
forest. They were always happy to listen to his teachings and his
This one afternoon, the village children gathered around the Buddha and practised sitting quietly with him. After a very brief sitting, the Buddha looked at his young companions and said in his usual gentle voice, “Today, I have a story to tell you.
“A very long time ago, there were three friends in the forest: a deer, a turtle, and a magpie. I was the deer.”
All the children were wide-eyed with surprise.
The Buddha smiled, “Yes, all of us had many different lives before this life. I was a fish, a woodpecker, a swan, and an elephant in different past lives, to name only a few out of the thousands of lives I've had."
“The end of life is marked by the death of the physical body. This is evident when we see the dead bodies of ants, of birds, of animals. From a very deep meditation, I learnt that after death, there is re-birth. We are re-born in a new body. We can be reborn as a human again, or we can be reborn as an animal. What is for certain is that we will go through the process of birth, aging, and then death, again and again, like going around in a circle. We could call this endless repetition of rebirths, samsara, the cycle of existence."
“In each life, we bond with one another, sometimes as parent and child, sometimes as brothers and sisters, sometimes as husband and wife, sometimes as friends, and yes, sometimes as enemies. Today, I want to tell you about my friendship with a turtle and a magpie so very long ago. In that life, I was a deer. As you listen, try to see if you share anything in common with the three animals in my story."
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
deer, a magpie, and a turtle were very good friends. Every morning they
met at the water's edge. This particular day was an exception because
Deer did not show up. Turtle and Magpie waited.
After some time, Magpie flew along the trail that Deer normally took. There, between some trees was Deer. He was visibly struggling. His hind hoofs were entangled in a mesh. A hunter had hidden a net among some trees. Deer had gotten caught but managed to wriggle out of it except for his hoofs.
Magpie landed near Deer. He tried unsuccessfully to free his friend by pecking at the ropes.
‘Don't worry, I'll get Turtle. His strong jaws could break the ropes.’
Away flew Magpie.
Later, Turtle arrived where Deer was. ‘Here you are. Magpie's off to the hunter's cabin. He's going to try to hold him off for as long as possible. Meanwhile, I better start gnawing at these ropes. Rest assure, you’ll be freed in no time,’ Turtle tried to console Deer.
‘Thank you, Turtle. I hope the hunter won’t hurt Magpie,’ Deer was worried for Magpie’s safety.
Outside the hunter’s home, Magpie stationed himself on a tree and kept watch. His plan was to swoop down and attack the hunter when he came out.
All evening and then all night, Magpie stood watch. The hunter did not appear until morning. Magpie was ready then. He aimed straight at the hunter's forehead and caught him completely by surprise. The man covered his head and ran back into the house.
From his window, the hunter could see that the black bird was sitting on a tree watching his house. He thought to himself, ‘This is a bad omen. I better stay indoors today.’
Meanwhile, Turtle was making progress, though very slowly. His jaws were now raw from the gnawing. But he kept at it without the slightest complaint.
The next morning, the hunter awoke only to find his attacker still perched on the tree. He decided to wear a large hat, and clothing that covered his entire body. He grabbed a broomstick and set out to confront his attacker.
This time, Magpie tried in vain to obstruct the hunter’s advance. The latter was swinging his broomstick right at the bird. It was Magpie’s turn to dodge getting hit. Realizing that he needed to change his strategy, he flew off in the direction of his friends to warn them.
When Magpie joined his two friends, he noticed that Turtle's jaws were bleeding. The good news was Deer was freed at last.
‘The hunter's coming! Quick, get away. Deer, listen to me, run. Don’t ruin what Turtle did for you by being caught again,’ exhorted Magpie.
Turtle was exhausted and could only lie there, unable to crawl away. He looked at Deer as if one last time and bade his dear friend to go.
The sight of Turtle’s helplessness tore at Deer's heart and he remained waiting for the hunter. When Deer heard the man’s approach, he started to slowly limp away.
‘Great stroke of luck! A tired out deer is surely an easy catch,’ the hunter was happy. He prepared his bow and arrow, aimed, and shot.
Deer was ready. Just when the arrow was released, he darted forward quickly. The arrow missed its target. Deer lingered on, and the hunter shot his second arrow. Again, the same thing happened. Deer sprinted forward just in time, and again averted being shot.
Magpie, watching from above, then understood that Deer was baiting the hunter to shoot at him. This way, Deer led the hunter deeper and deeper into the woods. When the hunter’s arrows were all used up, he looked around and realized that he was lost. Deer shot off like an arrow leaving the hunter alone to find his way.
Before long, Magpie, and Deer were back at Turtle's side. Magpie found a huge banana leaf and covered Turtle with it. Turtle rested while his two friends stood guard. After some time, Turtle was ready to head back to the water. The three friends set out together, each ever so thankful that he had such wonderful friends.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
When Buddha was
finished telling the story, he paused and sat in silence. All the
children followed his example. For a while, there was only the sound of
Then Buddha asked, “who among you are like Magpie?” A few hands shot up.
“Who among you are like Deer?” Another few hands shot up.
“Who among you are like Turtle?” There was another show of hands.
“What was so special about the friendship between the three animals?” Buddha asked.
Bima, Svasti's sister, replied, “Each of the three animals cared more for his friends than for his own life. It is much like Svasti, and Sujata who'd do anything for my baby sister and me. They look after us and I, in turn, would do anything for them.”
Svasti spoke next, “I like to care for my sisters. When they are on my mind, somehow, my own wants and problems don't seem to matter so much anymore. For example, before Sujata became our friend, there were days that we didn't have enough to eat. It was hard to see my little sisters go hungry. I felt all knotted up inside. I would let them eat more than me. That actually eased my own hunger. It sounds funny, doesn't it?”
“No. I think I know what you mean. When we put others first, our own needs and wants don’t seem to matter so much anymore,” Sujata responded. “My parents provide well for me. I am grateful to them. But when I see others in need of basic things like food and blankets, I don't feel good inside. My parents are always saying that our cook prepares too much food. So with my their permission, I’d gather the extra food and bring them to people. Whenever we get new blankets, I give away the old ones. I am happiest when I can help in my small way.”
Some children nodded as they listened. They understood because they had had similar experiences.
Buddha waited to see if anyone else would like to speak before he spoke again, “Yes, helping one another is very important. We are all related to one another in sharing one common goal. We want to be happy and we don’t want to suffer. Actually, all the animals including the tiniest insects that share this land with us want the same thing as we do.
“Love is a very good quality that each of us has within us. Right now, we care most about ourselves, our family, and friends. This is very natural. It is because we want happiness that, when we love someone, we want that person to be happy, too. It is because we don’t want to suffer that when we see a loved one suffering, we want to relieve his suffering. To see others suffer and to want to do something about it is called compassion.
“But if we can extend our love and compassion to more and more people, including the animals, then that will be truly wonderful. It will bring about peace, harmony, and a better life for all living things.
“If we see deeper with mindfulness and awareness, we will see that when we treat others as we do ourselves, we experience an inner satisfaction. When we make others happy, we are happy. We experience relief when we relieve the suffering of others. Love is its own reward, compassion its own relief. Please don’t take my word for it; try to see for yourself whether it is true. Bima, Sujata, and Svasti have given us some very good examples from their own experiences. See if your experience can confirm what I am saying to you.
Then a girl called Katija said, “Once my mother was very sick. I had to go to the village doctor to pick up some medicine for her. I brought my mom’s purse, which contained all the money we had. On the way there, a drunkard stopped me and wanted my purse. I pleaded with him to let me go. That was when my neighbor showed up and chased him away.
“I can remember just in that moment, I felt such joy and gratitude towards my rescuer. I immediately offered to clean his house and wash his clothes. He refused my offer. Instead, he told me that he was very happy that he came in the nick of time. He went all the way to the doctor’s with me, and back. We talked along the way. He was very friendly. The strange thing is he’s usually a very quiet man who hardly speaks at all. I guess he was satisfied that he had helped me.”
The Buddha nodded in agreement. He then asked, “My young friends, can you tell me what you think is the opposite of love and compassion?”
“Selfishness,” a few children responded in unison.
“Yes, the opposite of love and compassion is to think only for oneself. It is not good when we make the “self” out to be all-important to the exclusion of other people. It makes us want happiness only for ourselves. Other people are not our concern. We do things that may hurt people. The result is unhappiness for others and for us, too. Again, check for yourself whether this is true.
“Next time when you act or think in a selfish way, see if you are relaxed and happy, or whether you feel disturbed and defensive trying to justify, or to excuse your behavior. Use your mindfulness from time to time to check. When you choose to do something thinking only of yourself, ask yourself: is there another way that might be useful to other people as well? This kind of reflection can open up lots of possibilities for helping others.
“This is not easy to do because it does not come naturally to you for now. But by taking the time to consider other people, you will one day come to see for yourself why it is really good to help others. Then you will want to help. You will be the Deer, the Magpie, and the Turtle.”
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