Ja 36 Sakuṇajātaka
The Story about the Bird (1s)

In the present a monk is given a subject for meditation and goes to practice with it. Shortly thereafter his hut becomes unliveable, and the villagers do not repair it. At the end of his retreat he meets the Buddha who tells him a story of a warning he once gave when he was king of the birds. Some listened to him, and their lives were saved. Others perished. [There seems to be a mismatch between the story in the present, and the moral in the past. The monk was surely not to blame for his discomfort during their retreat, and it wouldn’t have been changed by listening to good advice.]

The Bodhisatta = the wise bird (paṇḍitasakuṇa),
the Buddha’s disciples = the birds who listened (to him) (bodhisattassa vacanakarā sakuṇā).

Keywords: Amenability, Animals, Birds.

“You denizens of air.” [1.91] This story was told by the Teacher while at Jetavana, about a monk whose cell burnt down.

Tradition says that a monk, having been given a theme for meditation by the Teacher, went from Jetavana to the land of Kosala and there lived in a dwelling in a forest nearby a border-village. Now, during the very first month of his dwelling there, his cell burnt down. This he reported to the villagers, saying: “My cell has been burnt down; I live in discomfort.” They said: “The land is suffering from drought just now; we’ll see to it when we have irrigated the fields.” When the irrigation was over, they said they must do their sowing first; when the sowing was done, they had the fences to put up; when the fences were put up; they had first to do the weeding and the reaping, and the threshing; till, what with one job and another which they kept mentioning, three whole months passed by.

After three months spent in the open air in discomfort, that monk had developed his theme for meditation, but could get no further. So, after the Pavāraṇā festival which ends the Rainy Season, he went back again to the Teacher, and, with due salutation, took his seat aside. After kindly words of greeting, the Teacher said: “Well, monk, have you lived happily through the Rainy Season? Did your theme for meditation end in success?” The monk told him all that had happened, adding, “As I had no lodging to suit me, my theme did not end in success.”

Said the Teacher, “In bygone times, monk, even animals knew what suited them and what did not. How is it that you did not know?” And so saying, he told this story of the past. {1.216}

In the past when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta was born a bird and lived round a giant tree with branching boughs, at the head of a company of birds. Now one day, as the boughs of this tree were grinding one against the other, dust began to fall, soon followed by smoke. When the Bodhisatta became aware of this, he thought to himself, “If these two boughs go on grinding against one another like this, they will produce fire; and the fire will fall and catch hold of the old leaves, and so come to set fire to this tree as well. We cannot live on here; the proper thing to do is to hasten off elsewhere.” And he repeated this verse to the company of birds:

1. “You denizens of air, that in these boughs
Have sought a lodging, mark the seeds of fire
This earthborn tree is breeding! Safety seek
In flight! Our trusted stronghold harbours death!”

The wiser birds who followed the Bodhisatta’s counsels, at once rose up in the air and went elsewhere in his company. But the foolish ones said, [1.92] “It is always like this with him; he’s always seeing crocodiles in a drop of water.” And they, heeding not the Bodhisatta’s words, stopped where they were. In a very short time, just as the Bodhisatta had foreseen, flames really did break out, and the tree caught fire. When the smoke and flame arose, the birds, blinded by the smoke, were unable to get away; one by one they dropped into the flames and were destroyed.

“Thus, monks,” said the Teacher, “in bygone times even animals who were dwelling in the tree-top, knew what suited them and what did not. How is it that you did not know?” {1.217} His lesson ended, he preached the Truths, at the close whereof that monk won the Fruit of the First Path. Also, the Teacher showed the connection, and identified the Jātaka by saying: “The Buddha’s disciples were then the birds who hearkened to the Bodhisatta, and I myself was the wise and good bird.”