A Tale from Tibet
Retold by Odds Bodkin
Editor’s Note: This tale is a direct transcripton from an oral recording and can only suggest the full exuberance and artistry of the original telling, one which includes virtuoso musical accompaniment and a rich interplay of character voices. Purchasing information for the tape can be found at the end of the story.
Long ago, in the holy city of Benares, in India, where tall temples stood reflected in a hundred quiet pools, and pilgrims, their feet weary, dusty, from the long trek to the holy city by the river would wander in groups into the shade beneath the great trees in the parks, in a city famous for its parks. In Benares, merchants built homes, like the palaces of kings.
The busiest place in all the city was the market. Children laughed and ran beneath the legs of pack mules standing in lines. Women brought out bolts of brightly colored cloth and spread them like the tails of peacocks on the road. There were great steaming bowls full of rice, chicken, and the smell of the dust mixed with the smell of the ganja and the dung and lifted in a great cloud throughout the city.
Out into this crowd stepped a tall man. His name was Patan-Pali. The most famous of all the merchants in the city. Patan-Pali, it was said, was brave beyond bravery. It was said that he alone would take an army with him as his pack train made its way northward to the Hindu kush where it would turn eastward to Cathay and westward to Arabia in search of spice. Patan-Pali who had great warehouses in the city.
Well, the man was about to put his foot into the stirrup when up ran a group of his his neighbors, all holding goblets of wine, the wine rocking back and forth in the rims of the goblets. His neighbors looked angry. They said to him,
” Yes?” said Patan-Pali.
“Patan-Pali, I will ask, yes I will, Patan-Pali, we are very curious…”
“Yes, very curious…”
“Curious about what?”
“Yes, we are curious. Ah, well, we understand that you have no family and that you have great storehouses full of things, eh, some of which, eh, hold our own things. And are very curious…who you intend to leave in charge of all your wealth, eh while you are gone?”
Patan-Pali looked at his neighbors and gestured down the line of pack mules to a simple herdsman pulling tight the strap of a stirrup and said-
“Jigme-my friend-he will watch over my things.”
The merchants looked at him. “Jigme? Jigme!”
“Jigme is poor,” declared one.
“Jigme is a simple herdsman!” said another.
“That is impossible-Jigme! Patan-Pali, the well of poverty is deep! Besides… Our things are kept inside your warehouses, you cannot leave a poor man in charge of your wealth. By the time you come back, he will be the rich one, you will be the poor one, yes, Patan-Pali, what do you think of that?”
Patan-Pali looked at all his angry neighbors and said, “Jigme is my friend. I trust him.”
“We will not accept this decision Patan-Pali. We think that we should ask someone else in the city…”
“Yes, in the city.”
“Yes, there is a wise man who is visiting Benares, everyone is talking about him. ‘Buddha’ or ‘the Buddha’ they call him-he sits in the palm grove, the palm grove. He speaks of impossible things. We should ask the Buddha.
“Yes, ask the Buddha!”
“Patan-Pali, you must come with us.”
And so across the city Patan-Pali followed his angry neighbors. And they came to the palm grove and there they found, seated among his disciples, a great wide man, with a smile upon his face.
The angry merchants walked up to the Buddha…
“Ah Buddha… Patan-pali intends to leave his great wealth in the care of a simple herdsman!”
Said Patan-Pali “But I trust him Buddha!”
The Buddha turned and gestured them all to sit. My friends, come, I will tell you a story. Sit. Relax…”
Long ago in this very city, the city of Benares, there once lived a great king and his name was king Brahmadatta. King Brahmadatta was beloved by all the people in Benares for instead of taxing people or making war, King Brahmadatta loved to garden. Yes! Grew plants! And of all the plants in the city known for its parks and its gardens, his favorite of them all was the Blossom Tree.
How do I describe the Blossom Tree? Why, even when Benares was but a small village by the river, people say the Blossom Tree was already an ancient plant. Some people believed that the Blossom Tree’s roots went so deep that they went to the realm of the demons. Others believed that the Blossom Tree’s great boughs touched heaven itself.
But King Brahmadatta, he loved the Blossom Tree because to him it was a poem for life. Every spring the little leaves would push themselves from the branches. The Blossom Tree would thrive and live a full life all during the long summer. But then, the monsoons came, the Blossom Tree would seem to lose its leaves and seem to die. Ah, but, King Brahmadatta knew that, just like a person, the Blossom Tree was only sleeping in bed and that when the spring came again, so would its life. But for all the time king Brahmadatta spent beneath the boughs of the Blossom Tree, he never once noticed the little kusha grass, the soft green kusha grass -or the little cameleons, the little lizards who go running, running, who change their colors lived. No, King Brahmadatta only had eyes for the Blossom Tree.
One day the king was seated in his great throne room, with his wife, the queen, sipping tea, when something fell (plop!) into his tea.
“Something has fallen into my tea!” he said. It was white. It floated. It fell another bit. He looked up. It was plaster beginning to fall from the ceiling.
“Plaster!” he said.
Suddenly there was another great rumble in the palace.
“The palace is going to collapse!” he cried. For, making its way across the ceiling was an immense crack! And the crack was widening! And great chunks of plaster were falling all across the great throne room!
“Carpenters, builders,” he cried, “Quickly! Go out into the parks, into the gardens, hurry, we must repair the palace!” For he had noticed that there, in the great wooden pillar, which held up the entire palace, there was a deep crack.
So into the parks the carpenters and the builders ran. They searched from park to park, tree to tree, measuring, trying to find a great tree great enough to replace the pillar.
But it was not long before one of the head carpenters returned to the king and fell on his knees before him.
“Your majesty-King Brahmadatta-it pains me to report that there is only one tree great enough to replace the pillar.”
“Well what is it? What is it?” asked the king.
“It is… the Blossom Tree.”
The king looked at the builder. “The Blossom Tree?” he said.
“The jewel of Benares? The most beautiful tree in all of India? No, no, there must be another.”
“There is no other, king.”
“Poor King Brahmadatta. He did not know what to do. Either he could save the Blossom Tree and let his palace collapse. But he could not do that. His servants, his family lived there. The people needed to see the king in the palace.
Or, he could chop down the most beautiful living thing in all of India.
It was too much of a decision for the king so he went that night out into the park to the Blossom Tree itself. Its mighty branches rose above him. And he could feel its immense spirit surging from the earth, up its trunk, out its boughs, out its leaves, down into the earth, into its roots again, up its trunk, out its bough, out its leaves, into the earth. And he prayed to the spirit of the mighty tree for an answer. But the spirit of the Blossom Tree said…. nothing.
And so King Brahmadatta decided to chop it down.
As soon as the idea entered his mind, the breezes blowing past his ears heard it, and they whispered it to the birds. And the birds in horror flew away and whispered it to the leaves. And the leaves whispered it to the sun. And the sun whispered it to all of the universe until soon, all creation knew that in the morning the beautiful Blossom Tree was to die.
And deep in the park that night, the mighty spirit of the Blossom Tree herself, who had lived in her home for thousand of years, looked around. And the spirits of the other mighty trees, magnificent trees, joined her. And they said,
“What will you do?”
“Yes, what will you do?”
“You must leave your body tomorrow morning, what will you do? They are going to chop you down!”
And the Blossom Tree spirit said, “I have lived in my body for thousands of years! I do not know how to live in another body! What will I do?”
“Well” said the others, “You should try this.”
“No, no, no, you do that!”
“No, no, Blossom Tree, you must do this to save yourself.”
“No, no, no,” said another tree, “Do this!”
“No, no, do that!”
“Do this, do this!”
“Do that, do that!”
“No, do that!”
But although the proud spirit of the other trees had something to say, in her heart she knew that they could not help her. And so, all alone, in the darkness of the night, the Blossom Tree spirit wept.
Night passed. All alone she waited, when in the darkness, an hour before dawn, in the lawn, there came a tiny voice-
“Who is it,” she said.
“Blossom Tree! It is me-spirit of the kusha grass.”
“Oh, little kusha gras, you cannot help me.”
“Blossom Tree, I have an idea…”
“What is your idea, little kusha grass?”
And the great spirit of the Blossom Tree leaned over and listened to the tiny voice of the kusha grass.
The next morning two axe-men, brothers, made their way through the dark city. For all the people of Benares were dreaming fitful dreams, for they tossed in their beds unsure what darkness was about to happen. And there were no cries of little birds for all the birds had wrapped themselves in leaves so as not to see the terrible deed. And the sun did not wish to rise but instead hid itself beneath dark clouds on the horizon. For all of nature was mourning the Blossom Tree.
The blades of the axe-men swung past their ankles as they entered the park as walked up to the great trunk of the Blossom Tree. And although they did not want to chop it down, one of the brothers knelt down and felt the tree for a place to chop. But he said-
“Brother, brother, something is wrong here! Feel the trunk here. It is rotten.”
“No, brother, that is impossible. It was fine yesterday.”
“No, no, no, feel here, feel here! Do you feel it? It is soft! The Blossom Tree has gone soft here!”
“It was fine yesterday!”
“I know it was fine yesterday but look it is rotten here! And over here, too… I feel it! It is soft! And way up here it is. And down here and all around here!”
“Brother! Brother! The Blossom Tree has gone completely rotten-in one night! It is a miracle! It is a miracle! It means that it will not work for the pillar!”
“It will not. We must tell the king-”
“Yes, the king.”
And so swiftly, through the city the two axe-men ran and they found king Brahmadatta with his face in his hands. And they said, “King, the Blossom Tree has gone rotten – in one night! We cannot chop it down.”
This caused the king to begin to think. And swiftly, his mind raced, trying to think of something to do, when suddenly an idea flew into his mind. And he said,
“Call the carpenters and the builders! And send them out in to the city to bring back three trees, great trees. And we must bind them together with binds of brass and make one strong pillar. Now hurry!”
And so out into the parks the builders and the carpenters ran. They felled three mighty trees. And they bound them together with bands of brass. And they replaced the pillar of the palace. And as soon as this was done, out of the leaves stepped the little birds. And they spread their wings. And the sun rose up above the city, awakening all the people. And the people shook the sleep from their brows. And as if a great weight had been lifted, they made their way out to live another day.
But back in the park, the spirits of the other trees stared at the Blossom Tree spirit and asked,
“How did you do that?”
“What did you do?
“How did you go rotten in one night?”
“Is it possible to go rotten in one night? And even if you do go rotten you must leave your body anyway!”
“How-what-did you do that?”
And the spirit of the Blossom Tree looked at all the others, so proud, so magnificent, and she said,
“Last night, all of you told me what to do. But you could not help me at all. The little spirit of the kusha grass, the kusha grass no one ever notices, spoke to me. And the spirit of the kusha grass is friends with the little chameleons who change their color. The spirit of the kusha grass called the little chameleons, thousands of them, to climb up upon my back. Their little bodies were soft. I am not rotten! I am as strong as ever!”
The spirits of the trees were amazed. And then the blossom Tree spirit spoke one last time.
“Henceforward then, we will not choose our friends and judge them in any life not by their magnificence or their will or their fame. But instead we must choose our friends for their faithfulness and the depth of their love.”
And so the Buddha finished his story. And each of the merchants, one by one, rose and looked about him. And wandered off across the city. wondering what it was in life he might have missed. But the merchant Patan-Pali bowed low to the Buddha and thanked him. And the wise man in the palm grove winked.
Patan-Pali turned and made his way across the city and leaving Jigme, his trusted friend, in charge of all his great wealth, loaded his pack train out of city gates, across India, northward through the Hindu kush, eastward to Cathay in search of silks, and westward to Arabia in search of spice.
“Can Stories Teach Peace?”
First of all, what is peace? Absence of conflict? When you consider that the universe is a tissue of infinitesimal conflicts of creation and destruction, probably not. Conflicting air temperatures circulate the planet’s air supply and magnets wouldn’t exist without their conflicting polar energies. Even our sense of vision is a byproduct of contrasts across the retina–without those conflicts of light and dark, we go blind.
So, is a fluttering leaf less at peace than a still one? Probably not. When nations are at peace they still argue bitterly about small things. So if we question our metaphors for peace-stillness, tranquility, ease, relaxation, quiet–beneath the surface we see that they are really just names for rest periods between times of activity.
Peace is something very different. Peace is well-governed activity. Peace accepts contrasts and conflicts and does its best to live with them. In our bustling, imperfect, multicultural world, peace can’t be taught by telling people to be peaceful. Peace can only be taught by developing respect for the lives of others. For other races and societies, other religions, and other linguistic groups. And by pointing out the universal experiences we all share, no matter how different we may appear.
It is in pointing out the universals we all share that storytelling can be a powerful tool. Over the years I’ve collected hundreds of stories from cultures ranging from the Australian Aboriginal to the Classical Grecian. Yet all these tales highlight universal human virtues like honesty, respect, perseverance, courage, compassion, and loyalty. Unlike morals, which vary explosively between groups, these universal virtues tend to be required learning in just about every culture, from quiet village to crowded city.
The Blossom Tree, a Tibetan folktale about a tree, a king, and the faithful kusha grass nobody ever notices, is about the loyal meek helping the powerful strong; but so is The Mouse and the Lion, Aesop’s famous tale of a lion nibbled from a stout net and saved. The Tale of the Tree, a Bantu folktale, is about perseverance and memory; but so is my four-hour version of Homer’s The Odyssey. The Little Shepherd, an Italian fairytale, is about courage and cleverness, but so is Theft of Fire, a Maidu Native American tale about brave animals stealing back fire from Thunder himself. Abe Lincoln’s Letter to his Brother, wherein Abe refuses his sibling another loan is about responsibility and honesty, but so is The Honest Man and the Gold, an old Jewish folktale from the Midrash.
By listening to these universal tales, children recognize that what is valued in their culture is valued in other, profoundly different ones – cultures from far away, where people look and seem to behave very differently. They learn about other folkways and beliefs in a good light. They are entertained through their imaginations. And the hidden message is: at the level of the human spirit, we are all the same.
Can stories teach peace? Not directly. But if we can teach our children these universal virtues, then peace will be the natural outcome, no matter what petty conflicts our children encounter.
©1997 Odds Bodkin
Tibetan Folktales, ed. By Fredrick and Audrey Hyde-Chambers, Shambala, 1981
About the Contributor:
Odds Bodkin is an internationally acclaimed storyteller, children’s author and recording artist. “The Blossom Tree” is transcribed with permission from the audiotape, “The Blossom Tree: Tales from the Far East.” To learn more about Odds, his books and his performance schedule and also to hear live recordings of some of his stories, visit his website at Oddsbodkin.com.