A Tale from India
Retold by Jack Maguire
Long, long, long ago, before the Buddha was the Buddha, a beautiful baby elephant lived in the forest of India. Her skin was as white and silky soft as the feathers of a swan. While she was growing up, all the people who ventured into the forest and happened to see her there were amazed at her beauty. When she was fully grown, her size and strength were so great that the people who saw her were even more astounded. Word spread across the land about this great, big, strong, white, beautiful elephant.
When the king of that land heard about the elephant, he wanted it for himself. He sent his elephant trainers out to find her. After much hunting in the forest, they did. They caught her in a huge, hempen net, drove her back to the palace grounds, and chained her to a stake.
The king wanted to be sure that the elephant would obey his every command, so when the elephant didn’t do what the trainers told her to do – and often she couldn’t understand what they were asking – they jabbed her with their training sticks. Soon red, blue, and purple bruises broke out all over her beautiful white skin, and she was constantly terrified.
One day the elephant went crazy with fear. She reared up on her hind legs and her chain broke loose. The terror-stricken trainers scurried away, and the beautiful, white elephant escaped. She ran up into the mountains, so far and deep that the trainers couldn’t find her. They searched and searched for a long time, but at last they gave up. Eventually they forgot about her.
But the elephant did not forget about them. Every time the wind moaned, whined, shrieked or blasted, she dashed off in terror, racing around in big, loopy circles, thrashing her trunk wildly from side to side.
Even though she was free, she might just as well have been recaptured by the king’s trainers, for now her mind was often so troubled she forgot to eat. Her big, strong body became thin and weak. Running in heedless fear, she would frequently trip and collapse over rocks, fallen branches, or holes in the ground. Red, blue, and purple bruises broke out all over her beautiful white skin.
The only thing close to peace the elephant ever felt was when she’d lean against one special tree to catch her breath. This tree had a smooth, thick trunk and a big, sheltering crown of leaves where the wind would gently whisper.
Now at this time the Buddha was this tree.
Whenever the elephant would rest herself against the tree, it could sense the fear that was tormenting her, and so it felt great compassion for her. Finally, one day when the elephant was shaking against its bark harder than she ever had before, the tree could no longer stay silent. Waving its leaves and stirring the wind, it whispered these words:
Do you fear the wind?
It only moves the clouds and dries the dew!
Look inside your mind–
There, fear alone has captured you.
As soon as the tree finished whispering these words, the beautiful elephant smiled. Suddenly she realized that she had nothing to worry about but her own habit of always being afraid. From that day on she was at peace with herself. She enjoyed life in her mountain home. She had finally found her freedom.
Jataka tales, from India, recount over five hundred previous lives of the Buddha before he finally achieved enlightenment under a sacred tree. This culminating event happened during his last earthly existence in the sixth century B.C.E. as the mortal prince, Siddhartha Guatama – a lifetime which began and ended beneath sacred trees. In some jataka tales, the Buddha is a human being. In the rest, he is another animal or a plant. In “Fearing the Wind,” he is a tree.
Over the centuries, the jataka tales interwove their way into other story canons. For example, a host of them metamorphosed into Aesop’s fables during and after Alexander the Great’s occupation of Asian territory in the fourth century B.C.E.
I first encountered, admired, and adopted “Fearing the Wind” as a storyteller about twenty years ago. After I became a Zen student a decade later, the tale began resonating for me even more intensely. Part of its appeal to me-and to many of my listeners, young and old-is that it taps real-life memories of turning to a special tree for solace, support, and revitalization.
One of the most memorable trees in my life was a red maple tree in the deep backyard of my childhood home in Columbus, Ohio. When I was a kid, I would often lie on my back at the foot of this tree, with my head just touching the trunk, and stare up through the crown. Something about the kaleidoscopic spread of the branches, internetting sky, clouds, leaves, stars, and planets-in different ways at different times of the day, week, and year-was immensely reassuring and positively spellbinding to me. It was an affirmation of the universe.
I currently conduct workshops that encourage and prepare people create their own “Guardian Project.” Focusing on a particular natural feature in their local area, they commit themselves to a three-step process. First, they spend at least a half-hour at a time, at least three days a week, simply witnessing that feature. This means spending time in its presence without doing anything else but being receptive to what is going on with it. Second, at the end of one month, they translate this experience into a work of art that honors the natural feature, that somehow tells its story. Third, they share that work of art with others. People often choose a tree for this project. In doing so, they bestow the same type of “guardianship” on the tree that the tree in this story gives to the elephant.
Sources for this Jataka tale and others:
Davids, Caroline A.F. Rhys. Stories of the Buddha (NY: F.A. Stokes, 1929)
Kahn, Noor Inayat. Twenty Jataka Tales (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1975)
Martin, Rafe. The Hungry Tigress: Buddhist Myths, Legends, and Jataka Tales (Cambridge, MA: Yellow Moon Press, 1999)
Jack Maguire is a storyteller based in Highland, NY. Among his many books are Creative Storytelling and The Power of Personal Storytelling. He performs special storytelling programs on Johnny Appleseed and John Burroughs.