From a Few Words
Sarabha-Miga Jataka

It was while staying at Jetavana that the Buddha told this story about the wisdom of Venerable Sariputta.

In the seventh year after the Buddha's Enlightenment, a rich man of Rajagaha placed an expensive sandalwood almsbowl on the top of a high pole and issued a challenge to ascetics to get it down. Encouraged by Venerable Moggallana, Venerable Pindola used his supernatural power to rise into the air and to retrieve the bowl.

Many people were impressed, and the followers of other ascetics chided their teachers, "Why didn't you use your supernatural powers and get the bowl?"

Those ascetics scoffed and belittled the feat. "Such a thing means nothing to us. Why should we display our true abilities for the sake of a small wooden bowl? The greedy Sakyan bhikkhus were just showing off!"

The Buddha rebuked Venerable Pindola for using his powers in performing a tawdry magic trick for such an unworthy end. The bowl was forfeited to the Sangha to be ground into sandalwood powder, and bhikkhus were thereafter forbidden to display any supernatural powers they might possess.

When the ascetics from other sects heard about this, they thought, "Since Gotama has prohibited the use of supernatural powers, he will not perform any miracles himself." They began to speak differently about such feats. "Actually," they said to their followers, "our supernatural powers are much greater than those of Gotama's disciples. If we wanted to, we could very easily outdo any of them. We could even outdo Gotama himself! In fact, we challenge him! If he performs even one miracle, we will perform one twice as difficult, twice as amazing!"

When bhikkhus reported this to the Buddha, he calmly replied, "I will accept their challenge."

When King Bimbisara heard about this, he asked the Buddha, "Will you perform a miracle, Venerable Sir?"

"Yes, Sire, I will."

"Wasn't a prohibition placed on the display of supernatural powers?" the king asked.

"The prohibition was given to my disciples. No such rules limit what a Buddha may or may not do. Although others are forbidden to pick flowers and fruit in your royal park, Sire, certainly that rule does not apply to you!"

"Where do you intend to perform your miracle, Venerable Sir?"

"In Savatthi, under a Ganda mango tree."

"What must I do?" asked the king.

"Nothing is needed, Sire."

The next morning, while the Buddha and the bhikkhus were walking for alms, people asked the bhikkhus what the Buddha was going to do. "Under a Ganda mango tree, near the city gate of Savatthi," the bhikkhus replied, "the Blessed One will perform a twofold miracle which will confound the ascetics of other sects."

People began talking excitedly, "This miracle is going to be fantastic! I mustn't miss it! Let's go to Savatthi!" Many locked their doors and followed the Buddha out of the city. Rival ascetics and their disciples also joined the throng. They declared to any who would listen that they, too, would perform a miracle in the same place.

In Savatthi, King Pasenadi asked the Buddha, "Is it true, Venerable Sir, that you are going to perform a miracle here?"

"Yes, it is true," the Buddha replied.


"One week from today, on the full-moon day of Asalha."

"Shall I prepare a pavilion for you, Venerable Sir?"

"That will not be necessary. In the place where I will perform my miracle, Sakka will prepare a jeweled pavilion twelve yojanas in diameter. You need do nothing on that account."

"Shall I announce the event, Venerable Sir?"

"Proclaim it widely if you wish, Sire."

Every day for seven days, the king sent his royal crier throughout the city on a richly caparisoned elephant to announce, "On the full-moon day of Asalha, under a Ganda mango tree near the gate of Savatthi, the Buddha will perform a twofold miracle, which will utterly confound all rival ascetics!"

No one knew what a Ganda mango tree was, but, in order to prevent any miracle, the rival ascetics ordered their followers to cut down every mango tree of any kind in and around the city of Savatthi. [1]

When the proclamation was made on the last day, Sakka used his power to extend its range so it could be heard far beyond Savatthi. He also shortened the distance so that everyone who wanted to attend would be able to reach the city gate in time to see the event.

On the morning of the day appointed, the royal gardener was taking an exceptionally large, ripe, and flawless golden mango to the palace for the king's breakfast. When he saw the Buddha on his almsrounds at the city gate, he thought, "This fruit is worthy of the Blessed One!" He offered it to the Buddha, who immediately sat down and ate it. When he finished, he handed the seed to Venerable Ananda and said, "Give this seed to the gardener. Let him plant it at this spot. Because his name is Ganda, the tree that grows here will be known as the Ganda mango tree." As soon as Ganda had smoothed the earth over the seed, a red shoot burst through the soil. As a crowd watched, the shoot grew into a magnificent tree with a straight and sturdy trunk and thick branches full of dark green leaves. When it reached one hundred hatthas in height, tiny flowers bloomed on every branch, and bees swarmed around the tree. The flowers quickly became small green fruit, which swelled into golden mangoes. A slight breeze arose, and the newly ripened fruit began falling to the ground. Bhikkhus picked up some of the luscious mangoes and carried them back to the monastery.

That evening, Sakka summoned Vissakamma and ordered him to create the magnificent jeweled pavilion. A vast crowd filled the pavilion, which was, as the Buddha had told the king it would be, twelve yojanas long. Myriads of devas who had come to witness the miracle hovered in the air above the pavilion.

As the full moon rose, the Buddha appeared and stood beneath the branches of the tree. Suddenly, water gushed from the upper part of his body, and flames shot out from the lower part. Then he reversed the order. Next, flames shot out from his right side, and water gushed from the left. Then he reversed that order, as well. The fire and water never mingled.[2] Every pore of his body emitted rays of six colors creating a resplendence beyond words. That marvelous light reached up to the Brahma heavens and down to the hells. As the Buddha preached to the devas and the people, he walked up and down a jeweled walkway which he had created in the air. The Buddha also multiplied himself innumerable times in the branches of the tree such that each listener was able to see and to hear according to his own particular disposition and level of understanding. All those who had not had faith in the Buddha before this became his followers, while those who had already had faith became more zealous in their practice of the Noble Eightfold Path and in their desire for Nibbana.

Every Buddha performs this twin miracle, and it is the tradition that, after performing it, he goes to Tavatimsa. Thus, did the Buddha disappear from Savatthi and, in only three steps, reach Tavatimsa, where he spent the rains retreat, preaching the Abhidhamma to devas, including his mother, who had descended from Tusita in order to hear the Teaching.

Just before the end of the rains retreat, Venerable Moggallana went to Tavatimsa to confer with the Buddha about the ceremony marking the end.

"Where is Sariputta spending the rains retreat?" the Buddha asked.

"Venerable Sir, after witnessing the great twin miracle, he went to Sankassa and has remained there."

"Moggallana, in one week's time, I will descend from this heaven to Sankassa, near the city gate. Let those who wish to behold the Tathagata descending gather there."

Venerable Moggallana informed the people of Savatthi and, at the appointed time, transported a multitude to Sankassa, thirty yojanas away, in an instant.

When the Buddha informed Sakka that it was time for him to return to the realm of men, the king of the devas ordered Vissakamma to build a staircase. Vissakamma created a triple staircase. The center stairs were bejeweled, with silver and golden stairs on either side. The top rested on the peak of Sineru in Tavatimsa, and the foot was positioned beside the gate of Sankassa. The Buddha descended the center stairs. On one side, Sakka was carrying the Buddha's robe and bowl, and, on the other, Brahma was holding an umbrella. Many other devas paid their respects with divine garlands and heavenly perfumes. When the Buddha reached the bottom step, Venerable Sariputta greeted him at the head of the great assembly.

The Buddha thought, "Moggallana has amply demonstrated his supernatural power. Upali has been recognized as thoroughly versed in the Vinaya, but Sariputta's wisdom, which is second only to mine, has not yet been adequately shown. Let me allow him to demonstrate the brilliance of his wisdom!"

First, the Buddha asked a question which even ordinary people could answer. Then he asked a question which could be answered only by those who had attained at least the first path. Successively, he asked questions requiring the attainment of the second, third, and fourth paths. After asking a question which Venerable Moggallana could answer, the Buddha asked a question which only Venerable Sariputta could understand, and that great disciple answered it with ease.

The entire assembly marveled at the depth of Venerable Sariputta's understanding. Thenceforth, everyone recognized the excellence of the wisdom of the Captain of the Teaching.

Next, the Buddha asked Venerable Sariputta another question, which required the understanding of a Buddha: "Some are on the way, and some have reached the goal. What are the manners and the conversation of each?"

Venerable Sariputta immediately understood that the Blessed One was asking him to describe the proper deportment of bhikkhus as they progress toward arahatship, but he was not sure on what the Buddha wanted him to base his answer—the five aggregates, the four elements, or the organs and objects of sense. The Buddha realized Venerable Sariputta's hesitation and knew that with only one hint, Venerable Sariputta would be able to expound the answer. "Sariputta," he said, "consider 'this being'!" Venerable Sariputta immediately understood that he was to base his answer on the aggregates, and he completely and perfectly formulated the answer to the Buddha's question.

Finally, Venerable Sariputta posed a question, which opened the way for the Buddha to teach the Dhamma with great eloquence to the assembly,[3] which extended for twelve yojanas and comprised thirty crores of beings, including both devas and men, and all, without exception, were satisfied with his teaching.

When his discourse was finished, the Buddha left Sankassa and proceeded to Savatthi. The next day, the bhikkhus were talking about Venerable Sariputta's wisdom and how skillfully he had explained in full what the Buddha had asked in brief. When the Buddha heard what they were discussing, he said, "This is not the first time, bhikkhus, that Sariputta has answered at length a question briefly put. He did the same before." Then he told this story of the past.

Long, long ago, when Brahmadatta was reigning in Baranasi, the Bodhisatta was a handsome stag in the forest.

King Brahmadatta was extremely fond of hunting. He was a very good hunter, and he judged other men on their skill in hunting.

One day, he went with a large party to the forest and told his courtiers, "Anyone who lets a deer get past him will be punished!"

The men realized that the deer had to go toward the king, so they placed him at the head of the path. They surrounded a great thicket and began beating the ground. The great stag leaped from the thicket and tried to flee. He darted here and there, looking for an escape route, but, on three sides, archers were standing at the ready. The deer ran toward the king, who was standing a little apart as his men had planned. When the king saw the powerful stag with blazing eyes rushing toward him, he was so dazzled he could hardly see. He shot his arrow, but the stag was quicker, and the arrow missed its mark. The stag burst free, found a clear path, and bounded away like a cloud before the wind.

The courtiers began to make sport of the king, laughing and joking about the deer that got away. This made the king furious."I'll show you!" he shouted. "I'll catch that stag if it's the last thing I do!" Grabbing his sword, he tore off on foot after the deer. He ran for three yojanas without losing sight of the stag. When the animal plunged back into the deep forest, the king was following closely behind. Right in the middle of the path was a deep pit, formed when the roots of an ancient tree that had fallen rotted away. The pit was full of water. Even before it saw the pit, the great deer sensed water and swerved to avoid it. The king was oblivious to the danger and fell in.

Realizing that he was no longer being pursued, the great deer stopped and turned back. He cautiously approached the pit and saw the king, struggling to keep his head above the water. Although he knew that the king had tried to slay him, the stag felt no malice toward him, but only compassion. "I will not allow this king to die in this wild spot," he resolved. "I will deliver him from this great peril!" Aloud he shouted, "Don't be afraid, Sire! I will rescue you from the pit!"

Working as earnestly as he would for his own son, the great deer managed to free the king from what otherwise would have been his muddy unmarked grave. When, at last, the king was safely out of the watery pit, the deer rested briefly. Then, placing the king on his back, he transported him back to within hailing distance of his hunting party. Before returning him to the courtiers, the stag admonished the king to rule righteously and established him in the five precepts.

The king was so pleased with the teaching that he did not want to part from his rescuer. "King of the deer," he begged,"please come to Baranasi with me! You may rule my kingdom!"

"Sire," the stag replied, "I am an animal! I have no use for a kingdom! If you have any affection for me, keep the precepts I have taught you, and instruct your subjects to keep them as well. Do good deeds, and be generous. Rule wisely and with righteousness." Bidding farewell, the stag returned to the forest.

Even after the king had returned to the city, the recollection of the noble qualities of the great stag who had saved his life filled his eyes with tears. He immediately mounted his royal elephant and, surrounded by a division of his army, led a procession around the city. To the accompaniment of a drum, a crier read out his proclamation: "From this day on, all the inhabitants of Baranasi are to observe the five precepts!" He did not tell anyone, however, of the great kindness that had been done to him by the stag.

At daybreak the next morning, after a good night's sleep on his gorgeous couch, the king again remembered the stag's noble qualities and sat up cross-legged. With a joyful heart, he began singing:

"Never give up hope, my good man! Be wise, and keep up your courage! I, indeed, have reached my goal!

"Never give up hope, my good man! Be wise, and keep your spirits up, no matter how pressed! I fought the waves and reached the shore!

"Strive on, my good man! Be wise, and keep up your courage! I, indeed, have reached my goal!

"Strive on, my good man! Be wise, and keep your spirits up, no matter how pressed! I fought the waves and reached the shore!

"One who is wise, though overwhelmed with pain, never gives up hope that bliss will come again.

"Men have many feelings of both joy and woe, but, unaware and heedless, they march on straight to death!

"The unexpected happens, while what one expects does not; just wishing does not make one happy."

Just as the king had begun singing, his chief advisor had arrived at the door and was about to go in. Not wishing to disturb the king, however, he had hesitated, unannounced, and stood at the door listening so that he heard all that the king sang. As soon as the king finished, he tapped lightly.

"Who is there?" asked the king.

"It is I, Sire," replied the advisor.

"Come in, Teacher," the king called.

"Long live the king!" the advisor said, as he entered. "I am very pleased that your hunting trip yesterday was so rewarding. I'm very sorry that you missed the deer and that the others mocked you so mercilessly. You must have been very tired after chasing the stag for such a long way. Perhaps that is why you fell into the pit. How marvelous that the magnificent stag, feeling compassion, rescued you from drowning! That was very kind and courageous of the animal! It is wonderful that he was completely free from thoughts of anger and vengeance! It is also wonderful that you, in recollecting his magnanimity, would sing such beautiful words of praise!

"Teacher!" exclaimed the king. "You may have heard about my missing the deer from some of the courtiers, but I have told no one about my falling into the pit and my encounter with the stag. How did you know? Were you there yesterday? Have you met a witness that I did not see?"

"No, Sire, I was not there," the advisor assured him. "Nor have I heard about your hunting trip from anyone else. I happened to overhear your song just now, and I understood clearly everything that happened. From your own sweet words, I understood exactly what you were describing. Thus, can a wise man discern the full meaning of what he hears in brief."

The king was delighted at his advisor's mental acuity and rewarded him handsomely.

Encouraged by the teaching of the deer, King Brahmadatta devoted himself to almsgiving and to good deeds. Following his exhortation and example, the citizens of Baranasi also practiced morality and generosity, and many were reborn in heaven. Sakka noticed the sudden increase in arrivals in Tavatimsa and understood the cause. He decided to test the king.

One day, the king and the chief advisor went to the royal park for target practice. As the king was about to shoot, Sakka caused the magnificent stag to appear between the king and the target. Recognizing the king of the deer, the king froze and could not release his arrow.

Sakka caused the advisor to say, "Sire, your arrow has been certain death to many powerful foes! Why do you hesitate now? Certainly, venison is proper meat for warriors like you. Prove your skill and kill that deer!"

"Of course, a stag is a suitable target for a warrior's bow,"replied the king, "but I am grateful to this animal, and I dare not think of killing it."

"Actually, Your Majesty," the advisor continued, speaking for Sakka, "if you kill it, thereby fulfilling your obligation as a warrior, you will become king of the devas. On the other hand, if you hesitate from mere sentimentality, you doom yourself to hell and to judgment by King Yama."

"So be it!" the king declared. "Even to escape from King Yama's wrath, I will not harm this deer. When I was helpless, without hope, and drowning in that pit, it was this very stag who saved my life! How could I kill my benefactor, who showed me such mercy and forgiveness?"

After hearing those brave words, Sakka revealed himself and stood poised in the air. "Long live the righteous King Brahmadatta!" he proclaimed. "This ruse, including the words your advisor spoke, constituted a test, and you have nobly proved your gratitude and virtue. May you continue to rule your kingdom with wisdom and righteousness. Continue to guide your subjects along the path of generosity, and your kingdom will be at peace. Live blamelessly, and you will be reborn in heaven!" The stag vanished, and Sakka himself returned, with great glory, to Tavatimsa.

Having concluded his story, the Buddha identified the birth: "At that time, Ananda was King Brahmadatta, Sariputta was the chief advisor, and I was the noble stag."

[1] One version of this story says that they paid the owners of the trees. Another says that they cut down the trees without permission, which infuriated many people.

[2] Although the fire and water appeared to be simultaneous, they were actually alternating. This is called yamaka-patihariya, which can be done only by a Buddha since no one else has perfected his power of concentration to the point of being able to alternate so quickly between water and fire kasinas.

[3] Sariputta Sutta (Sutta Nipata, Atthakavagga, 16).

From Jataka Tales of the Buddha: An Anthology, Vol. 2, Retold by Ken and Visakha Kawasaki, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 2010, copyright: Ken and Visakha Kawasaki