The three jtakas in our literature book are: “The Cheating Merchant,” “The Hare’s Self-Sacrifice”
and “The Monkey’s Heroic Self-Sacrifice.” The jtakas are stories about the lives of the Bodhisatta, who
in each life moves closer to being an enlightened being or a Buddha.
In “The Cheating Merchant,” the Bodhisatta is a merchant named Wise whose partner is named
Wisest. Wisest says he must have a double share of the profits because he is Wisest, (wiser than Wise).
Of course, Wise disagrees with this reasoning, so they argue.
Wisest decides to trick Wise into giving him a double share. He makes his father hide in a
hollow tree and pretend to be a tree sprite. Wisest persuades Wise to let the tree sprite decide how to
divide their profits, and the tree sprite says Wisest should have a double share.
The Bodhisatta (Wise) fills the trunk with straw and sets it on fire to see if the tree sprite is genuine.
Wisest’s father is half roasted by the flames and pulls his way out by grabbing a branch. In the end, the
Buddha explains that he was the merchant named Wise.
In “The Hare’s Self-Sacrifice,” the Bodhisatta is a young hare. The day before fast day, he tells
his friends (a monkey, a jackal, and an otter) how to observe the holy day. (p. 952) He tells them to
sacrifice their food to beggars, and the one who honors this will be rewarded.
On fast day, the otter steals seven fish that a fisherman had buried while he was fishing. The
otter pretends asks three times if anyone owns the fish. No one comes forward, so the otter takes the
fish home. Meanwhile, the jackal is out looking for food and finds some in the house of a field watcher:
two spits, a lizard and a pot of milk curd. He asks three times if anyone owns this food. No one comes
forward, so he takes the food home and thinks of how virtuous he has been. At the same time, the
monkey finds a bunch of mangoes in the jungle.
The Bodhisatta (the hare) realizes he has no food to offer beggers, so he must sacrifice his own
flesh. When Sakka (Indra, the king of gods, who rewards those who display extraordinary virtue) notices
the hare’s sacrifice, he decides to test the hare. So Sakka disguises himself and begs for food from each
of the animals. The otter, jackal and monkey each offer the food they found. When Sakka approaches
the hare, the hare says he will gladly share the only food he has (his own flesh), but the beggar must not
sin by taking an animal life. So he will kill himself by jumping into a fire so the beggar can eat.
When Sakka hears this, he makes a heap of burning coals. The hare shakes out his fur to save
from death any insects that may be in his coat. Then he joyfully jumps into the fire, but the flames only
make him cold instead of burning him. Then Sakka reveals his identity and reason for visiting the hare.
He tells the hare his virtue will be known for an eon. Sakka squeezes a mountain, and the lava inside
spurts out to forms the hare’s shape on the moon.
In “The Monkey’s Heroic Self-Sacrifice,” the Bodhisatta is a monkey king who lives in a mango
tree and rules over 8,000 monkeys. The tree’s fruit is sweet, fragrant and large. One day, a ripe mango
falls into the river and as the king (human) is bathing. He takes the mango home, eats it, and is so
enchanted with it that he goes back to the tree.
When the king returns to the tree, he orders his men to shoot the monkeys. The monkey king
decides to save his followers. He jumps from the tree to another tree, marks the distance, and cuts off a
bamboo shoot the same length to tie between the trees and use as a bridge. He ties one end around the
neighboring tree and jumps back to the mango tree. But he forgets to leave extra bamboo to account for
the length he ties around his waist.
When he jumps back, he almost falls and has to grab a branch, and his body is part of the
bridge. He orders the monkeys to walk on his back to get across. Devedatta, the Bodhisatta’s evil
cousin, is one of the monkeys in the tree. Devedatta, who was jealous of the Bodhisatta, climbs a high
branch and jumps down to break the monkey king’s back.
The king, who is watching, decides to take the monkey king home and care for him because he
is impressed with the monkey’s sacrifice. The monkey king taught the king to put the happiness and
welfare of his people before anything else, and he dies. The king gives the monkey king a royal funeral
and makes a shrine for his skull, which he worships all of his life as he practices what the monkey king
taught: serving his people honorably.