The Banyan Deer
1 “The Banyan Deer.” Martin, Rafe. The Hungry Tigress: Buddhist Legends and Jataka Tales. Berkeley, California: Parallax Press, ©1990.
Once, the Buddha was born as a Banyan Deer. When he was grown he became leader of the herd. He guided his herd wisely and led them to the heart of a secluded forest where, sheltered by the giant trees, they lived free from danger.
Then a new king came into power over the land. And, above all things, this king loved hunting. As soon as the sun rose he would mount his horse and lead his men on a furious chase through fields and meadows, forests and glens. Shooting his arrows madly, he would not leave off until the sun had set. Then the wagons rolled back to the palace behind him, filled now with deer, boar, rabbit, pheasant, monkey, leopard, bear, tiger, and lion. And the king was happy.
His people, however, were not pleased. Fields had been ruined by the royal hunt. Farmers and merchants had been forced to leave off their work in order to beat the jungles and drive the hidden beasts towards the waiting king and his men. Affairs of state, too, lay unattended. The people determined to bring all this to an end, devised a simple plan. They built a stockade deep in the forest. “We’ll trap a herd or two of deer in this stockade,” they said. “Then the king can hunt all he wants. Let him hunt to his heart’s content. He won’t ruin our fields or force us to leave our shops. Then let him be happy.”
The stockade was built and two herds of deer were driven within its walls. The gates were closed and the delicate animals, charging and wheeling in frantic circles, sought some way out. But there was none. Exhausted at last, they stood trembling, awaiting their fate. The men left happily to tell the king of their success.
One of the herds that had been captured was the herd of the Banyan Deer. The Banyan Deer walked among his herd. Sunlight played on his many-branched antlers. His black eyes shone and his muzzle was wet. “The blue sky is overhead. Green grass grows at our feet,” he told the others. “Do not give up. Where there is life, there is hope. I will find a way.” And so he strove to ease their fears.
Soon the king arrived to view the newly captured herds. He was pleased. He strung his bow in preparation for the hunt. Noticing two deer kings below he said, “The leaders of both herds are magnificent animals. No one is to shoot them. They shall be spared.” Then, standing on the wall, looking down over the stockade, he sent his arrows flying into the milling herds. The deer became frantic. Racing wildly they injured one another with horns and hooves as they sought to escape the deadly rain of arrows.
And so it went. Every few days the king and his courtiers would return to the stockade. And every few days more of the gentle deer were killed. Many others were wounded by the flying arrows. Sill others were injured in the effort to escape.
The king of the Banyan Deer met with the leader of the other herd. “Brother,” he said shaking his antlered head sadly, “we are trapped. I’ve tried every way, but all are barred against us. The pain our subjects suffer is unbearable. As you know, when the arrows fly, many get badly hurt just trying to stay alive. Let us hold a lottery. Each day all the deer, one day from your herd, one day from mine, must pick a straw. Then, the one single deer on whom the lottery falls will go stand near the wall just below the king. That one deer must offer itself to be shot. It is a terrible solution, but at least this way we can keep many from needless injury and pain.” And the leader of the other herd agreed.
The next day, when the king and his courtiers arrived, they found one trembling deer standing directly below them. Its legs and body were shaking but it held its head high. “What is this?” said the king. “Ah, I see. These are noble deer indeed! They have chosen that one deer alone shall die rather than that they should all suffer from our hunt. Those deer kings have wisdom.” A heaviness descended on the king’s heart. “We will accept their terms,” he announced. “From now on shoot only the one deer that stands below.” And unstringing his bow, he descended from the stockade wall and rode back in silence to the palace. That night the king tossed and turned, a radiant deer pacing through his dreams.
One day the lot fell on a pregnant doe. She went to her king, the leader of the other herd, and said, “I will willingly go and fulfill the lottery once my fawn is safely born. But if I go now, both I and my unborn child will die. Please spare me for now. I do not ask for myself but for the sake of the child that is soon to be born.” But the leader of the herd said, “The law is the law. I cannot spare you. The lottery has fallen on you and you must die. There are no exceptions. Justice demands that you go.”
In desperation she ran to the Banyan Deer. She fell on her knees before him and begged for his aid. He listened quietly, observing her with wide and gentle eyes. “Rise, Sister,” said the Banyan Deer, “and go free. You are right. The terms of the lottery require that only one need die. Therefore you shall be freed from the lottery until your fawn is born. I will see that it is done.” Too overjoyed for words, the grateful doe bowed and, then, bounded away.
The Banyan Deer rose to his feet. There was no other he could send to take her place. He had spared her, therefore he himself must replace her. How could it be otherwise? He walked calmly, with great dignity, through his browsing herd. They watched him as he moved among them. His great, curving antlers and strong shoulders, his shining eyes and sharp, black hooves, all reassured and comforted them. Never had their Banyan Deer King let them down. Never had he abandoned them. If there was a way he would find it. If there was a chance to save another he would take it. Not once had he lorded it over them. He was a king indeed, and his whole herd took comfort in his presence.
The courtiers were waiting with bows drawn atop the stockade. When they saw it was the Deer King who had come to stand below they called out, “O King of the Banyan Deer, you know our king has spared you. Why are you here?”
“I have come so that two others need not die. Now shoot! You have your work and I have mine.”
But, lowering their bows, they sent a message to the king. “Your Majesty, come with all speed to the stockade.” Not long after, the king arrived, riding like the wind, with his robes streaming behind him.
“What is it?” he called. “Why have you summoned me?”
“Come your majesty,” his men called. “Look!”
The Banyan Deer stood below. Then deer king and human king looked at one another.
“Banyan King,” said the king of men at last, “I know you. I have seen you gliding through the forests of my dreams. Why are you here? Have I not freed you from my hunt?”
“Great King,” replied the Banyan Deer, “what ruler can be free if the people suffer? Today a doe with fawn asked for my aid. The lottery had fallen on her and both she and her unborn fawn were to die. The lottery requires that only one shall die. I shall be that one. I shall take her place. The lottery shall be fulfilled. This is my right and my duty as king.”
A stone rolled from the king’s heart. “Noble Banyan Deer,” he said, “you are right. A king should care for the least of his subjects. It is a lesson I have been long in the learning but today, through your sacrifice, you have made it clear to me. So I shall give you a gift, a teacher’s fee for the lesson you have taught me. You and your whole herd are freed. None of you shall be hunted again. Go and live in peace.”
But the Banyan Deer said, “Great King, that is, indeed, a noble gift. But I cannot leave yet. May I speak further?”
“Speak on, Noble Deer.”
“O King of Men, if I depart to safety with my own herd will that not mean that the remaining herd shall simply suffer all the more? Each day you shall kill only them. They will have no respite. A rain of arrows will fall upon them. While I desire, above all things, the safety of my people, I cannot buy it at the cost of increasing the suffering of others. Do you understand?”
The human king was stunned. “What!?” he exclaimed. “Would you, then, risk your own and your herd’s freedom for others?”
“Yes,” said the Banyan Deer, “I would. I will. Think of their anguish, Great King. Imagine their sufferings, and then let them too go free.”
The king of men paused and he pondered. At last he lifted his head and smiled. “Never have I seen such nobility or such resolute concern. How can I refuse you? You shall have your wish. The other herd too shall go free. Now, can you go off with your own herd and be at peace?”
But the Banyan Deer answered, “No, Great King, I cannot. I think of all the other wild, four-footed creatures. Like them, I have lived my life surrounded by dangers and fears. How could I live in peace knowing the terrors they must endure? I beg you, Mighty King, have pity on them. There can be no peace unless they too are free.”
The king of men was again astonished. He had never imagined such a thing. He thought and thought, and slowly the truth of the Banyan Deer’s words grew clear to him. It was true, he realized. There is no real peace unless its benefits extend to all.
“You are right, Great Deer,” said the king of men at last. “Never again, in all my realm, shall any four-footed creature be slain. They are all freed from my hunt—rabbit, boar, bear, lion, leopard, tiger, deer—all. Never again, shall they fall to my huntsmen’s arrows. So, my Teacher, have you now found peace?”
But the Banyan Deer said, “No, Great King, I have not. What, my Lord of the defenseless ones of the air? The birds, Great King, live surrounded by a net of danger. Stones and arrows shall greet them now wherever they fly. They shall fall from the skies like a rain throughout your kingdom. They shall know such suffering as can hardly be imagined. O Great King, I beg you. Let them go free. Release them also.”
“Great One,” said the king of men. “You drive a hard bargain and are determined, it seems, to make farmers of us all. But, yes, I shall free the birds. They may now fly freely throughout my realm. No man shall hunt them again. Then may they build their nests in peace. Now, are you satisfied? Are you at last at peace?”
“Great King,” answered the Banyan Deer, “think if you will of the silent ones of your realm—the fish, my Lord. If I do not now speak for them, who will? While they swim the lakes, rivers, and streams of your land, hooks, nets, and spears will be ever poised above them. How can I have peace while they abide in such danger? Great King, I beg you, spare them as well.”
“Noble Being,” said the King of Men, tears trickling down his cheeks, “Compassionate One, never before have I been moved to think in such a way, but, yes, I do so agree. The fish, too, are of my kingdom, and they too shall be free. They shall swim throughout my land and on one shall kill them again.
“Now, all of you assembled courtiers and attendants,” announced the king, “hear my words; this is my proclamation. See that it is posted throughout the land. From this day forth, all beings in my realm shall be recognized as my own dear subjects. None shall be trapped, hunted, or killed. This is my lasting decree. See to it that it is fulfilled.”
“Now, tell me, Noble One,” he said, turning to the Banyan Deer once more, “are you at peace?”
Flocks of birds flew overhead and perched, singing, from among the nearby trees. Deer grazed calmly on the green grass.
“Yes,” said the Banyan Deer, “Now I am at peace!” And he leaped up, kicking like a fawn. He leaped for joy—sheer joy! He had saved them all!
Then he thanked the king and, gathering his herd, departed with them back into the depths of the forest.
The king had a stone pillar set on the spot where he had spoken with the Banyan Deer. Carved upon it was the figure of a deer, encircled with these words: “Homage to the Noble Banyan Deer, Compassionate Teacher of Kings.” Then he too lived on, caring wisely for all things.