11. The Story of the Crane and the Fish
WHEN Vimbasara heard that the Master was leaving the Bamboo Grove, to be gone for some time, he went to see him with his son, Prince Ajatasatru.
The Master looked at the young prince; then turning to the king, he said:
“May Ajatasatru be worthy of your love, O king.”
Again he looked at the prince, and he said to him:
“Now listen well, Ajatasatru, and ponder my words. Cunning does not always succeed; wickedness does not always prevail. A story will prove this, the story of something that happened long ago, something I saw with my own eyes. I was then living in a forest; I was a tree-God. This tree grew between two pools, one small and unattractive, the other wide and beautiful. The little pool was full of fish; in the larger one, lotuses grew in great profusion. During a certain summer of oppressive heat, the little pool almost completely dried up; while the large pool, sheltered from the sun as it was by the lotuses, always had plenty of water and remained pleasantly cool. A crane, passing between these two pools, saw the fish and stopped. Standing on one leg, he began to think: ‘These fish would be a lawful prize. But they are quick; they are likely to escape if I attack them too hastily. I must use cunning Poor fish! They are so uncomfortable in this dried-up pool! And over there is that other pool, full of deep, cool water, where they could swim about to their heart’s content!’ A fish saw the crane deep in thought and looking as solemn as a hermit, and he asked, ‘What are you doing there, venerable bird? You seem immersed in thought.’ ‘I am meditating, O fish,’ said the crane, ‘yes, indeed, I am meditating. I am wondering how you and your friends can escape your sad fate.’ ‘Our sad fate! What do you mean?’ ‘You suffer in that shallow water, O unhappy fish! And each day, as the heat becomes more intense, the water will fall still further, and then what will become of you? For presently the pool will be completely dry, and you will all perish! Poor, poor fish! I weep for you.’ All the fish had heard what the crane said. They were filled with dismay. ‘What will become of us,’ they cried, ‘when the heat will have dried up the pool?’ They turned to the crane. ‘Bird, O venerable bird, can you not save us?’ The crane again pretended to be lost in thought; finally, he replied, ‘I believe I see a way out of your misery.’ The fish listened eagerly. The crane said, ‘There is a marvellous pool quite near here. It is considerably larger than the one in which you live, and the lotuses that cover the surface have protected the water from the summer’s thirst. Take my word for it, go live in that pool. I can pick you up in my bill, one at a time, and carry you there. In that way, you will all be saved.’ The fish were happy. They were about to accept the crane’s suggestion when a crayfish spoke up. ‘I have never heard anything quite so strange,’ he exclaimed. The fish asked him, ‘What is there to astonish you about that?’ ‘Never,’ said the crayfish, ‘never, since the beginning of the world, did I know a crane to take an interest in fish, unless it was perhaps to eat them.’ The crane assumed an offended air and said, ‘What, you wicked crayfish, you suspect me of trying to deceive these poor fish who are in imminent danger of death! O fish, I only want to save you; it is your welfare I seek. Put my good faith to a test if you wish. Choose one of your number, and I shall carry him in my bill to the lotus pool. He will see it; he can even swim around a few times; then I shall pick him up and bring him back here. He will tell you what to think of me.’ ‘That seems quite fair,’ said the fish. To make this trip to the pool, they chose one of the older fish who, although half blind, was considered quite a sage. The crane carried him to the pool, dropped him in, and let him swim about as much as he pleased. The old fish was delighted, and when he returned to his friends, he had only words of praise for the crane. The fish were now convinced that they would owe their lives to him. ‘Take us,’ they cried, ‘take us and carry us to the lotus pool.’ ‘Just as you wish,’ said the crane, and with his bill he again picked up the old, half-blind fish. But this time he did not carry him to the pool. Instead, he dropped him on the ground and stabbed him with his bill; then he ate him and left the bones at the foot of a tree, the tree of which I was the God. This done, the crane returned to the small pool and said, ‘Who will come with me now?’ The fish were eager to see their new home, and the crane had only to make a choice that would satisfy his appetite. Presently, he had eaten them all, one after another. Only the crayfish remained. The crayfish had already shown that he distrusted the bird, and he was now saying to himself, ‘I doubt very much that the fish are in the lotus pool. I am afraid the crane has taken advantage of their faith in him. Still, it would be well for me to leave this miserable pool and go to the other one which is so much larger and more comfortable. The crane must carry me, but I must run no risk. And if he has deceived the others, I must avenge them.’ The bird approached the crayfish. ‘It is your turn, now,’ said the crane. ‘How will you carry me?’ asked the crayfish. ‘In my bill, like the others,’ replied the crane. ‘No, no,’ said the crayfish; ‘my shell is slippery; I might fall out of your bill. Rather, let me hold on to your neck with my claws; I shall be careful not to hurt you.’ The crane agreed. He stopped at the foot of the tree. ‘What are you doing?’ asked the crayfish. ‘We are only half-way. Are you tired? Yet the distance is not great between the two pools!’ The crane was at a loss for an answer. Besides, the crayfish was beginning to tighten the hold on his neck. ‘And what have we here!’ exclaimed the crayfish. ‘This pile of fish-bones at the foot of the tree is evidence of your treachery. But you will not deceive me as you deceived the others. I shall kill you, if I must die in the attempt.’ The crayfish tightened his claws. The crane was in great pain; with tears in his eyes, he cried, ‘Dear crayfish, do not hurt me. I shall not eat you. I shall carry you to the pool.’ ‘Then go,’ said the crayfish. The crane walked to the edge of the pool and extended his neck over the water. The crayfish had only to drop into the pool. Instead, he tightened his grip, and so powerful were his claws that the crane’s neck was severed. And the tree-God could not help exclaiming, ‘Well done, crayfish!’ ” The Master added: “Cunning does not always succeed. Wickedness does not always prevail. Sooner or later the treacherous crane meets a crayfish. Always remember that, Prince Ajatasatru!”
Vimbasara thanked the Master for the valuable lesson he had taught his son. Then he said:
“Blessed One, I have a request to make.”
“Speak,” said the Buddha.
“When you are gone, O Blessed One, I shall be unable to do you honor, I shall be unable to make you the customary offerings, and it will grieve me. Give me a lock of your hair, give me the parings of your finger-nails; I shall place them in a temple in the midst of my palace. Thus, I shall retain something that is a part of you, and, each day, I shall decorate the temple with fresh garlands, and I shall burn rare incense.”
The Blessed One gave the king these things for which he had asked, and he said:
“Take my hair and take these parings; keep them in a temple, but, in your mind, keep what I have taught you.”
And as Vimbasara joyfully returned to his palace, the Master left for Kapilavastu.