In a former life, many aeons ago, the Buddha took up residence in a forest hermitage, living the life of a recluse and studying with a resolute mind. Sauntering through the woods one day, admiring the springtime foliage, he rounded a bend near a mountain crevasse and saw a cave. There at the mouth of the cave, but a few feet from him, lay a starving tigress who had just given birth. This tigress was so overcome by her labors, so weak with hunger, that she could scarcely move. The future Buddha noticed her dark and hollowed eyes. He could see each rib distending her hide. Starved and confused, she was turning on her whelps, on her own tiger pups, seeing them only as meat to satisfy her belly. The pups, not comprehending the danger, were sidling up, pawing for her teats.

The Buddha was overcome by horror—for his own well-being he felt no fear, but seeing another sentient being in distress made him tremble and quake like the Himalaya. He thought to himself, “How futile this round of birth and death! Hopeless the world’s vanity! Right in front of my eyes hunger forces this creature to transgress the laws of kinship and affection. She is about to feed on her own tiger cubs. I cannot permit this, I must get her some food.”

But the next instant he thought, “Why search for meat from some other creature? That can only perpetuate the round of pain and suffering. Here is my own body, meat enough to feed this tigress. Frail, impure, an ungrateful thing—vehicle of suffering—I can make this body a source of nourishment for another! I’d be a fool not to grasp this opportunity. By doing so may I acquire the power to release all creatures from suffering!”

And climbing a high ridge, he cast himself down in front of the tigress. On the verge of slaughtering her pups, hearing the sound, she looked across—seeing the fresh corpse, she bounded over and ate it. Thus she and her cubs were saved.

The Jataka Tales, from which this story comes, gather some of the earliest and strangest writings preserved in the Buddhist heritage. Jataka means “birth.” The old collection, inscribed in a vernacular language called Pali, preserves 550 legends which tell of the Buddha’s miraculous births in the aeons before he became enlightened. The stories occur in a rough-hewn prose, studded with cryptic shards of a much older verse. It is in these broken oddments of poetry that you find something remarkably ancient—animal tales dating in all likelihood to Paleolithic times.

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.