This tale, retold by Zen monk-poet Ryokan (c. 1758–1831), draws on an old Chinese legend of a rabbit who lives in the moon. It is one of many Jataka tales, stories of Shakyamuni Buddha’s previous lives that illustrate acts of selflessness. 

It took place in a world

long long ago

they say:

a monkey, a rabbit,

and a fox

struck up a friendship,

mornings

frolicking field and hill,

evenings

coming home to the forest,

living thus

while the years went by,

when Indra,

sovereign of the skies,

hearing of this,

curious to know

if it was true,

turned himself into an old man,

tottering along,

made his way to where they

were.

“You three,”

he said,

“are of separate species,

yet I’m told play together

with a single heart.

If what I’ve heard

is true,

pray save an old man

who’s hungry!”

then he set his staff aside,

sat down to rest.

Simple enough, they said,

and presently

the monkey appeared

from the grove behind

bearing nuts

he’d gathered there,

and the fox returned

from the rivulet in front,

clamped in his jaws

a fish he’d caught.

But the rabbit,

though he hopped and hopped

everywhere

couldn’t find anything at all,

while the others

cursed him because

his heart was not like theirs.

Miserable me!

he thought

and then he said,

“Monkey, go cut me

firewood!

Fox, build me

a fire with it!”

and when they’d done

what he asked,

he flung himself

into the midst of the flames,

made himself an offering

for an unknown old man.

Illustration by Seiko Susan Morningstar, ink on paper.
Illustration by Seiko Susan Morningstar, ink on paper.

 

When the old man

saw this

his heart withered.

He looked up to the sky,

cried aloud,

then sank to the ground,

and in a while,

beating his breast,

said

to the others,

“Each of

you three friends

has done his best,

but what the rabbit did

touches me most!”

Then he made the rabbit

whole again

and gathering the dead body

up in his arms,

took it and

laid it to rest

in the palace of the moon.

From that time till now

the story’s been told,

this tale

of how the rabbit

came to be

in the moon,

and even I

when I hear it

find the tears

soaking the sleeve of my robe.

Reprinted from Ryokan: Zen Monk-Poet of Japan, translated by Burton Watson, with permission from Columbia University Press.

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