PRELUDE TO A FALLIBLE PHILOSOPHY: THE GREAT MONKEY KING

The Jatakas are a collection of ancient Buddhist stories intended for children. They consists of a number of fables, many of which concern the past lives and incarnation of the Buddha–Siddhartha Gautama. The Jatakas are associated with the Theravada tradition (as opposed to the Mahayanas) and were written in the third century, B. C. There is one story in particular that I would like to share. It is known as the Mahakapi Jataka (The Great Monkey King.)
The historicity of such stories is unimportant. According to tradition–which is important–the Buddha was sitting around a fire with a group of Bhikkus. (Bhikkus are Buddhist aspirants and ascetics.) Upon hearing a tale of kindness and sacrifice of a nobleman, the Buddha entreated them to repeat their story. After hearing the tale again, the Buddha said: “That is not the only time the Tathagata has done well for another’s keep. I would like to share a story with you.”
The attentive Bhikkus fell silent and the Buddha spoke: “Once there was a Great King, a King of the Monkeys of the Himalayas–wise in mind, and noble in character. He was a most respected King, adored by all his subjects and like them in his manner, solemn and humble. He was a much adored leader with thousands of monkeys committed to his charge.
“Along the bank of the Ganges River (where the historical Buddha is said to have wandered) there grew a magnificent mango tree with massive branches. The fruit was ripe and sweet and spread across the bank. The King, keen in awareness and perceptive, knew this could be disastrous, as the King of men, and all his knights behind him, could find the tree and subdue it, as men were known to do.
“He ordered, therefore, his foresters, to pick all the mango flowers and fruit from the tree. However, there was one fruit hidden and fell into the river where a king was bathing. So fond of the taste, he ordered his soldiers to find the giant tree. The king, with guards on either side, sent his soldiers out to find the mango tree. Finding it the King rejoiced and picked as many as he could eat. When night came they went to sleep, warm, with their bellies full.
“With his own troops, the Monkey King arrived at midnight as the men below them slept. They went from branch to branch collecting the mangoes. In the stillness of the night, the King of men awoke, and seeing all the monkeys in the tree above, he ordered his finest archers to kill the monkeys.
“They saw no way to escape and they feared for their lives. They gathered with their children and their families around the Great Monkey King and asked. “What can we do? They’re going to kill us.”
“The King showed no fear in speech or manner and told him not to fear, for he would save their lives. He climbed onto a branch that stretched across the river. He sprung from the base of it, up the trunk, and then across the river Ganges. sprung from the end of it, and then jumped onto the other side of the Ganges.
“He hurriedly judged the distance and thought of how far he had come. Then he found a long vine to fasten to the tree and allow the rest of the monkeys to cross in safety. First he tied the vine to a tree. Then he tied the vine around his waist and leapt across the river. The Great Monkey King had made a mistake. however; he had been too quick in his judgment; he forgot to include the amount of rope to be tied around his waist. He would be unable to reach the trunk of the mango tree. Even though the Monkey King had made a mistake, he refused to give up, and managed to grab a branch. He signaled to the frightened monkeys; he would allow them to step on his back and then run along the vine to safety, to the other side of the Ganges. He wished them all good luck as they passed. Each of his eighty thousand subjects made it to the other side.
“The last of the monkeys to cross was very bitter, desirous to be king, desirous for glory. And seeing the Great Monkey King prostrate between the trunk and the other shore, he jumped on the Monkey King’s back and clawed at his eyes. Then he laughed and made his way to the other side.
“The King of men, seeing this, felt empathy, and a great sense of humility came over him. “This Great King of monkeys, he has sacrificed his life for the safety of his subjects.” Being moved to tears the King of men ordered his soldiers to bring the Monkey King ashore and take care of him. As order, the Monkey King was brought ashore and washed. He was anointed with perfumes and treated with great respect. They covered him in noble robes and gave him sugar water to drink. Bowed before him, the King of men asked, “What were the other monkeys to you? What made their life worth more than your own?”
“The Monkey King replied: “Great king, I guard the herd. I am their lord, I am their chief, and when they are filled with fear, I will be there to assure them. They know I will do anything to spare them pain, and give my life for theirs. I tied the vine around my waste and returned to the tree with half my strength, barely enough to hold the branch for my friends to pass. I could save them, and, because of that, I had no fear of death. To be a great King, and ruler, I had to guarantee the happiness and safety over those I reigned. Sire, you must understand this, if you wish to be a righteous ruler, the happiness of your people must be very dear to you; they must be more dear than your life.”
“Speaking thus, the Great Monkey King closed his eyes and died in peace. He was given a royal burial. The women carried torches. The ministers sent wood. The skull was taken to the King of men after the ceremony was over. A noble shrine was built to do him honor, to honor his noble sacrifice. His skull, inlaid with gold, was raised upon a spear in front of the royal court. It was placed at the gate, at the height of honor, and adorned with lotus flowers. The King of men himself would forever revere the skull and it would remain a treasure relic for the rest of his life.”
His story finished, the Buddha said, “At that time, the great King of men was Ananda, the monkeys were this assembly, and I myself was the Monkey King.”

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