2021-05-13 Stories - The Golden Deer
3:10PM May 13, 2021
I'll offer today another story from the Jataka tales. They are tales from the former births – lives – of the Buddha that are fables. But they're fables, which carry the values which Indian Buddhists of ancient times had, and wanted to convey to others.
You get a very different feeling for Buddhism from the stories that are told – the values in them, how people relate to each other, and the virtues that are emphasized. You get a sense of what Buddhism is emphasizing for how to live a life – as opposed to what to believe or what to understand philosophically or metaphysically. They belong to the values of another time, another place. Sometimes, some aspects of them are a little hard for us in the modern world to appreciate. But some things seem universal in these wonderful fables.
This one is about a golden deer – a deer who was magnificent, with golden fur, antlers of shining silver, and eyes that were like sparkling, radiant gems – jewels. This deer was very wise. But because of its great beauty, it was often searched for. Hunters wanted to have it or capture it as a trophy. So it would go into deep woods, and hide in inaccessible places to be safe. But the deer was content being there, because it liked to meditate. It would sit there, meditate, and become wiser and kinder in the process.
So there it was, the deer in its hiding place. And it happened to be that the thicket of woods where it hid was close to a river. In a city upriver, a wealthy merchant died and left his wealth to his son. His son, who was a bit of playboy and gambler, started to spend the money quite extravagantly for all kinds of things. Pretty soon, he had spent all the money. Not only had he spent it, but he had come into deep debt.
And creditors came after this wealthy son to get their money back. But not having any money or anything to offer, the son had a little trick up his sleeve, he thought. He may have made it up on the spot. Maybe an ill-thought-out plan. And that was: "Come, I have money for you. I have a treasure that's buried in the sand next to the river. And we'll go down there and we'll dig it up and you'll have your money back."
So this crowd of creditors (there was a lot of debt he had) and this young man were walking down the river. And, on a sand embankment that went down to the river – a steep embankment – the young men pretended to slip. He slipped intentionally in the sand and fell into the river with its raging water. The plan was to be swept away by the river – this raging water – so that the creditors thought he died in the river through an accident of slipping and falling, and would no longer be chasing after him for their money.
And, in a sense, that's what happened. The boy kind of feigned slipping, slipped down into the river, and got swept away. But it turned out that the river was quite strong. There was no way to get back onto the shore. It was a big, wide river with raging water carrying him down. It carried him downriver a long way. After a while he thought, "This is serious. I can't get back to shore. I'm going to drown and I'm cold. Things are difficult here, and there are greater rapids downriver.
So the young man started calling out for help. The golden deer heard his cries for help. And the deer said, "Well, as long as I'm alive, I'm not going to allow anyone to die whom I can help and save." He dashed out of his thicket in the woods to the river, jumped into the river – and swam out to where the young man was. He ducked under the water, came up underneath the man, picked him up on his back, and then swam back to the shore.
By this time, the young man was quite cold. Hypothermia set in. He was quite weak. And so the deer brought him into his thicket – the secret place he had – and, over next couple of days, nursed him back to health – to well-being – bringing him fruits and nuts from the forest. He gave him water and kept him warm. And then the young man revived and felt good.
The young man thanked the deer, saying, "This is quite something. Anything I can do in return?" And the deer said, "Yes. I'll bring you back. I'll take you back out to the road so you can go back to your city. But please, promise that you will not tell anyone where I am so I can stay safe here." And the young man said, "Yes. I promise."
So the deer carried him out through the thickets of woods and forests and showed him where the road was to the city. The boy then returned to the city. By now, no one recognized him, or maybe it was a different city (or something) and the capitol of this country.
It happened that, after a while, the queen of the country had a dream. She dreamt of a great golden deer with silver antlers and gem-like eyes, who, in her dream, was very, very wise. She was intrigued and desirous of that wisdom, and wanted to be a student of this wise deer she had dreamt about. She asked her ministers to please go find the deer and bring it to her so she could learn from its wisdom. But no one knew where the deer was.
And so a proclamation was sent out through the town announcing that if anyone could find the golden deer – find out where it was for them – they would receive a big treasure – chests of treasure. The young man heard this and he said, "Oh. Well. I know where the golden deer is." And so he went to the queen and said, "I know where it is. And I can bring you there," breaking his promise to the deer.
The Queen assembled her soldiers and people. Maybe they were a bit afraid to go into the woods, but they came with their spears and arrows, and started to circle around the place where the deer was, making a lot of noise. The deer could see through the trees the spears, the arrows, and the soldiers. And he said, "Oh. I'm here to be captured."
So he got up and, in a stately and calm way, walked right to the queen who was with everyone. The Queen got a little bit scared to have this big deer walking right up to her. She pulled out her bow and arrow and was going to protect herself. But there was something about the non-threatening nature in which this big deer came walking up to her, that she didn't let the arrow fly.
And the deer stopped and said, "What are you doing here? And who brought you here? How did you find me?" The Queen said, "Oh. It's this man here – the young man who showed us the way and showed us where you were." The deer said, "Oh. There's an ancient saying: Better to save a log. Better to rescue a log from the river than someone like you." And the Queen didn't understand that, "What are you talking about? Not saving someone?" "Oh," the deer said, "This man was drowning in the river. I plunged into the great river, fought the rapids, brought him back to the shore, and nursed him back to health. Then he promised he would never tell anyone where I was in my safety."
The Queen was horrified to hear this – to hear both that this animal who had risked its life to save a human being had been betrayed, and that the young man had made a promise and the promise was betrayed. She took her bow and arrow and said, "You're a traitor. You have betrayed. This is terrible what you did."
And the deer said, "No! Don't shoot. Don't shoot. You promised the young man that you would give him a treasure if he brought you to me. And he should be given the treasure. But maybe you can banish him from the queendom."
That's what the Queen did. The man left with his treasure, never to come back to that country. Then the Queen said, "Please come with me to the palace. I'd like to learn from you and your teachings. I'll offer you a wish. That's my payment – any wish you want." And the deer said, "Please pass a law that no one is allowed to injure, hurt, or kill any animal in this queendom." And the Queen said, "Okay. I offered you a wish. And that's what you'll take. That'll be the new law."
And they went back to the palace. The deer taught the Queen, the ministers, and many of the people of that capitol the virtues of kindness, friendliness, generosity, truthfulness, and all the wonderful virtues. That all went well, except that animals started eating the crops of the farmers, and the farmers couldn't chase them away. They couldn't injure or kill them to stop them. That became an uproar from everyone, about the problems they had.
So the great golden deer went out into the world and told all the animals, "Don't eat the people's food. They need to be able to grow their own food and support themselves. They're not going to kill you, but don't you take their plants and crops." And the animals agreed. In this way, the kingdom became vegetarian, and the animals were safe.
So there are a lot of interesting lessons in this story. Maybe it is a fantastical story and fable. But certainly it teaches the value of helping others, preserving and saving life, and dedicating oneself – even at the risk of one's own life – to helping others. This is a huge value of ancient Buddhism which you see in many of these stories.
There is also the tremendous importance of truthfulness – to speak the truth and then adhere to the truth, especially if you have made a promise. And the value of not harming. There seems to have been a trend, in certain parts of ancient Indian Buddhism, of emphasizing or pointing toward vegetarianism, so that no animals get killed or injured.
So that's the story for today. Just like the deer stayed in a quiet, secret place so it could cultivate its great compassionate care and wisdom, so may you go to your secret place of meditation. And may it be a place where you can develop your own kindness, compassion, truthfulness, and care for this world.
May you be the great golden deer who is wise. Thank you.