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Respect should be freely given to all
simply because all have Buddha-nature,
because all can become Buddhas.

– Stonepeace

Once, the Buddha was travelling, when many younger monks moved ahead to seek shelter. By dusk, a room was prepared for him, as they settled in other rooms. As there was no space allocated for the senior monks Shariputra and Moggallana, they had to sleep outdoors under trees. The next day, the Buddha gathered all to ask which monks deserve the best lodging. Replies included those from – a high caste, the richest, the most learned, the most practised in meditation and those who reached the destination first. The Buddha replied that seniors should be given the priority, that even animals can show respect to their seniors, which leads to harmonious living and more fortunate rebirths.

The Buddha next shared the story of a bird, monkey and elephant, who lived by a large tree. When there was loss of respect for one another, conflict began. Knowing this is not good, they decided to give priority to the elder ones, by measuring their age with the tree. The elephant remembered it to be as big as a bush when he was a baby. The monkey remembered that its leaves touched his nose then. As the bird said there was a great tree nearby, whose seeds he ate and pooped where the tree now was, they decided that he was the eldest, followed by the monkey and elephant, whose advice should be listened in that order, due to their respective experience.

The bird advised that they should all do good and avoid evil by observing the five precepts of no killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and taking of intoxicants. Thus living peacefully, they were later reborn as humans. The Buddha remarked that the monks too should live happily together by respecting their elders, revealing that he was the wise bird then, that Shariputra was the monkey and Moggallana the elephant! A famous motif (Thunpa Punshi*) with a ‘pyramid’ of four animals depicting this story (from the Jatakas and Vinayavastu) adds a hare (Ananda) to the story. The four discussed about ownership of the tree and agreed to tend to it together. Supporting one another physically, with one above another, they would harvest its fruits.

While the bird planted the seed earlier, the hare watered it, the monkey fertilised it, and the elephant protected it – till it grew into a big beautiful tree full of fruits. Synergising their individual talents, they could reach farther for more literally fruitful results. A version says that when the plant was just a sprout, the bird could scratch around it to find bits to eat. As he was unable to fly, it became difficult to get enough to eat as it grew taller. The hare would eat what was on the ground and lift the bird on his back to reach higher. This was followed by the monkey and the elephant for reaching higher heights, as they collaborated and shared without selfishness.

These ‘four harmonious brothers’ became literally towering good examples in the forest. The bird initiated those with wings to be good, the elephant those with fangs, the hare those with paws, and the monkey those with fur. They even influenced the human kingdom to be moral, which led to higher rebirths. Though simple, this remarkable story bears great truths… on the importance of interdependent cooperation despite differences in size, strength and even species (or race and human-imposed ‘caste’). It also speaks of unity, integrity, friendship, generosity, and selflessness for the greater good. Underlying too are the themes of respecting the spiritual potential of animals, and the protection instead of exploitation of nature.

Ideally, those senior in age are also wiser, and thus worthier of respect. However, as some are ‘older but no wiser’, seniors must be respectful of juniors too. Respect has to earned on both sides. Spiritually, true seniority is by one’s advancement in virtue or practice of the Dharma; not by advancement in years. Again, while it is generally true that the older one is, the better practised one should be, there are the young who are spiritually advanced too – which is another reason why respect must be mutual – for a win-win situation, where the young and old humbly learn from each other. This is crucial to remember – lest one mistakes the story to advocate one-way submission to the elderly without question!

* The Thunpa Punshi is often painted to adorn thangkas, door curtains (see picture), tables, vessels and walls of Buddhist temples and homes. It is believed that wherever this picture is displayed, the wholesome deeds of its beholders and the harmony among them will increase, making much auspiciousness available. There will be no discord or separation between family and friends too, as the picture is a powerful reminder of how we should stay together to help one another. As we all have varying strengths and weaknesses, we can complement one another to accomplish that which we could never achieve alone. Are you initiated by the four harmonious friends yet? Be a harmonious friend today!

Respect that is not earned
could be respect
that is neither genuine or deserved.

– Stonepeace

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5 Responses to “The Four Harmonious Friends (Bird, Hare, Monkey & Elephant)”

  1. good reminder for family and work place too!

  2. Yes, very good reminder for all kinds of relationships!

    (Y)

  3. IRENE THAM October 16, 2010

    Never too old to learn – Indeed Everyday is Learning Experience (Y)

  4. Woe this is so helpful! Thank you! (L) (L) (L)

  5. Sunil Sapkota September 20, 2015

    actually this pyramid may be the assemblages of different animals in a human body
    though the story is nice

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