Zen for Americans, by Soyen Shaku, , at sacred-texts.com
BRAHMADATTA, king of Bârânasî, one day went out hunting in the forest, where he saw two groups of deer, each of which consisted of five hundred individuals and was escorted by a leader. One of them wore a coat decorated in the colors of the seven precious jewels. He was one of the former incarnations of Bodhisattva Shâkyamuni, while the other leader was that of Devadatta.
The Deer-Bodhisattva was greatly grieved at the sight of so many of his fellow-animals being killed by the royal hunting party. His great loving heart was stirred to its core and he could not endure any longer to witness the butchery. He determined to see the king in person and to have the matter settled in a more humane way. When he moved forward, a veritable shower Of arrows greeted him, but he was not to be overcome and made a steady advance towards the king. Observing this indomitable resolution displayed by the Deer-Bodhisattva, the king ordered
the party to cease shooting and allowed him to approach unmolested.
Said the deer, "It grieves my heart to see so many innocent creatures sacrificed merely to gratify your selfish passions. If you wish to have us for your table, we could arrange to send you each day one victim, to be chosen alternately from our two groups. Only let us be spared from a general massacre." The king consented to this arrangement.
For a while the plan worked without obstruction, but now it happened that a prospective mother-doe had to be chosen for the victim. She was exceedingly mortified over the ill fate, not for her own sake, but for that of her baby that was coming to see the light ere long. She went to Devadatta, to whose group she belonged, and asked him for a special dispensation, saying that "It being my fate to be sacrificed this time, I have no complaint to make as far as I alone am concerned, but the baby I am about to give birth to is not to be deprived of existence with its mother, for its doomsday has not yet arrived. Would that your majesty would contrive some means to execute the plan as arranged and yet to save my innocent child."
But Devadatta was cold-hearted and bluntly said, "Who in the world desires to be killed? Does not every living creature wish to preserve its life as long as it can? The turn is yours. Be gone, and no more of this wailing."
The doe thought within herself that she did not at all deserve the wrath of Devadatta, and this added to her grief and despondence. But a happy idea occurred to her. As the last resort she resolved to go and see the Bodhisattva, asking him if he knew some way of saving her at this critical moment. Being questioned by him as to the steps taken by Devadatta, concerning this matter, she said: "My king has no compassion for me, but is enraged without due cause--it seems to me. I know, however, that your love is boundless and that you are the last refuge for the helpless and despondent. This is the reason why I, though not belonging to your group, am here to ask for your infinite wisdom."
The Bodhisattva took a great pity on the despairing mother-doe and thought: "If she has to be sacrificed, her innocent unborn child will have to share the same fate. If a substitute were to be selected, an injustice would be done. The only person that could take her place without disturbing the prearranged order is nobody else than myself. I shall then be the victim this time instead of the mother-doe."
Coming to this conclusion, the Bodhisattva offered himself to the king as the victim of the day. Asked the king, "What brings you here? Are all your deer gone already?" Replied the Bodhisattva, "Your grace and benevolence is known the world over, and nobody would dare violate your injunctions; but it grieves me to see
the propagation of my race unnecessarily checked. I have come to the knowledge of such a case to-day and I pity it. If I make any change in the order of victims as arranged at the outset, it will be unreasonable. If I do not save the mother, it is against the nature of a sentient being. This is the reason why I present myself to-day before you. Life is short and everything is subject to the law of impermanence. Why shall I not practise lovingkindness while I am yet alive?"
The king was greatly moved by the words of the Bodhisattva and expressed his deep appreciation as follows: "It is myself and not you that belongs to the beastly creation. I am a deer in a man's form. Though you are in appearance a lower animal, you are in heart a human being. What makes one differ from another is not outward signs but inner reason. If endowed with a loving heart, though a beast in form, one is human. From this day I swear not to delight any more in partaking of animal flesh. Fear not, my friend, but be at ease forever."
It was in this wise that the forest was reserved for the deer to roam about in as they pleased and came to be known as Deer Park.
182:1 Deer Park in Benares was the place where Buddha first caused the Wheel of the Good Law to revolve. See the beginning of the Sutra of Forty-two Chapters.