So, this book I had to skim-read for work, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. (Yes, my job lets me do awesome things like that sometimes.) In form, these stories are much like Aesop’s Fables—they’re short tales, often with an all-animal cast, and their purpose is to teach lessons. However, the lessons themselves are very different because these are not a product of the West. These are Buddha stories.
It’s really, really fascinating to see the cultural spin of lesson-giving tales. Aesop has morals like, “One bad turn deserves another,” “familiarity breeds contempt,” “yield to all and you will soon have nothing to yield.” Not that all of them are of this family, but a substantial number of them are.
Buddha stories, conversely, focus on teaching self-sacrifice, nonviolence, promoting others above self, rewarding patience and disparaging quick tempers… It’s really shocking, actually, how different the morals are.
Here are a few summaries for your sampling:
“The Young Parrot”: The King and Queen Parrot grow old, and their child-parrot grows up and brings food back for them since they are too weak to gather food for themselves. One day the parrots find a new field, and the farmer’s servant notices all the parrots, and particularly one that flies away carrying food in its beak. He tells his master, who has him set a trap. The prince-parrot steps into the trap, and all the other parrots desert him. The farmer asks the parrot why he is taking the farmer’s food, and the parrot replies that he is doing his duty by feeding his parents who are weak. The farmer smiles and tells the parrot he is welcome in that field every day.
Here we see the value of caring for parents rewarded. Also, Aesop has a fable that’s moral is “Never trust a friend who deserts you at a pinch,” which is where I thought this one was going—all the parrots deserted the prince parrot. But that wasn’t even mentioned in the end of the story! It wasn’t the point at all. Very interesting.
“The Master’s Test”: A master tells his students one day that they have run out of food and money and must steal to support themselves and him. He tells them it is alright because “we deserve money more than others,” and he instructs them to steal in the places where no one is watching. The students, eager to please their master, agree—all but one. One student is troubled and says to his master, “The plan you have explained seems to me impossible… there is no place wherein no one is watching. Even when I am quite alone, my self is watching. I would rather take a bowl and beg, than allow my self to see me stealing.” The master is pleased, and the other students are ashamed when they realize their master was testing them.
In this one we see, of course, conscience being taught. This is one of my favorites in the collection.
“The Great Elephant”: Far out in the desert is an oasis, the only permanent occupant of which is a hermit elephant. One day a group of hungry, thirsty, wearing men arrives, having been expelled from their kingdom by the king. The elephant, knowing how far the next city is, tells them to walk toward the hill before them, where they will find the body of an elephant that they can use for food and a stream running nearby. Then the elephant runs away, going to that spot by a different way, and jumps to his death to offer himself for them. When the men arrive, they realize it is the same elephant and weep bitterly. One says that they cannot eat the elephant that gave its life for them, but another responds that they must or else his sacrifice would be in vain. The men eat the elephant with tears in their eyes and are able to cross the desert, reaching the next city. They are always grateful to the elephant.
Here is taught the beauty of sacrificing oneself for the sake of others.
And these are not just a few that I picked out to make the point of the differences between East and West cultural values: all the stories in this collection are this way. You can pick any of these twenty and get some lesson along these lines. I am just fascinated by the cultural richness of the stories, particularly because, as an Intercultural Studies major, I sat through psychology and sociology classes that discussed the differences in basic cultural assumptions between East and West. So, I knew this before. But it’s cool that it even comes out in the “moral” literature, the oral traditions that we have passed down to teach our children what our societies find important.