Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Building Bridges: A World Religions Program for 8th-9th Grades

The Banyan Deer

A traditional Jataka tale from the Buddhist tradition. Note: The banyan tree is also known as the bodhi tree.

Kings come in all shapes and sizes. A true king, however, is known not just because of the crown on his head, but because he is compassionate and rules in the best interest of his subjects.

In one kingdom, there lived a human king who loved to hunt. Every day, he rode out from the palace, through fields tended by farmers, into the woods, where he killed a deer for his nightly meal.

During their hunt, the king's horse and those of his hunting companions ripped up the earth with their hooves, destroying the crops the farmers depended on for their livelihood. The farmers grew desperate. They decided that since having the king go to the deer was destroying their fields, they would instead bring the deer to the king.

They built a large park next to the palace, filled with grass and ponds—everything the deer needed to live. Around it, they built a high fence. Then the farmers surrounded the forest, creating a thick wall, and beat the bushes and grass to drive most of the deer out of the forest and into the constructed park, through a gate they then closed. They said to the king, "O, great king. We have built a special park for you, much closer than the forest. We have stocked it with grass and water and filled it with the deer you love to hunt."

The king was thrilled. Daily, he hunted in his new park.

Over time, he became familiar with the deer there and noticed that two stags seemed different from the rest. They had golden horns and a regal bearing. He named these the two kings and told his hunting companions that they were not to be hunted.

The two stags were indeed kings. One was named "Branch" because his antlers branched out mightily, and he was head of a herd of 500. The other, also head of a herd of 500, was named "Banyan," perhaps because his antlers resembled the banyan tree. Remember: It was underneath the banyan tree that the Buddha reached enlightenment. And in fact, this deer was a Buddha, in deer form. Both deer kings watched as their fellow deer were killed each day. Yet, the killing was not the worst of it—after all, we all must someday die. But in the new park, when deer ran away from the hunters, they often ran into the fence or into each other and then hurt themselves. And always, when they were hunted, they were filled with fear. Their suffering was hard for Branch and Banyan to witness.

One day, Branch came to Banyan and suggested that instead of being hunted, each day one deer should present itself to the king's butcher block to be killed. Since one deer a day would die anyway, Banyan agreed. From that day forward, that is what happened: One day, a deer from Branch's herd would present itself to be slaughtered; the next, a deer from Banyan's herd would do the same.

One day, a young doe from Branch's herd was the intended kill. She pleaded with Branch, "Please do not send me to die yet. My baby is too small to care for itself, and without me, it will die. Let me go, and I promise to go at a later time, when my baby is older." But Branch said no.

Desperate to keep her baby alive, the young mother approached Banyan with her dilemma. Banyan said, "Go home to your baby. Another deer will die today." That day, Banyan presented himself at the butcher's block.

When the butcher saw that it was one of the golden deer, he ran to get the king. The king approached Banyan and said, "Why are you here? Don't you know that I ordered that you would never be killed? Go home!"

"I cannot," Banyan replied. "A young doe was scheduled to die today, but without its mother, the baby will die. A replacement is needed. How can I ask another deer to die unexpectedly today instead? It is my decision. Therefore, I will die."

"I cannot kill you," said the king. "For your bravery and compassion, I promise never to kill any of the deer in the park again."

"That is good for us," said Banyan. "But what of the deer in the forest?"

"I promise never to hunt them again."

"What of the other four-footed animals, our friends?"

"I will not hunt them."

"What about the birds in the sky?"

"I will not hunt them."

"What of the fish in the sea?"

"I will not hunt them."

All of the people in the kingdom followed suit. The animals were happy to be hunted no more. Now that the kingdom depended on the harvest from the fields, the farmers' land was respected. The park was now a special place where the king could stroll and seek guidance from Banyan, which he did for many years to come.