Sample chapter from...
Stories that Crafted the Earth
The Banyan Deer King
Once upon a time long long ago the Buddha was reborn as a Banyan Deer. The herd of deer in which he was a family member lived in an area rich with valleys and hills, fields and forests. It was a blessed place to be a young deer, full of wonders and adventure as well as danger. He grew up wisely, learning the ways of the deer, and when he was fully grown, he was elected as the leader of his tribe.
Other clans of wild deer also lived in the area, as did a great menagerie of other animals such as bears, foxes, and boars. This was no problem, for theirs was a rich land in natural bounties of the Earth, and there was plenty of food and space and fresh water for everyone. As leader of his clan, the Buddha led his herd into the heart of a bountiful and beautiful forest, where he knew they could live in peace and humble splendour, surrounded by the bounty of nature and the protection of the tall trees.
But then one day it came to pass that the human population of the area elected a new human king. The king of the people considered himself good-hearted and wise, and in some ways this was true - he appreciated bravery and craftsmanship and strength. Yet in other ways he was less good-hearted and less wise.
The new king's gravest vice was his love of the hunt. Nothing pleased him better than to mount his horse and charge across the farms, fields and meadows, or into the valleys and through the woods, with a great convoy of courtiers hunting alongside him. He gave no thought to the terror this inflicted on the poor animals running for their lives away from him. He considered the hunt a great and noble tradition, and he was determined to celebrate the fact with frequent rides, regardless of the consequences this had upon the land or other people and animals that lived in the area. This was pompous and ignorant pride - though he did not at first see it as so.
The king would mount his horse as soon as the sun rose, and charge away from his palace with a small army of men armed with bows and arrows, and a great cluster of wagons following rapidly behind. The hunters would race across the land in hot pursuit of any prey unfortunate enough to cross their maddening path. Fields would be ruined, meadows would be trampled, forests would be beaten this way and that. And as the sun went down, the king would return to his palace, the long line of wagons laden with monkeys, boars, tigers, pheasants, rabbits, deer and other creatures that had made the surrounding landscape their home.
The hunters were thrilled by the chase and the success of their catch, none less so than the king himself. But the people of his kingdom were less pleased. Fields and meadows had been trampled underfoot, and many of the common folk were expected to leave off their daily chores to beat the long grasses or shout between the trees. With long sticks they would shout and stamp and holler and swing - this being to scare the wild animals and make them bolt in the direction of the waiting king and his troupe of armed men. The king was so busy hunting he gave no time to affairs of the state,
so that many of the farmers and traders and other common folk feared their small country might soon fall to wrack and ruin due to the king's lack of attention.
And so the people devised a plan. First, they went to the edge of the forest and cut down a great number of young, tall, sapling trees. Slice, crack, thwack. The sound of metal cutting into wood, and the groan, creak, whoosh of the trees as they fell and hit the forest floor, resounded heavily through the valley. This was followed by the crunch and thud and whomp of hammers and spades as the fallen saplings were bound together and their ends buried into the rich black soil of the forest floor. Carpenters, masons and builders worked side by side, and with everyone working together, they
erected a strong stockade. The tall saplings made an excellent fence, with a wide platform running along the top of it, and a sturdy set of wooden stairs that led from the platform to the forest floor. The fence was higher than a deer can leap, and wide enough to encompass a long sweep of forest glade. The fence was well disguised, for the tied and bound saplings were camouflaged by the tight canopy of trees that grew naturally all around them. And there was but one set of wooden stairs, which could only be used if you were outside the perimeter of the fence. Inside, there was nothing but a tall drop, taller - as you know - than a deer can leap.
The people then crept stealthily through the forest, quiet and careful and skilled - hushed as only those humans can be who have explored a forest as children, learning its every dip and bend, and played hiding games there. In this manner they crept upon two large herds of deer which were grazing together on the rich green grass.
With whoops and cheers, the people leapt forward. They chased the deer toward the open gates of the stockade. The deer turned and leapt and darted and sprang, but at every bend there were more people shouting and waving, and in the end the deer were chased straight through the disguised gates of the forest stockade.
Then the people leapt forward and, with swift and eager hands, they clamped the wide gate shut, entrapping the deer within. The deer were horrified to see themselves confined. They ran this way and that along the inside edge of the fence, running and jumping and snorting and panting, till their bodies were slick with wet sweat and their limbs were utterly exhausted and their heads drooped in despair.
Yet the people were glad. It was their intention to present the stockade of wild deer to the king - present it to him as a gift of their labours and a sign of their goodwill. This they did, and they made sure to emphasis to their king that within the stockade's perimeter lay a domain rich with wild game - including two full herds of deer.
It was the common people's unspoken hope - unspoken before the king, that is, for they spoke openly enough of it amongst themselves - that this stockade, built as it was within the wilderness of the forest, would satisfy the king's lust for hunting. This would at the same time hopefully discourage the Royal Hunt from chasing across the farmers' fields and meadows and from trampling the good earth, the precious seeds and plants underfoot. Also, if the king agreed, the people would be free to tend their farms and their shops and other businesses, rather than beat out the animals for the hunt, and this would advantage them greatly. The hunt was an unwelcome expense to their energy and their time.
The people hoped in earnest that the stockade would bring an end to their troubles, for whereas the Royal Hunt had repeatedly crossed their land time and again, they knew it is very difficult and extremely perilous to say no to a king. And so the stockade was built and it was presented before the king. The new king was openly pleased and secretly flattered that they, his subjects, had created such a thing in his name.
It seemed fair to assess that the building of the stockade had been a success and granted everyone's needs. This might be true, if viewed narrowly and with a closed heart - truly the people were very glad and so too was the king and his troupe of proud hunters. However, view the same situation with open eyes and an honest heart, and it shall be clear that the situation did not please everyone. For the two herds of wild deer were trapped within the fence, their freedom to run the wild forest had been ended and instead, they were ensnared. This knowledge unsettled the deer and filled their days with fear.
The Banyan Deer King watched the wide startled eyes of the frightened deer in his clan and the other herd. He saw some of them leap and charge and run along the fence, trying to escape.
The Banyan Deer King walked amongst them. His huge many-branched antlers caught the soft golden beams of the sunlight as he walked amongst the shadows of the trees. His dark eyes shone.
"Do not be fearful," he said. "Truly we are caught within the perimeter of the stockade. Yet still we have green grass below our hooves, protective trees all about, rich fruits and berries and nuts to feast upon, sweet flowing rivers to drink from, and the high blue sky above our heads. While there is life, there is hope. Trust in me, for I shall find a way."
This gave the deer clan of the Banyan Deer King a sense of faith that worked greatly toward healing their fears. He was truly noble and truly wise, and they trusted he would not let them down.
When the king of the people arrived, he walked to the top of the high stairs and peered down at the many deer that were caught in the confines of the wide stockade. He saw the two deer kings who led the clans and he was in awe of their majestic beauty, their strength, and noble grace. And so he looked to his courtiers and he said, "The two deer kings are magnificent creatures indeed! Let it be known that they must never be harmed."
Then, aiming away from the two deer kings but into the general crowd of deer standing in the enclosed forest below him, he notched an arrow to his bow, and fired. His men followed suit. It seemed to the deer that a great rainfall of arrows was showering down upon them. The deer panicked, in fear for their lives, and they darted in wild frenzy this way and that, in a terrified attempt to be safe from the bitter sting of the arrows. The stockade was wide and long, but the hunters could run along the wooden platform and seek the panicked deer out as they hid amongst the trees. How they shouted and pointed and cheered, as they let their arrows fly!
When the firing stopped, several deer lay slain. The men entered the stockade with their arrows at the ready, lest any of the living deer dare to charge them. They need not have worried. The deer were shocked and horrified and exhausted. The king's men gathered up the fallen deer and loaded their wagons.
When they had left, there was great mourning, a huge mist of sadness that descended upon the two deer herds. Their situation seemed desperate indeed. And they realised that the toll they had taken stretched further than the slaughtered deer which the king had taken away, for the wild terror of their stampede had meant several of the deer had crashed together and been badly wounded.
Several days later the king and his hunters returned, and again
a great storm of arrows hailed down upon the terrified deer who stampeded this way and that. And again the men's arrows killed several of the deer, and the men came and took them away. And again, there were a number of deer who had managed to escape the arrows, but who, in blind panic, had tripped or stumbled or crashed together, and they lay now wounded on the forest floor.
Buddha, in his reincarnation as the Banyan Deer King, called upon the other deer chief to meet him in council, to discuss their fate. Thus the two deer kings met and contemplated what could be done. It was resolved that from this moment forth, each day every deer would pull a single blade of grass from the forest floor, pulling it loose between their sharp hooves. And it was decided that whenever they heard the sound of the king's horses coming toward them through the forest, whosoever amongst the deer had that day pulled the shortest blade - they would sacrifice themselves to the hunters.
When the kings' council was over, the Banyan Deer King spoke to his tribe and he instructed, "The two herds shall take it in turns to pull grass from the forest floor. The deer who pulls the shortest blade shall stand alone in clear view, and offer themselves up to the hunters' harsh arrows. It is a bitter and a tragic event, and yet such a sacrifice shall save lives, for it will spare us the maddened stampede - the stampede that only occurs when the hunters fire down in an attempt to reach us with their arrows. The stampede is casting injury and death amongst us. Let a single deer offer himself, herself up - by allotment of fate - and let the rest of the herd thereby be daily spared."
And thus, when next a few days later, the king and his courtiers arrived with their horses and climbed the steep wooden steps to the top of the stockade, they were astonished to see a single deer standing in clear view directly below them. The deer's eyes were bright with terror, and its legs and body trembled. Yet it held its head high.
"What is this?" the courtiers remarked, questioning their king and looking to him for an answer.
The king of the people looked down at the deer, and he was touched by the sad nobility of the creature as it stood there in direct view below them. "Why this deer is noble indeed!" the king said. "For it is clear to me that this deer has chosen to give up its life, in order to save the many. Hmmm. Let it then be so - for who am I to contest such a noble fate?"
The king took his bow, notched an arrow, took aim, and fired. The aim was direct and the deer fell to the forest floor. The king hung his head, and in silence he returned to his horse and rode sadly back to his palace. The hunters gathered the single deer and placed it upon their wagon, and with many wagons still empty, they followed their king slowly home.
That night, when the king took himself to his bed, he dreamt of a great and powerful stag. It ran with him through the forest - running as brothers - the stag's swift hooves carrying a grace and a speed, as his antlers arched tall and wide into many branches which captured the bright radiance of the dazzling sun.
When next the hunters arrived, the king was not with them. Yet a single deer stood in clear view below the wide platform of the stockade. The hunters, following their king's orders, fired upon this single deer with a single arrow. And the deer fell dead, and the men gathered it into a single wagon, and rode home.
And so it was that the fear amongst the deer was greatly abated. And yet still, each day, every one of them would drag a single blade of grass from the forest floor - and much did they dread that it would be their turn to sacrifice themselves to the good of the many.
Then one day it happened that the shortest blade was drawn from the soil by a pregnant doe. She was terrified that it was now her turn to sacrifice herself, and yet more than this, she was horrified that this would also mean the death of the unborn child which nestled in the nourishing warmth of her womb.
She went to her king, who was not the Banyan Deer, but the other - yet nonetheless her king was good-hearted and wise. After all, unlike the kings and queens of the humans, the royalty of the deer folk are always elected according to virtues of wisdom and bravery, gentleness and strength combined. Her king listened to her plight, and then he replied, "Dear doe, I wish it were not so. How I wish we were free to roam the forest, instead of penned into this single forest glade. And yet alas we are stuck here, and each of us has agreed to work together, for the better good and the ultimate survival of us all. You have drawn the shortest blade of grass. If I allow you to be free of the condition of the sacrifice, then I must also allow others to free themselves as well. This cannot be, for soon we would return to the wild stampede, and we should certainly vanish sooner as a herd."
Sick with sorrow for the fate of her unborn child, the pregnant doe went in desperation to the king of the herd to which she did not belong - the herd led by the Banyan Deer King. She went to him, and knelt before him on the ground. He too listened to her plight. And he said, "Dear doe, I wish it were not so. How I wish we were free to roam the forest, instead of penned into this single forest glade. Alas we are stuck here, and each of us has agreed to work together, for the better good and the ultimate survival of us all. You have drawn the shortest blade of grass. And yet - our agreement holds that only one deer shall be sacrificed each time when the hunters come. And you are not one deer. You are two. Therefore, be free of the bounds of the sacrifice, for they do not and cannot apply to you."
The pregnant doe leapt to her feet in a flood of relief and gratitude and joy. She jumped off through the forest glade, even as the Banyan Deer King began a slow walk amongst the deer of his tribe.
The Banyan Deer King walked amongst his clan. Already he knew what he must do. The pregnant doe had been released from the terms of the sacrifice, and another deer needed to be selected to stand in her stead. His herd peered upon him with trustful eyes, for he was great and strong and noble but never pompous. He was humble in his majesty and grateful for the joys life could bring. They looked upon his high wide antlers and his strong neck and clear eyes, as he walked amongst them. Never had he lorded it over them. Always had he looked after them with care and compassion and
wisdom. They trusted that if there was a way to escape this current disaster, then he would find it. He had always done his best to care for them. They wondered what they would ever do without his gentle strength and clarity to guide them.
Walking amongst them in slow silence, the Banyan Deer King already knew there was none in his tribe he could ask to take the pregnant doe's place. The terms of the sacrifice must be fulfilled, or be discarded forever to the detriment of them all. Yet among his herd there was no one he could order to replace the doe he had released.
And so it was that when next the hunters arrived, they climbed the wooden stairs to find the Banyan Deer King standing alone below them, in clear view. This startled them, and they knew not what to do. So they sent a message for their own king to come, and see for himself.
The king soon arrived, with a rush of his horse's hooves and a sweep of his long fine robes. The king mounted the stairs and peered down from the platform. There below him stood the beautiful majesty of the Banyan Deer King.
"What are we to do, our king?" his hunters asked him.
The king of the people descended the stairs and went to the gate of the stockade, then slid its clasp to one side and entered. His courtiers watched in awe as the brave man walked toward the tall and powerful deer. The human king carried his bow, but he held it gently to one side, and his arrows rested without threat in the quiver.
The king of the people walked softly and slowly and quietly toward the great antlered deer king before him. Then, standing almost nose to nose, the two kings locked eyes - and in this stance they began to speak, to speak not using words, but with their eyes only, for this was enough.
The man spoke first, and said, "Great and noble deer king, I know you. I have seen you in my dreams, where we have run through the forest as brothers - though I could not match your grace or your speed. You know that I have decreed my hunters may never fire upon you. Why then do you sacrifice yourself?"
To which the Banyan Deer replied, "Great and noble man king, what ruler can be free if those we rule suffer? We have decreed that only one deer should die when your hunters come, and on this occasion the lottery fell to a pregnant doe. She asked for my aid, and although not of my tribe, yet we deer are all of us in this together. Our fate is shared. I could not ask her to commit the sacrifice, for she is not one deer. She is two. Therefore I had little choice but to let her go - and to stand here in her stead. This is my right and my duty as a king. How could it not be so?"
The man hung his head, for deep was his reverence for this noble deer. He contemplated what had been said, and then he raised his gaze to again look into the eyes of the Banyan Deer. The king of men said, "Noble deer king, you have instructed me in the task of kingship, as though you were my teacher and I a mere student.
"A good king should take care of all the subjects in his domain - from the meekest to the greatest. I have been mistaken in my handling of kingly affairs, and for this lesson I shall grant you a reprieve. You may lead your herd out of the stockade, and live in freedom in the open forest. Never again shall you or any of your herd be hunted by my courtiers or any person within my domain."
The Banyan Deer King acknowledged the kindness and the compassion in the words of the king of men. He might have accepted the offer there and then - it is well known it is often dangerous to say no to a king, and the offer was, after all, a generous one.
Yet it is told how the Banyan Deer King raised his head high and said, "Great man king, I must say no!"
"No?" asked the man, astonished. "I give you and your herd the gift of life. How can you say no?"
"How can I not?" asked the Banyan Deer. "For if I accept, and my people leave the stockade, I must contemplate the devastation that would reap upon the other herd. A good king rules with a compassionate heart, looking over the needs of everyone, and balancing what is best for all. Our freedom would come at too great a price. For look into the hearts of those who live in the other herd, and imagine the terror and the devastation that would fall upon them. They would taste the bitter death of a storm of arrows indeed, which would rain down upon them with relentless fury, and there would be no reprieve. Therefore, I cannot accept your good and gracious offer. I must stand here and be sacrificed. This is my right and my duty as a king."
Again the king of men found himself to be astonished, and to feel humbled before the depth of compassion evident in the noble deer before him. He thought at length, and then he said, "Noble deer king, you would sacrifice yourself and your herd to share the burden of this grief with the other herd, rather than realise your own freedom?"
"I would and I must," said the Banyan Deer King. "For a good king considers the fate of all things in his domain, and weighs the good of all to the best of the many."
The king of men needed some time to consider what to do. He was humbled before the grand compassion of the Banyan Deer. It inspired him. And so, in the end, he said, "Noble deer king, your compassion has opened my locked heart, which I knew not to be closed until this very moment. For this lesson, I shall pay you the boon of freedom for both the deer tribes. Go to your herd, and go to the king of the other herd also, and inform all that you have bargained their freedom well. All of you may henceforth live in the open forest, and no man shall ever hunt the deer again within my domain."
The Banyan Deer King acknowledged the kindness and the compassion in the words of the king of men. He might have accepted the offer there and then - after all, you don't lightly say no to a king who holds power over you.
The Banyan Deer King said, "Great king of men, I must say no!"
"No?" The king of men exclaimed, his eyes wide with surprise. "I offer you the freedom of all the deer in the stockade, how can you say no?"
"I can and I must, it is my duty as a king," replied the Banyan Deer. "For if all the deer are free from your arrows, my heart goes out to all the other creatures of the land - the bears and the pheasants and the tigers - who must pay a weighty price for our freedom. If you and your people spare only the deer, then death shall come quickly indeed to the other creatures that also call this land their home. If I am to live at all, it must be in compassion. For a good king looks to all who live in his domain, and cares for them equally. Therefore, I cannot accept your good and gracious offer. I must stand here and be sacrificed. This is my right and my duty as a king."
The king of men could not believe his ears. He could not believe what he was hearing, but deep within him, he felt a weight fall from his heart, and it was as though his eyes had been opened for the very first time. He peered into the gaze of the noble Banyan deer, and the king of men said, "Noble deer king, let it then be so. Your words have opened my heart, and opened my eyes. Such compassion as yours is a gift indeed. I am privileged to have witnessed it, and shall strive from now on to follow your instruction in my own kingly deeds. May I be a better king than I have been. And thus I do decree, that from this moment on, all animals who walk this land shall be saved from the sting of my hunters' arrows, and no man shall ever endanger you again. Now, return to your tribe, and to the king of the other herd, and leave the stockade. Tell all the animals of the land what has been said and what has been agreed."
The Banyan Deer King acknowledged the kindness and the compassion in the words of the king of men. It was a good offer. He might have accepted it there and then - you do not easily say no to a king who holds the power of life or death over you.
The Banyan Deer King stood tall and raised his mighty antlers toward the sky, then said, "Great king of men, I must say no!"
"No?" stammered the man king, his eyes reeling in surprise. "I have offered you the freedom of all the animals of the land who live in my domain! How can you say no?"
The Banyan Deer replied, "I can and I must. It is my duty as a king. For if all the animals of the land are spared by human hunters, how swift shall be the silence that ends the singing of the birds who live in the sky. Your arrows shall in no time at all end their song forever, and we shall all be the poorer. Lament the day the sky is emptied of their graceful flight, and the trees are barren of their nests! Therefore, I cannot accept your good and gracious offer. I must stand here and be sacrificed. This is my right and my duty as a king."
The king of men trembled as he looked up, and admired the smooth glide of a wide-winged hawk as it rode the wind, carving a slow and gracious path through the sky. Somewhere a small bird chirruped and cooed, and the melody of it softened the man's heart even more. He looked back to the Banyan Deer, and the king of men said, "Noble deer king, you are a wise teacher indeed! Your words are like music that softens and shatters the hard binds of ignorance that until this day have captivated me, and held me as their prisoner. From this moment on, I shall decree the freedoms you request are granted, and all creatures of the land and the sky shall live without fear of men - for never again shall they be hunted by any person who lives in my domain."
The Banyan Deer King acknowledged the kindness and the compassion in the words of the king of men. He might have done well to accept the generous offer there and then - it is said to be unwise to challenge a king, and to say no when the king requires a yes.
The Banyan Deer King said, "Great king of men, I must say no!"
"No?" choked the man king. "I have offered you the freedom of all the animals of the land and the birds of the sky who live in my domain! How can you say no?"
The Banyan Deer King bowed his great head and pointed his branched antlers toward the soft song of the nearby river. Then he matched the man king's gaze, and with his eyes he said, "I can and I must say no. It is my duty as a king. For if all the animals of the land, and all the birds of the sky were safe from the arrows of your people - what then the fate of the creatures who live in the fresh water rivers and pools? The water refreshes us all, it gives life to the plants and the animals and the people. Open your heart to feel compassion for the fish and the crabs and the eels and all creatures who make their home in the fresh water, who honour it with their presence and give it the entirety of their lives and their dreams. Their fate would be a bitter swift end indeed, if I were to agree to your noble terms. Therefore, I cannot accept your good and gracious offer. I must stand here and be sacrificed. This is my right and my duty as a king."
The king of men was awed and dumbstruck. It was as if a great wave of compassion swept from the heart of the Banyan Deer King and flooded his own. Such compassion was a beautiful and a wonderful ocean to swim in, a momentous cleansing wave that washed away all his previous misconceptions. It made him want to dance and sing, and he sensed a great new era open out for his entire kingdom.
The king of men bowed and looked into the Banyan Deer's eyes, and he said, "Oh, most noble Banyan Deer King, you have washed away the old chains of disillusionment and selfish nature which have bound and tortured my unknowing soul. What I saw as pleasure of the hunt was really my own desire to run free with the deer in the forest, to swim free with the fish in the rivers, to fly free with the birds in the sky. It seems you shall make farmers of us all, and yet I can see now more clearly than ever I saw before. My heart is an ocean of compassion, and I wish to nurture it wholly and faithfully. Therefore, noble deer, I shall today decree that from this time henceforth, no creature of the land or the sky or the water may ever again be hunted by any person in my domain. We shall all share this home of ours as brothers and sisters. May the story and the example of our kingdom spread across the globe of this Earth, and touch people's hearts as you have touched mine. Oh, let there be peace at last on Earth!"
And the Banyan Deer King said, "Yes!" He leapt into the air and danced, his antlers and hooves gliding gracefully and in utter ecstasy. He had done it! He had found a way! As he ran through the forest, the king of men ran alongside him, laughing and dancing and whooping for joy. The man could not match the Banyan Deer's speed or grace, and yet they were brothers, each with their own power, and the world was to be a better place for it. If only the world would listen.
And so it was that a peace that had never before been matched, settled into the kingdom wherein lived the Banyan Deer King, the king of men, and the creatures of the land and sky and water. Compassion softened that land like a gentle blanket of glorious warmth and endless grace, and all living things were glad.
The king grew to be old and wise, and the kingdom prospered. Before he died, the compassionate old king of men had a stone pillar set in the forest - set in the very spot where he had stood and spoken with the Banyan Deer King all those years ago. Upon the stone, masons carved the image of a deer, and the words:
Homage to the Noble Banyan Deer,
That stone stands in the forest still. Its message lives on in the hearts of those who look upon the stone and sit by it for a while, in the hearts of those who live in that small kingdom, and in the hearts of those who listen to this story.