Once At the time of Buddha, Benares had been the holy city of India for many centuries . The city was famous for fine temples, many built in beautiful leafy parks with pools of clear, undisturbed water, while the streets of Benares were full of jostling people going about their business, for trading had brought the city much wealth. Merchants had built themselves magnificent houses, and had furnished them with goods they acquired on their commercial travels.
In many ways Benares was like any city in the world today, for then, as now, men sought happiness in making money and in a multitude of other good and evil ways, while some searched for happiness in religious creeds or philosophical paths. Lead-ers of many new teachings came to Benares, among them the Buddha.
It happened that one day a wealthy merchant was checking the harness of his horse in the courtyard of one of the larger houses, while shouting men and women strapped packs onto the wooden saddles of braying mules, their constantly moving feet kicking up clouds of dust. A little dog barked excitedly, running through the legs of the mules, dodging angry nips from their teeth. In the midst of the preparations for the caravan the merchant’s neighbors drank to his health and wished him well on his long journey, for it would take many months along the trade routes of Central Asia to China and Arabia.
On his travels he often met people who would ask to accompany him, for his caravan was well protected against attacks by brigands. The merchant had heard many stories from travelers he met on the way, stories of distant lands and strange customs some spoke of the mighty empire of Rome. Artists showed the merchant ways of writing, painting, and sculpting, unknown to his own people, and philosophers told him of the many ways in which men sought to know the meaning of life. So the merchant’s caravan carried much more than wool, cotton, silks, jades, and brocades from country to country—it carried ideas.
One of the merchant’s neighbors filled a goblet with wine for him, and asked, since he had no family, who would look after his fine house and warehouse while he was away? The merchant indicated a middle-aged man who was checking the bales of wool. “Jigme will care for my household,” he said.
At first the merchant’s friends laughed, thinking he was joking; then, realizing that he was serious, they could not believe it. “But Jigme is only a herdsman,” one exclaimed. “It is unwise to trust a poor man with wealth,” another insisted.
The merchant shook his head. “Jigme is my friend,” he said, “he is wise and has a kind heart.”
But the neighbors still thought the merchant was being very foolish. After all, they muttered among themselves, Jigme was not one of them, he was of inferior rank; some were jealous of Jigme and the trust the merchant placed in him. After arguing unsuccessfully with the merchant one of the men said, “The wise man they call the Buddha is preaching nearby. Will you let us ask for his advice? Remember, your warehouses have our goods in store as well as yours!”
Reluctantly, the merchant agreed. He went with his companions and found the Buddha seated in a palm grove preaching to his followers. Welcoming the merchant and his companions, the Buddha asked them to sit with him while he listened to their story. When the Buddha heard how unwise the merchant’s neighbors thought he was, he said he would tell them a story of ancient times, when King Brahmadatta was the king of Benares.
“The king’s palace,” the Buddha began, “was in a beautiful park, where the king spent many happy hours gardening, and he liked especially to tend his blossom tree. It was the jewel of the park, and he used to look after it very carefully, but neither the king, nor those he took to see the blossom tree, noticed the little clump of kusha grass growing at the roots of the tree trunk. But the spirit of the blossom tree knew all about the kusha grass and its spirit, for the two had been friends for longer than time. The blossom tree was mighty and strong, with thick roots that went deep, deep into the earth, reaching into the dark places of demons and monsters. Its trunk was strong, straight, and very high, so that people said its great canopy of branches and foliage reached the heavens.
“No one knew how old the blossom tree was, but it was ancient before Benares had become a great city, indeed, before Benares was even built, and no one knew how long ago that was! And so it was said that the blossom tree was as old as the world itself.
“Everyone saw the blossom tree differently. Some saw it as a mighty and mysterious tree, others as a magic tree, and some, like the king, enjoyed listening to the wind rustling its leaves, which sounded like heavenly music.
“When he was in its shadow, the king was aware of the life of the blossom tree, and it reminded him that everything was like the tree, which grew in the spring and summer, thrusting out leaf-covered branches and new roots, and shriveling in the autumn and winter, leafless, seemingly barren, yet its life went on, and the next year it would burst forth anew. So it told the story of life and death, and life reborn.
“Legend told that the blossom tree, for some who could see, blossomed with the fruit of the secret of life. And sometimes the king had glimpsed for a few seconds among its leaves the most beautiful of blossoming flowers!
“One day, when the king was having tea with the queen in his palace, he was surprised to see something floating in his cup. He looked up at the roof of the room and frowned; small flakes of plaster were falling from the ceiling. He saw that the main wooden pillar which supported the ceiling had cracked and was moving!
“The queen cried out in fear and tried to pull her husband from the room, for she thought that the whole ceiling was going to collapse. But the king asked his wife to leave while he stayed and inspected the damage. He saw that the pillar would have to be replaced as it was beyond repair, and it had to be done very quickly or it would very soon split from top to bottom! He ordered his servants to search the palace grounds for a suitable tree from which the new pillar could be made.
“All that day the servants searched the park, and very carefully measured trees to find a suitable one for the new pillar. After inspecting all the trees in the park, the king’s servants realized that there was only one tree that could be used. Sadly, they returned to the palace, and told the king that his beloved blossom tree was the only one fine enough, and strong enough, to replace the old pillar.
“The king was shocked. ‘There must be another,’ he insisted. ‘Maybe one not as strong as the blossom tree, but strong enough to replace the old pillar?’
‘Your Majesty,’ the servants said sorrowfully, ‘in stature and strength, the blossom tree is the only one suitable to make a new pillar.’
“The king was very unhappy, and undecided as to what he should do. If the old pillar split, his whole palace would fall, and his family and many others would be without a home. But there was no other tree in his park as beautiful as the blossom tree. With the queen and their servants, the king went to see the blossom tree.
“Although it was early evening, and the sun still shone, the evening star was so bright that they could see it quite clearly as they walked through the park. The king inspected the blossom tree, and other trees, and even he could see that in comparison it was indeed the best from which to make the pillar. ‘Perhaps,’ he thought, ‘I am being very selfish in trying to keep this beautiful tree which I love, when it could save the home of many. After all,’ he thought very sadly, ‘it is only a tree, even if it is a special one.’
“So, the king gave the order to his servants, and they prepared sacrifices of penance to the blossom tree’s spirit. It was night when the king and queen burned incense and offered sweet tasting delicacies at the foot of the tree. The queen was weeping loudly, as the smoke from the incense fires rose into the velvety blackness. The blossom tree’s spirit did not know what to do to save its home, and the gentle breeze quickly carried news of the plight of the blossom tree spirit to all the other tree spirits.
“They gathered around the blossom tree spirit, trying to comfort her and to think of some way of saving her home. Everyone made suggestions, but none was really likely to save the blossom tree. All night long, after the king had left, the tree spirits argued as to what should be done to save the blossom tree, until the poor blossom tree spirit was crying in despair. Then she heard the kusha grass spirit say, in a soft voice, ‘Do not worry, my friend, for I have an idea which will save your home.’
“At daybreak, the king’s woodmen walked through the park carrying two great axes. They were not singing as they usually did, and the woodsmen noticed that the birds were not singing either. The whole park seemed to be waiting in silence, expectantly.
“The sun remained hidden behind the clouds, shedding only a grey light, and there was no pleasant breeze as they began to inspect the blossom tree to find the best place to start chopping. They were surprised to see that the bark of the tree looked quite different from the day before. Carefully, the head woodsman went round the tree, studying more closely. When he touched the bark it felt soft. ‘This tree has gone rotten here,’ he said to his companions. He tested another part of the tree, and that too had gone soft! They peered up at the branches of the blossom tree. All its leaves hung limply, as if they were sick and wilting. ‘We cannot use this tree to make the pillar,’ they said. ‘The wood is too soft . . . ‘ ‘I don’t understand,’ one of the woodsmen said blankly. ‘It looked so healthy last night, it was the finest tree in the park.’ ‘l do not think,’ the woodsman said thoughtfully, ‘that we were meant to cut the blossom tree down.’
“As they walked through the park to tell the king that they had no choice, they would have to make the pillar from one of the other trees, though not such a fine one, the sun shone through the clouds, and the birds began singing, and the little creatures of the park bustled about their business.
“All were happy that the blossom tree was safe, and happiest of all was the blossom tree spirit. All the tree spirits of the park watched the kusha grass spirit with delighted laughter, for before the woodsmen came it had changed into a large chameleon. It had given the secret of how chameleons could change their color to the blossom tree so it was able to change the color of its bark to look rotten when the woodsmen came.
“‘But how,’ the tree spirits wanted to know, ‘were you able to make your trunk seem soft when the woodsman touched you?’ The blossom tree laughed, as the kusha grass spirit, in chameleon form, moved over the tree trunk, quicker than the eye could see. Thus, the woodsman thought that the soft body of the chameleon was the bark of the tree.
“The blossom tree spirit sang the praises of the kusha grass spirit: ‘Spirits of the trees, for all our mighty power, we knew not what to do, while the humble kusha grass spirit had wit to save my home for me. Truly, we should choose our friends without considering whether they are our superiors, equals, or inferiors, making no distinction. Whether they be tree, bird, or grass, each according to his strength, can help a friend in his hour of need.’
“And so she instructed all the tree spirits, and the assembled devas, saying ‘Wherefore such as would escape from an evil plight must not merely consider whether a man is equal or superior, but must make friends of the wise, whatsoever their station in life.’ ”
As he finished his story, the Buddha smiled at the merchant, who was laughing, for his neighbors, who had thought him so foolish, had received their answer.
The Buddha ended by saying, “In an earlier life, Ananda, my chief disciple, was then the tree spirit, and I, the spirit of the kusha grass.”