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The Four Harmonious Friends - click to enlarge

The Four Harmonious Friends
Acrylic on wood panels
Click to enlarge

The Four Harmonious Friends

In former times in the jungles near Varanasi, a pheasant, a rabbit, a monkey and an elephant lived in friendship and harmony. The four brothers declared that although their minds were harmonious, it was sad that in the world there was so little respect held by the young for the old. They decided to show respect for each other, according to the tradition of Dharma.

Having made this determination the four animals set out to make offerings and pay homage. The younger showed respect for the older by carrying the older on his back. Standing on each other's backs in this way, the pheasant, monkey rabbit and elephant could reach the first branch of a banyan tree.

The pheasant taught the others how to follow moral conduct by not killing, stealing, lying, committing sexual misconduct or taking intoxicants. Each of the four animals led other animals, similar to themselves, on this path of morality, with the result that happiness and comfort increased greatly in the world.

At that time, the King, his ministers and the general population of the land had the proud belief that the good times were due to their own merit. In order to determine who was responsible for the peaceful times they gathered together and asked a hermit to tell them the cause of their happiness. Through his clairvoyance the hermit explained that the land's wealth was not due to the power of any of the people. It was in fact due to the merits of the four animals in the forest, who were keeping the five precepts of moral conduct and leading the other animals on that path. He advised them that they too should behave like these animals.

Following this advice most of the people in that region began to keep the five precepts, and as a result, after they died, they were born in the deva realm.

It is said in the Vinaya teaching Dulwa Lung and the discourse Do De Na Kyang Lung that the pheasant was an incarnation of Shakyamuni Buddha, and the others were his disciples - the rabbit was Ananda, the monkey was Shariputra and the elephant was Maudgalyayana.

It is also said that wherever a picture of the four brothers is displayed, the ten virtues will increase and the minds of all will become harmonious! There will be respect for elders and auspicious events will occur!

Originally told by Shakyamuni Buddha as recorded in the Vinayavastu (foundation of Discipline)

More on the story of the four Harmonious Friends

As told by Venerable Ribur Rinpoche

At first, there was just the bird, and the tree was just a little sprout. The bird could scratch around on the ground and find little bits of plants to eat. The bird was unable to fly, so it could only eat what it could find near to the ground. As the tree grew, it became difficult for the bird to get enough to eat.

Then the rabbit arrived. The rabbit would eat what was on the ground and would lift the bird up on his back so the bird could reach the growing tree. In this way they both had enough to eat. However as the tree continued to grow, it started to become too high for the bird, even on the back of the rabbit. Then the monkey arrived. The monkey could climb up into the tree and drop the fruit from the tree onto the ground for the rabbit and the bird. However, it was difficult for him to get to the fruit at the very top of the tree. Then the elephant arrived. With the elephant, if all the animals helped each other, they could reach the fruit at the top of the tree, and in this way there was plenty for them all to eat.

The reason the four animals worked so harmoniously together, and the reason they were successful, is that none of them were primarily concerned with themself. Each of them was concerned with trying to help the others to get what they needed. Rather than being dominated by selfish concern, they were dominated by cherishing others. Another reason why they were successful is that they were willing to ask for help and to receive help. In this way, the bird is considered the hero of the story. The bird was the most fragile and needed the most help. Because the bird was willing to ask for help, and because the others were happy to help the bird, every thing worked out very nicely.

In Tibet, in letters of advice to families who were going through difficult times, the four friends are often used as an example of how the family needs to stay together and help each other. Each member is very different and brings different strengths and weaknesses, but if they all work together, they can accomplish things they could never accomplish alone.

This is a story about interdependence. It is a story explaining how there is no place for self-cherishing, but rather we need each other and we need to help each other. In Buddhist centers we have pheasants, rabbits, monkeys and elephants - very different kinds of people with different talents and different needs. If we only focus on the shortcomings, we might not recognize how they are able to contribute to the greater good of the center. But if we are creative, we can find a way for everybody to contribute, and in the end, everybody can partake of the fruits of loving kindness!)

~ Enlightenment is Possible in This Lifetime ~