The Jataka Tale of the Selfless Hare

Why There Is a Hare in the Moon

Hare
John Foxx, Getty Images

Introduction: The Jataka Tales are stories of the Buddha's previous lives. Many are animal fables, very similar to the fables of Aesop. Because the Buddha was not yet a Buddha, in the stories he often is called "Bodhisattva."

This story of the selfless hare appears, with some variations, in both the Pali Canon (as the Sasa Jataka, or Jataka 308) and in the Jatakamala of Arya Sura. The craters of the Moon seem, in some cultures, to form an image of a face -- the Man in the Moon -- but in Asia it is more common to imagine the image of a rabbit or hare. This is the story of why there is a hare in the moon.

Long ago, the Bodhisattva was reborn as a hare. He lived in a leafy forest among soft, tender grass and delicate ferns, surrounded by climbing vines and sweet wild orchids. The forest was rich with fruits and bordered by a river of pure water as blue as lapis lazuli.

This forest was a favorite of wandering acestics, people who withdraw from the world to focus on their spiritual journeys. These acestics lived on food they begged from others. The people of that time considered the giving of alms to the holy wanderers be a sacred duty.

The bodhisattva hare had three friends -- a monkey, a jackal, and an otter -- who looked to the wise hare as their leader. He taught them the importance of keeping moral laws, observing holy days, and giving alms. Whenever a holy day approached, the hare admonished his friends that if someone asked them for food, they were to give freely and generously from the food they had gathered for themselves.

Sakra, lord of devas, was watching the four friends from his great palace of marble and light on the peak of Mount Meru, and on one holy day he decided to test their virtue.

That day, the four friends separated to find food. The otter found seven red fish on a riverbank; the jackal found a lizard and a vessel of curdled milk someone had abandoned; the monkey gathered mangoes from the trees.

Sakra took the form of a Brahman, or priest, and he went to the otter and said, friend, I am hungry. I need food before I can perform my priestly duties. Can you help me? And the otter offered the Brahman the seven fish he had gathered for his own meal.

Then the Brahman went to the jackal, and said, friend, I am hungry. I need food before I can perform my priestly duties. Can you help me? And the jackal offered the Brahman the lizard and curdled milk he had planned to have for his own meal.

Then the Brahman went to the monkey, and said friend, I am hungry. I need food before I can perform my priestly duties. Can you help me? And the monkey offered the Brahman the juicy mangoes he had looked forward to eating himself.

Then the Brahman went to the hare and asked for food, but the hare had no food but the lush grass growing in the forest. So the Bodhisattva told the Brahman to build a fire, and when the fire was burning, he said, I have nothing to give you to eat but myself! Then, the hare threw himself into the fire.

Sakra, still disguised as a Brahman, was astonished and deeply moved. He caused the fire to be cold, so the hare was not burned, and then revealed his true form to the selfless little hare.

Dear hare, he said, your virtue will be remembered through the ages. And then Sakra painted the wise hare's likeness on the pale face of the Moon, for all to see.

Sakra returned to his home on Mount Meru, and the four friends lived long and happily in their beautiful forest. And to this day, those who look up at the Moon can see the image of the selfless hare.