The Wounded Swan ( Excerpt from Old Path, White Clouds )
The Wounded Swan
Svasti was a buffalo herder. He was taking his herd through a field to the edge of a forest when he decided to take a break. He was about to eat the rice that had been packed for him and thought to himself, I could share this with the wanderer I met the other day. Surely my rice is not too humble for him and with that he set off.
From a distance as he cleared the hill he could see his new friend. But, Siddhartha (Buddha’s given name) was not alone. There was a neatly dressed young woman sitting in front of him. She was clearly from a higher caste than he, probably even royalty. (Svasti was an “untouchable” the lowest caste in Indian society). Svasti was about to turn around when the Buddha waved to him, to come down. Buddha introduced the young women, Sujata to Svasti. Sujata had brought white rice and sesame butter to give to the Buddha. As she presented this to him, Svasti felt embarrassed about the meagre coarse brown rice, he had brought and kept it in his jacket. Buddha suggested that they share what Sujata had brought. When he offered a portion of the rice and sesame butter to Svasti, Svasti refused, raising his hands in prayerful respect stating “no thank you, Mister, I have brought my own”. Svasti then pulled out his own bundle of rice and began to unwrap it. Buddha exclaimed, “this is wonderful, we will mix these two types of rice together and share that.” This was done. The Buddha asked the two young people “do you know why I eat in silence? It is so I can fully appreciate the wonderful tastes of the rice and the sesame. When we’re finished, I will tell you a story.”
When they were finished eating, Sujata gathered the banana leaves (that were used for packing the rice. Then she reached for the jug of water that she had brought and took out the only cup she had. She poured the cup full and offered it to the Buddha, which he took graciously. The Buddha offered the cup to Svasti. Svasti refused saying, “no Mister, I can not, after you.” Buddha in a soft voice said, “you first child, I want you to have the first drink.” Svasti felt confused, but he did not know how to refuse such an unaccustomed honour. Sujata softly and politely said to Svasti, “it is more appropriate to refer to Siddhartha, as Teacher, rather than Mister”. Svasti nodded respectfully and drank down the cup quickly, returning it to Siddhartha, when he finished. The Buddha then asked Sujata to refill it again, which she did, returning the cup to Siddhartha. Siddhartha drank slowly and thoughtfully, all the time Sujata’s eyes had been focussed intently on both of them during the exchange. When the Buddha was finished he handed back the cup back to Sujata and she poured some water for herself. With deepest respect for the Buddha, she followed his example and drank slowly from the cup herself. (This would normally not be done, as someone of Sujata’s caste wouldn’t have even touched something that an “untouchable” had touched.) As Sujata finished, she placed the cup on the ground and smiled at her two companions.
Buddha nodded saying “you children have understood. People are not born with a caste. Everyone’s tears are salty and everyone’s blood is red. It is wrong to divide people into castes, creating divisions and prejudice among people.” Sujata looked at Buddha and said, “we are your disciples and we believe your teaching. But there does not seem to be anyone like you in the world. Everyone else believes that the castes come forth from the Creator’s feet. Even the scriptures say so. No one dares to think differently.”
“Yes I know, but the truth is the truth, whether anyone believes it or not. Though a million people believe a lie, it is still a lie. You must have great courage to live according to the truth. Let me tell you a story about when I was a boy”.
“One day when I was nine years old, I was walking through the compound just outside the main palace. A swan fell out of the air just in front of me. It was crying in pain, so I ran over to it. As I knelt down, I could see an arrow sticking out of its side. I pulled the arrow out and the blood began to ooze out. I put pressure on the wound and picked it up and took it inside the palace. As I entered, I asked Sundari (Siddhartha’s lady in waiting) to pick some healing herbs and to help me make a poultice for the swan. I noticed that the bird was starting to shiver, so I wrapped my coat around it. When Sundari came back, we made a poultice and bandaged the wound. I then carried the swan over to the fireplace, to warm it.”
The Buddha then looked at Svasti and said “I had not told you before, when I was young I was a prince, the son of King Suddhodana in the city Kapilavatthu. Sujata knows this already… I was just about to go get it some food for the swan when my cousin Devadatta burst into the room, with bow and arrows in hand. He asked whether I had seen a white swan fall from the sky. The words were no sooner out of his mouth when he saw the swan in front of the fireplace. As he ran towards the fireplace, I got up and intercepted him. I refused to let him pass”.
“Devadatta complained saying that the bird had been free and that once he had shot it, it was his. His argument sounded logical, But I knew it was still wrong. I stood there for a couple of minutes not answering his challenge, but continuing to bar his way. Then I answered saying to him, those who love each other live together, we keep them close to us and those who are enemies live apart. Since you tried to kill the bird, you certainly are enemies. You can not live together. And since I saved her life, bandaged her, gave her warmth and as you came in I was about to go get food for her. The bird and I love each other, and we can live together, the bird needs me not you”.
Sujata clapped her hands together and said “that is right. You were right.” The Buddha looked at Svasti and asked, “what do you think?” Svasti thought for a moment and answered slowly saying “I think you were right, but I think most people would side with Devadatta.”
“You are right,” said the Buddha, “most people would take Devadatta’s side. Let me tell you the rest of the story.”
“As we couldn’t agree between us, we decided to take our situation to the adults and let them decide. As it was, there was a meeting of the government that day. We hurried over to the hall of justice and asked the ministers to make the decision for us. The affairs of state came to a halt as they listened patiently to first Devadatta’s side and then I presented my point of view. They discussed the matter at length and they seemed unable to agree. Most of the ministers seemed to be favouring Devadatta’s side, when my father, the king, suddenly cleared his throat and coughed a few times. All the ministers stopped speaking, and agreed unanimously that my argument was the correct one. Devadatta was furious of course, but there was nothing he could do”.
“I had the swan, but I wasn’t really happy, because I knew that the only reason the ministers had agreed with me was because of my father, not because they saw the truth in what I had said.”
“That is sad”, said Sujata. “Yes it was”, said the Buddha, “but I turned my thoughts toward the bird and took comfort in knowing it was safe. Surely otherwise it would have ended up in a cooking pot”.
“In this world there are few people who look at the world with eyes of compassion. The weak are oppressed by the strong. Cruelty and unkindness abound. I still see that my reasoning of that day was correct, for it arose from love and understanding. Love and understanding can ease the suffering of all beings. The truth is the truth, whether or not it is accepted and practised by the majority. Therefore, I tell you children, it takes great courage to stand up for and protect what is right.”
Thich Nhat Hanh – Old Path, White Clouds