December 18, 2010

Life Belongs to Those Who Preserve Life

The Tricycle Book Club is discussing Lin Jensen's Deep Down Things: The Earth in Celebration and Dismay! Look for daily excerpts from the book on the Tricycle Blog to inspire the conversation, which is happening here.

From Deep Down Things:


A tale of the Buddha’s inherent sympathetic response to the natural world is told in an event that occurred when he was still the young prince Siddhartha residing in his father’s kingdom. Edwin Arnold in his verse biography of the Buddha, The Light of Asia, tells that the young Siddhartha was out in the royal garden on a spring day with his cousin Devadatta who had with him a bow and arrow and was intent on finding something to hunt. When a flock of wild swans passed over on their way to their nesting grounds in the Himalayas, Devadatta shot down the lead bird. Here is how the downing of the swan is told in Arnold’s moving lines of verse:

And Devadatta, cousin of the Prince,

Pointed his bow, and loosed a willful shaft
Which found the wide wing of the foremost swan
Broad-spread to glide upon the free blue road,

So that it fell, the bitter arrow fixed,

Bright scarlet blood-gouts staining the pure plumes.

Seeing the fallen swan struggling to regain flight, Siddhartha ran to the swan and took the bird

Tenderly up, rested it in his lap—

Sitting with knees crossed, as Lord Buddha sits—
And, soothing with a touch the wild thing’s fright….

And when Siddhartha had calmed the swan, he pulled the arrow from its wounded wing, and

Yet all so little knew the boy of pain

That curiously into his wrist he pressed
The arrow’s barb, and winced to feel its sting,
and turned with tears to soothe the bird again.

When Siddhartha’s cousin Devadatta demanded that the bird be turned over to him, arguing that it belonged to he who shot it down, Siddhartha refused to release the injured bird. But Devadatta argued that the swan was rightfully his because “’Twas no man’s in the clouds, but fallen ’tis mine.” Siddhartha responded to Devadatta’s claim acknowledging that were the bird dead it might well belong to Devadatta, but since “the swan lives,” it belongs to he who preserves life."

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shaktinah's picture

Did Edwin Arnold invent the story of the Buddha and the swan? If not, if he was translating verses from the Pali, then the original cannon from which the story came should be mentioned.

Sam Mowe's picture

Thanks for commenting. While Edwin Arnold certainly didn't invent the story of the Buddha and the swan, it's probably not completely fair to call his verses works of translation. According to Wikipedia, The Light of Asia is a free adaptation of the Lalitavistara.