Brief notes on Buddhist thought and practice
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Devadatta and the Swan

This story is another illustration of the young prince's compassion. I will tell it in the form of a simple play.

[Prince Siddhartha's cousin, Prince Devadatta, has just shot a swan. Both boys run to pick it up; Prince Siddhartha arrives first and tries to save it.]

Devadatta: What are you doing? It's mine! Give it to me!

Siddhartha: But can't you see? It's suffering! We have to help it.

Devadatta: Nonsense! I shot it with my bow and arrow, so it's mine!

Siddhartha: But it's not dead. As long as it's alive, we need to save it!

Devadatta: Give it here! [They struggle. Prince Siddhartha still has the bird.]

Siddhartha: Devadatta, let's go to the sages at my father's court. We'll let them decide.

Devadatta: OK. But I'm sure they'll give it to me.

[At the court]

Chief sage: What is the matter, O Princes?

Devadatta: I shot a swan. My cousin, Prince Siddhartha, wants to keep it for himself. But by custom, any prey should be kept by the hunter.

Chief sage: That is true. Prince Siddhartha, what do you say?

Siddhartha: O Sage, I understand the ancient custom. But I believe that compassion for all sentient beings is more important than our customs.

Chief sage: Please give us time to discuss this matter.

[The sages leave; they return much later.]

Chief sage: We have decided. By our custom, the swan belongs to Prince Devadatta. If it were dead, we certainly would give it to him. But a living thing certainly must belong to him who tries to save it; a life cannot belong to one who is only trying to destroy it. Let the swan be given to Prince Siddhartha.

Siddhartha: Thank you, O Sages.

[From this time forward, Prince Devadatta resented his cousin Prince Siddhartha.]

  1. Who is a more "typical" boy, Devadatta or Siddhartha? Why do you think so?
  2. Have you ever killed an animal (besides insects)? How did you feel after that?
  3. Do you think Prince Siddhartha's idea (to help the swan) was "nonsense"? Why?
  4. "Compassion is more important than customs." Do you agree?
Next time: The Royal Plowing Festival

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