Long ago, when Brahmadatta was reigning in the kingdom in Benares, the Bodhisattva was reborn as a mouse. When he grew up he was much bigger and stronger than an ordinary mouse. In fact, he was almost the size of a baby pig. He lived in a burrow in the forest with hundreds of other mice. They spent their days collecting seeds and nuts, darting here and there on the forest floor, chasing each other over and under the fallen branches and among the trees.
Now a certain jackal often came wandering through the forest, past the home of the mice. He happened to notice all this scurrying about of small morsels, and an idea formed in his mind. He found a great open space between the trees, where the sunlight fell for many hours during the day. He nosed around for a good spot, where he might be visible to any small creatures looking out from the shade of the forest. There he began to practice standing on one leg. First he tried the left front leg, and then the right. Neither of his front legs was very strong and he had difficulty keeping his balance. Next he tried his hind legs, first one then the other, to see which one was the strongest. The right hind leg turned out to be the best. At first he couldn’t balance himself at all, and he kept toppling over onto his right haunch. The ground was pretty hard, and it wasn’t very pleasant to fall over, so he gathered up some dry grass and made himself a nice cushiony landing spot, and continued his practice. It didn’t take very long before he had mastered the art of standing on one leg. He pointed himself with his face towards the sun and opened his mouth.
The Bodhisattva-mouse was out and about gathering seeds and noticed the jackal in the clearing. He thought to himself, “This jackal has undertaken some kind of difficult religious practice. He must be very virtuous.” He went right up the jackal and said, “Oh, Holy One, how may I address you?”
The jackal answered, “I am called Dhammika – the one who seeks the truth.”
The Bodhisattva was a curious mouse. He said to the jackal: “Why are you standing on one leg like that? Why don’t you place all four feet on the ground?”
The Jackal answered (never turning his face away from the sun): “If I were to place all four of my feet on the ground, the earth would not be able to bear my weight. It is out of kindness to the earth that I am standing on one foot.”
The Bodhisattva tried standing on one leg for a moment. It wasn’t very comfortable. He walked around the jackal and looked up at him. He could see the jackal’s teeth in his open mouth.
“But why are you standing with your mouth open?” he asked.
“My mouth is open,” replied the jackal, “so that the wind may enter and sustain me. For you see, I eat nothing other than air. Air is all I eat.”
The Bodhisattva-mouse felt with his tongue the tiny seeds he had collected in his cheek. He liked their nutty flavor and their chewy texture. Air was all very nice for breathing, but he couldn’t imagine eating it.
“And why are you facing the sun?” the Bodhisattva continued to question. “Doesn’t it make your head hurt to stand like that?”
The jackal replied modestly, “I am honoring the sun, little mouse. Any discomfort or suffering I experience is of no consequence.”
The Bodhisattva was impressed. He spent most of his day hurrying about gathering provisions. He rarely stopped to stand still, though some times, when he was passing through a sunny patch between the trees, he felt the sun on the fur of his back. Then he would slow down a little and appreciate that sensation of heat.
He said good-bye to the jackal and resumed his quest for supplies. He thought to himself, “This jackal is very virtuous. We mice have busy lives, but surely we can find time to honor him.”
The very next day the The Bodhisattva Mouse and the Jackal brought a whole troupe of mice to visit the jackal and to pay their respects. Some bowed down low. Others brought little offerings of seeds or nuts (though they knew that the jackal lived on air alone). Some showed their respect by trying to stand on one leg, just like the jackal, but for most of them, because of their plump bodies, it was just too difficult. When it was time to go, the mice formed themselves into a line and bowing to the jackal, returned into the woods. The jackal, watching them out of the corner of his eye, waited until they were trooping off in a neat line, and then dropped down on all four feet and neatly seized the last mouse in line. He chewed it and swallowed its flesh. Then, very carefully, he wiped his mouth, and resumed his standing pose.
Gradually the number of mice living in the forest burrow diminished. The mice noticed that there was more room in their burrow. “That’s odd,” they said to each other. “Before, we hardly had room to turn around. Now we he have so much space we could even do our exercises here.” They went to the Bodhisattva and told him about it.
The Bodhisattva thought to himself, “I wonder why the mice are gradually disappearing.” He reviewed their daily habits and realized that the only change was their morning visit to the jackal.
The next day, when it was time for the mice to go and pay their respects to the holy jackal, he placed himself in front of all the remaining mice when going, and, at the end of the line when it was time to leave.
The jackal was quite accustomed to his routine, and looking out from the corner of his eye, saw that the mice were trooping off as usual. He didn’t notice that the last mouse in line was considerably bigger than the others. Dropping down onto all four legs he sprang forward to seize the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva saw him coming and turned about.
“O Holy Jackal” he said, “Your religion is not one of goodness. You claim to be seeking the truth, but instead you go about killing innocent beings.”
Having spoken, he recited this verse:
Yo ve dhammadhajam katvā nigulho pāpam ācare vissāsayitvā bhūtāni bilāram nāma tam vatan ti.
Listen, I’ll tell you a secret: those who put their goodness on display, may not be good or kind at all.
The Bodhisattva-mouse jumped up and fell down on the jackal’s throat. He bit down with such strength that he split open the jackal’s larynx and killed him.
The rest of the mice turned about and tore the jackal limb from limb. I heard that those who came first got flesh, but those that came last got none. And from then on, the mice lived happily in the forest free from fear.
Charlatans, fakes, con-artists, and sweet-talking holy men have been around for a long time, probably since human beings first learned how to hoodwink and extort each other. Ancient India, like any period of history, had its fair share of spiritual teachers whose only motive was self-aggrandizement and personal gain. Buddhist criticism of Brahminical religion appears in both the story-literature of Buddhism as well as the canonical texts. This particular story is a harsh cautionary tale. But what are we to make of the brutal ending?
Two possibilities come to mind: first, that the jackal’s swift demise is the natural playing out of his own actions. Karma in this case is logical and occurs without any delay. What is troubling is that the Bodhisattva-mouse and the other mice have now descended to the level of the jackal. Instead of attempting his reform, they are playing by his rules, rules that condone violence. While the jackal’s evil-doing has come to an end, what about the mice? Will they now have a taste for killing?
Another possible interpretation of the ending is that the listeners (and readers) are meant to experience genuine shock. Just as folk- and fairy-tales often end with the violent death of those have plotted against the good, this Jātaka tale offers a stark lesson in the danger of following one’s own impulses to connive and manipulate the perception of others. As in many fairy-tales, the abrupt ending jumps us out of the story and back into our lives, where things are a little more ambiguous, but where it’s just as imperative to examine what motivates our speech and our actions.