I have been translating the fourth decade of the Avadānaśataka, which contains jātaka stories, and recently completed the story of the hare (number 37). I am familiar with versions of this jātaka in the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā (316) and Jātakamālā (6), and so was rather bemused by what I found in the Avadānaśataka. In the two versions I was familiar with, the focus is clearly on generosity. The hare – the Bodhisatt(v)a – offers his body as food to a passing brahmin (or Indra in disguise as such) by jumping into a fire. In the Avadānaśataka story, however, the hare instead demonstrates both the need to remain in the seclusion of the forest and the affection he has for his human companion.
Briefly, the story runs as follows: The hare is friends with a sage, who lives a life of asceticism in a cave. During a famine the sage is unable to find enough food, and so he declares his intention to travel to a village to seek alms. The hare is upset about this, like someone separated from his parents, and tries to dissuade the sage from leaving by pointing out the perils of living near houses and the benefits of the forest life. The sage is unmoved, but agrees to stay one further day. The next day the hare jumps into the fire in order to provide food for the sage, but the latter pulls him out and is eventually persuaded – out of affection for the hare – not to travel to the village. The hare then makes a statement of truth and this causes Indra to send rain, ending the drought.
The frame story makes the message even clearer: The Buddha told the story after having had to make great efforts to separate a monk from householders that he was spending too much time with, eventually succeeding in sending him into the forest for a secluded life. The Buddha is identified as the hare, and the wayward monk with the sage. The point of training that is raised by the story (this is a common feature of the Avadānaśataka) is the need to dwell in harmony, with good friends and companions, not evil ones.
Not only is it curious to see that the ideal of generosity plays absolutely no role in this story, the ideals that are present seem rather contradictory. The hare is upset at the sage’s leaving both because he has affection for him and because he sees the merit of a life of seclusion. The sage eventually capitulates out of affection for his friend the hare, whom he views like a son. Thus the very perils of living amongst householders – affection and attachments – are here present in the forest, yet the teaching that concludes the story suggests that it is the merits of good friendship (not secluded dwelling) that are really at the heart of the story anyway. There seem to be lots of different things going on at once, and I am therefore still puzzling over it. I am looking forward to finishing my translation of the decade and spending some time reflecting on the motivations and priorities within this intriguing body of jātakas.