A Buddhist Tale from India
Once, long ago, a poor brahmin was given an ox calf in repayment for a debt. The calf was the Buddha in an earlier birth. The brahmin delighted in the tiny creature and cared for it well.
And the ox, with the man’s care, grew and grew. When fully grown it was a great, powerful ox. Yet, as big and powerful as it was, it was gentle too. Whatever the brahmin asked it to do, it did, and with good spirit. Deeply rooted stumps, big boulders, whatever it might be, if the brahmin wanted it pulled from his fields he had only to tie one end of a rope to his ox’s yoke, the other end to the boulder or stump and say, “Pull!” And the ox would pull it up out of the earth and drag it from the fields. Yet the ox was so tame that children could safely ride on its back. So pleased was the brahmin with his great, powerful, and gentle ox that he named it “Great Joy.”
One day, Great Joy was thinking to himself, “My master, the brahmin, is so poor, yet he has always been so kind to me. I want to use my great strength to repay him.”
So Great Joy walked over to the brahmin’s low, sun-baked mud house and put his great, homed head through the open window. There sat the poor brahmin, sitting at a little crooked table, mending the torn page of a book. And the ox said, “My master and my friend, you have always been so kind to me, yet you are so poor, I want to use my great strength to help you. Listen. I have a plan.”
And the astonished brahmin, his jaw dropping in disbelief, said, “I have an ox who can talk?!”
“Oh, yes master,” replied Great Joy calmly, “There are many more wonderful things than that in this world. But listen.”
So the brahmin ceased his work and he listened. “Tomorrow,” said Great Joy, “Go into the town. Find a wealthy merchant and bet him one thousand pieces of silver that you have an ox who can pull a hundred carts loaded with boulders, gravel, and stone.”
“It’s impossible!” exclaimed the brahmin. “No ox has ever pulled so many loaded carts. It can’t be done!”
“Trust me,” said Great Joy. “Have I ever let you down?”
The Brahmin thought about it and, upon reflection, realized that, indeed, Great Joy had never failed him. So he agreed.
The next day, when the sun rose, the poor brahmin tied on his worn sandals and headed for the town. Entering a tea shop where the wealthier merchants and farmers often gathered during the heat of the day, he sat down alone at a little table. Then, as a wealthy merchant entered, he called out, “My friend, will you join me?”
“Why not?” answered the wealthy merchant.
After pleasantries, a few sweets and tea, the brahmin took a deep breath and said, “I have an ox.”
“So,” replied the wealthy merchant. “I have many oxen and, let me tell you, they cost me plenty.”
“Yes,” said the brahmin, “but…but my ox is strong.” “Bah!” said the merchant. “It is an ox’s nature to be strong. Every ox is strong.”
“Not as strong as my ox,” continued the brahmin, now warming to the task. “Why, my ox is so strong he can pull one hundred carts loaded to the top with boulders, gravel, and stone. That’s how strong my ox, Great Joy, is!”
“Impossible!” laughed the merchant. “Listen, neighbor, no ox, no matter how strong, can pull one hundred loaded carts. This world is one of weights and measures. Everything has its necessary limits. An ox is after all, just an ox. This can’t be done.”
“But it can,” persisted the poor brahmin.
“It can’t!” insisted the wealthy merchant.
“Would you like to wager?” asked the poor brahmin. “With pleasure,” replied the wealthy merchant.
“One thousand pieces of silver?” asked the poor brahmin, somewhat hesitantly. “You’re on!” cried the wealthy merchant. “One thousand pieces of silver it shall be! Tomorrow, when the sun rises to the top of the tallest mango tree in the town square, you bring your ox and I’ll have one hundred loaded carts, waiting. Until then, my friend, let us call it a day.”
And with that the wealthy merchant rose and, with a flourish of the sleeves of his elegant robe, walked smiling from the shop.
Soon the whole town was alight with the news. “One thousand pieces!” they exclaimed. “One hundred carts,” they wondered. “One ox!” they laughed.
Money changed hands and bets were placed. Then all waited in expectation for the morning.
That night the poor brahmin tossed and turned. Would he win? Would he lose? Could Great Joy really pull all those carts? The odds, after all, were entirely against it.
The brahmin awoke early and went at once to Great Joy’s stall.
There stood Great Joy, calming chewing the golden straw, flicking his long tail from side to side.
His great dark eyes looked out at the brahmin with great good humor, as if to say, “Today’s the day, eh? Well, don’t worry. All shall be well. We won’t lose this bet.”
But the brahmin was preoccupied. He couldn’t see. He couldn’t hear what his ox was so clearly saying.
Picking up a stiff brush the brahmin began to brush Great Joy, slapping and brushing his sides and the muscles of his broad back so that the dust rose up and danced, sparkling in the sunbeams, like bits of silver or gold.
When he had combed and brushed and curried Great Joy, he threw a rope around his ox’s neck and led Great Joy through the fields and down the dirt roads to the town.
They arrived just as the sun touched the top of the tallest mango tree in the town square. A noisy crowd already filled the square. And there were the one hundred loaded carts, waiting. The poor brahmin took one look and his stomach sank down to his shoes. He was shocked! He thought that he had never seen so many carts! And certainly never so many loaded carts! “What a fool I have been,” he admonished himself, “for having listened to the words of a beast. I, a man, have listened to an animal, and just see the result! I am lost!” But, putting on a bold front, he led Great Joy through the crowd.
There stood the wealthy merchant, waiting. “So,” he asked, “Are you ready?”
“Certainly! Of course we’re ready,” replied the brahmin.
The wealthy merchant clapped his hands together and two strong men stepped from the crowd. They lifted up a heavy wooden yoke and set it on Great Joy’s shoulders. Then they tied the ropes from the carts firmly to the yoke, knotting them tight.
The crowd grew quiet. It became so quiet you could hear the birds singing in the trees. It became so quiet you could hear the sweep of Great Joy’s tail. It became so quiet you could hear the buzz of the glittering flies.
Unconcerned, Great Joy mildly eyed the staring crowd and watched the white clouds drifting slowly overhead. He shook his huge head and snorted loudly as if to say, “What’s all the fuss?”
Then the poor brahmin, feeling all eyes focused on him, walked up to Great Joy’s side, lifted up a whip, struck Great Joy on his giant shoulder and cried, “On, you beast! On, you wretch! Pull those carts! Show your strength!”
But, when Great Joy felt the bite of the whip and heard all those harsh words, his eyes opened wide. “Blows and curses, is it?” he said to himself. “Not for this ox!” And, planting his hooves firmly in the earth, he would not move.
The crowd went wild! They yelled and jeered. They threw clods of earth. They threw sticks and stones. But Great Joy would not budge. He wouldn’t even try to pull the carts. Not even an inch. He stood resolute beneath all the shouts and blows. No matter how loudly the crowd laughed and jeered, no matter how hard they threw their sticks and stones, no matter what they shouted and screamed? Great Joy simply would not move.
“My friend,” spluttered the merchant, tears of laughter streaming down his cheeks, “That is some, ha! ha! ha! ox, indeed!”
When the proddings and threats had at last ceased, the crowd drifted away, and the merchant, still dabbing at his wet eyes, been paid (“Better luck next time!” he joked), only then did Great Joy allow himself to be unhitched and led silently away, home.
Once there the poor brahmin put his head down in his arms and wept and wept for grief and loss and shame.
Then Great Joy, hearing his sobs, walked again to farmer’s little house, put his horned head through the open window and said, “My master and my friend, why do you weep?”
And the poor brahmin, in great bitterness, between his broken breaths, exclaimed, “You beast! You wretch! You animal! Everything you told me to do I did, yet I have lost everything. What’s more, the whole town has laughed at me as well. And it’s all your fault!”
But Great Joy said sadly, “Did I let you down or did you let me down? Let me ask you something. Have I ever failed you before? Did I ever crack a plow, break a fence, or smash a pot? Did I ever track filth into some clean place in your home or before some sacred shrine? Did I ever injure a child or fail to pull a load?”
“No,” said the brahmin, raising his head, “You were always a great joy to me.”
“Then why,” asked Great Joy, the Ox, “Did you beat me and hit me and call me such names, ‘wretch’ you said, and ‘beast?’ Was this truly the reward I deserved at your hands, I who only wanted to work hard for you and to serve you?”
Then the brahmin sat up and dried his eyes. He looked at his ox in silence, and he grew ashamed. “You are right,” he admitted at last. “You didn’t let me down. It was I who let you down and Great Joy, I…I’m sorry.”
“Well,” said the ox, “since you now feel this way about it, go back to town, find that merchant, and bet again. Only this time bet two thousand pieces.”
“My friend!” cried the brahmin.” I will do it. I will bet again and this time I won’t let you down!”
“Good,” said Great Joy, “For if you don’t let me down, I will certainly not let you down.”
The next day the brahmin ran to the town and entered the tea shop once again. There was the merchant calmly sipping his tea and eating from a plate of sweets.
“My friend, may I join you?” asked the brahmin.
“By all means,” answered the merchant merrily, “For have you not brought me great joy?” And he jingled his bag of coins.
“My friend,” said the brahmin, “let us bet again.” “What!?” exclaimed the merchant, “Don’t you know when you are beaten?”
“Come,” said the brahmin calmly, “one more bet on the ox and the carts, just as before. Only this time let us bet two thousand pieces. What do you say?”
The merchant stroked his beard. “Fools like this,” he thought to himself, “don’t grow on every tree. He is begging me to take his money. So, why not?”
“All right,” he shrugged at last. “Who am I to say no?” “So it’s a wager?” asked the brahmin.
“If you wish,” said the merchant.
“Yes, I do wish. Tomorrow, when the sun rises to the top of the tallest mango tree in the square, once again have your carts ready and I will bring Great Joy, my ox. Until then, my friend, let us call it a day.” And he departed once again, wishing all a good day.
The next morning the brahmin once more curried Great Joy and cleaned him. Then he led the great ox down the dirt roads to the town. They arrived as the sun touched the top of the tallest mango tree.
Once again a noisy crowd was gathered, this time ready to laugh and jeer. Many already held their sticks and stones and clods of earth all ready to throw. But, as Great Joy was led up to the carts spiritedly tossing his great horned head, the sun suddenly shone down upon him and power seemed to pulse from his great, shining back. His horns seemed to grow so wide it was as if they could tear the clouds and his tail now lashed behind him like a dragon’s tail. The hairs of his glossy hide stood erect, bristling and crackling with electricity.
As one the crowd gasped: “What an ox! Maybe he will be able to do it!”
Then, as before, the merchant motioned. As before, those strong men set the heavy yoke up on Great Joy’s shoulders and the ropes were knotted and tied. Then, once again, all grew quiet. It became so quiet you could almost hear the clouds drifting overhead. Then the poor brahmin, feeling all eyes focused upon him, stepped up to his ox’s side, lifted up a wreath of flowers, hung it around Great Joy’s neck, patted Great Joy on a giant shoulder and said, “This is the time, my mighty brother. This is the time, my great friend. So pull, pull with your whole heart and let the world see your noble strength!”
And with these kind, encouraging words, Great Joy happily planted his hooves into the sun-warmed earth, stiffened his legs till they stood like ancient trees, and pulled, and pulled, and pulled, and slowly, steadily the wheels began to turn, faster and faster and faster. “The ox has won!” cried the crowd. “He’s won!” Faster and faster and faster rolled the carts as Great Joy, at a run, pulled those one hundred carts all around the square.
The crowd ran after, laughing and calling for joy! Never had they seen such a wild and wonderful thing! Only one ox it may have been and a hundred dusty carts. Still, Great Joy the Ox, with his dignity, strength, and self-respect, had achieved the impossible.
It may have happened long, long ago, but it’s still remembered today.