The Story of the Four Harmonious Brothers
told by Shakyamuni Buddha as recorded in the Vinayavastu (Foundation of Discipline)
In former times in the jungles near Varanasi, a pheasant, a rabbit, a monkey, and an elephant lived in friendship and harmony. The four brothers declared that although their minds were harmonious, it was sad that in the world there was so little respect held by the young for the old. They decided to show respect for each other, according to the tradition of Dharma.
Having made this determination the four animals set out to make offerings and pay homage. The younger showed respect for the older by carrying the older on his back. Standing on each others’ backs in this way, the pheasant, rabbit, monkey and elephant reached the first limb of the nyän dro da (banyan tree).
The pheasant taught the others how to follow the moral conduct of not taking lives, not taking what was not given, not speaking deceptive words, not committing sexual misconduct, and not taking intoxicants. Then each animal led similar types of animals to themselves on the path of morality. Happiness and comfort increased greatly in the world.
At that time, the king, his ministers, and the general population had the proud belief that the good times were due to their own merit. In order to determine who was responsible for the peaceful times they gathered together and asked a hermit to tell them the cause of their happiness. Through his clairvoyance the hermit explained that the countries’ wealth was not due to the power of any of the people but to the merits of the four animals in the forest who were keeping the five precepts of moral conduct and leading the other animals on that path. He advised them that they, too, should behave like these animals.
Following this advice most of the people in that region began to keep the five precepts, and as a result, after they died, they were reborn in the deva realm.
It is said in the Vinaya teaching Dülwa rlung and the discourse Do de nä kyang rlung that the pheasant was an incarnation of the qualified destroyer gone beyond Shakyamuni Buddha and the others were disciples – the rabbit was Nyi gyä (Shariputra), the monkey was Päl na kyä (Maudgalyana) and the elephant was Kungawa (Ananda).
It is also said that wherever a picture of the four brothers is displayed, the 10 virtues will increase and the minds of all will become harmonious. There will be respect for elders and auspicious events will occur.
More on the Story of the Four Harmonious Friends
told by Ribur Rinpoche
At first, there was just the bird, and the tree was just a little sprout. The bird could scratch around on the ground and find little bits of plant to eat. The bird was unable to fly, so the bird could only eat what it could find near to the ground. As the tree grew, it became difficult for the bird to get enough food to eat.
Then, the rabbit came. The rabbit would eat what was on the ground and would lift the bird up on his back so that the bird could reach the growing tree. In this way, they both had enough to eat. However, as the tree continued to grow, it started to become too high for the bird, even on the back of the rabbit.
Then, the monkey came. The monkey could climb up into the tree and drop the fruit from the tree onto the ground for the rabbit and the bird. However, it was difficult to get to the fruit at the very top of the tree.
Then, the elephant came. With the elephant, if all the animals helped each other, they could reach the fruit at the top of the tree; and, in this way, there was plenty for all of them to eat.
The reason the four animals worked so harmoniously together and the reason they were successful is that none of them was primarily concerned with getting enough food for themselves. Each of them was concerned with trying to help the others to get what they needed. Rather than being dominated by selfish concern, they were dominated by cherishing others.
Also, the reason they were successful is that they were willing to ask for help and to receive help. In this way, the bird is considered the hero of the story. The bird was the most fragile and needed the most help.
Because the bird was willing to ask for help and because the others were happy to help the bird, everything worked out very nicely.
In Tibet, in letters of advice to families who were going through some difficult times with each other, the Four Friends were often used as an example of how the family needs to stay together and help each other. Each member is very different and brings different strengths and different weaknesses, but if they work together, they can accomplish things they could never accomplish without working together.
This story is a story of interdependence. It is a story explaining how there is no place for self-cherishing, but rather we need each other and we need to help each other. The worst thing is self-cherishing. This is a story about working harmoniously.