Long ago, the Bodhisattva was reborn as a hare. He lived in a leafy forest among soft, tender grass and delicate ferns, surrounded by climbing vines and sweet wild orchids. The forest was rich with fruits and bordered by a river of pure water as blue as lapis lazuli.
This forest was a favorite of wandering acestics, people who withdraw from the world to focus on their spiritual journeys. These acestics lived on food they begged from others. The people of that time considered the giving of alms to the holy wanderers be a sacred duty.
The bodhisattva hare had three friends — a monkey, a jackal, and an otter — who looked to the wise hare as their leader. He taught them the importance of keeping moral laws, observing holy days, and giving alms. Whenever a holy day approached, the hare admonished his friends that if someone asked them for food, they were to give freely and generously from the food they had gathered for themselves.
Sakra, lord of devas, was watching the four friends from his great palace of marble and light on the peak of Mount Meru, and on one holy day he decided to test their virtue.
That day, the four friends separated to find food. The otter found seven red fish on a riverbank; the jackal found a lizard and a vessel of curdled milk someone had abandoned; the monkey gathered mangoes from the trees.
Sakra took the form of a Brahman, or priest, and he went to the otter and said, friend, I am hungry. I need food before I can perform my priestly duties. Can you help me? And the otter offered the Brahman the seven fish he had gathered for his own meal.
Then the Brahman went to the jackal, and said, friend, I am hungry. I need food before I can perform my priestly duties. Can you help me? And the jackal offered the Brahman the lizard and curdled milk he had planned to have for his own meal.
Then the Brahman went to the monkey, and said friend, I am hungry. I need food before I can perform my priestly duties. Can you help me? And the monkey offered the Brahman the juicy mangoes he had looked forward to eating himself.
Then the Brahman went to the hare and asked for food, but the hare had no food but the lush grass growing in the forest. So the Bodhisattva told the Brahman to build a fire, and when the fire was burning, he said, I have nothing to give you to eat but myself! Then, the hare threw himself into the fire.
Sakra, still disguised as a Brahman, was astonished and deeply moved. He caused the fire to be cold, so the hare was not burned, and then revealed his true form to the selfless little hare. Dear hare, he said, your virtue will be remembered through the ages. And then Sakra painted the wise hare’s likeness on the pale face of the Moon, for all to see.
The story of the Selfless Hare is an example of a Jataka Tale. This story depicts the incarnation of the being who would become the future Buddha. In this story, the one referred to as the Bodhisattva is Buddha or the hare.
This story does not only display the wide ranges of reincarnation but also karma and in this case, good karma. Because of the remarkable action that the hare showed Sakra, he rewarded him by painting the hare on the moon.
Sakra returned to his home on Mount Meru, and the four friends lived long and happily in their beautiful forest. And to this day, those who look up at the Moon can see the image of the selfless hare.