The Benevolent Deer King
Master Cheng Yen’s Teachings
Translated by the Dharma as Water Team
We learn the Buddha Dharma to understand and realize our true nature. In learning the Dharma, we must first train our minds and understand that all virtuous deeds begin with the Five Precepts. The first of the Five Precepts is “no killing.” But even beyond “no killing,” we should further work to protect life.
During his lifetime, the Buddha told many stories. In the Agama Sutra, there is a story about one of the Buddha’s previous lives as a deer king.
Once upon a time, in a secluded forest, a herd of thousands of deer, led by a magnificent deer king, took shelter together. In the refuge of the deep forest, the herd grazed in peace.
One day, the kingdom’s king and his courtiers came to the forest to hunt. The once serene surroundings turned into a scene of chaos as people shot their bows and arrows everywhere. The deer panicked and scattered in all directions, and many died. After the hunters left, the deer king was aghast at the sight of the carnage, and he blamed himself. After some thought, the deer king decided to go to the palace to speak for the herd.
Once he reached the king, the deer king knelt down and cried. He pleaded with the king. “A deer’s life is not worth much. Our lives are insignificant, and we reside on your land. Since we can live peacefully and are grateful for our lives here, if the staff of your royal kitchen needs to create gourmet meals, I beseech Your Majesty to tell me the number of deer that are required each day. We would be very willing to send that number of deer to your kitchen.”
Hearing this, the king replied, “I had no idea that our culinary needs caused so much suffering to your herd. Since our kitchen will only need one deer each day, I will immediately forbid anyone to hunt in the forest.”
The deer king was relieved to hear the king’s promise. He went home to tell the herd the news. The deer quickly gathered around, knelt down, and listened intently to what the deer king had to say. He began, “Since the beginning of time, no one has lived forever. We live on the king’s land and feed on his grass and water. Since we anyway must die one day, for the sake of peace and security and a place for our herd to flourish, why don’t we choose our time to die in exchange for peace?” The members of the herd believed that what the deer king said was right. “It is true. Everyone must die one day. If we can figure out a reasonable arrangement, we will accept it.”
From then on, the members of the herd decided amongst themselves who would go next. The deer whose time was up would pay his or her last respects before the deer king and listen to his teachings. The deer king wept and constantly advised them as he reluctantly let them go.
One day, a pregnant doe came before the deer king. She knelt and begged. “Tomorrow it is my turn to die. This is the end for me, but I am pregnant with my fawn. I am not asking to be spared; I only need a few more days to bear my child so he can live, then I will go.”
The deer king thought the request was reasonable. He found the deer who was next in line and asked him if he could go a day earlier. That deer begged, “I still wish to keep living, even if it is just for one more day. I do not want to leave a day earlier.”
Upon hearing this, the deer king understood that all living beings desire life and fear death, so he could not ask any of them to die early. After the herd members went away, he quietly left the forest and headed for the palace.
When the king saw him, he asked, “Why are you here so soon? Have you exhausted the deer in your herd?” The deer king said no and recounted the story of the pregnant doe and the deer next in line who asked to live one more day. In order to meet the kitchen’s needs, the deer king came himself. When the king heard this, he felt ashamed. He realized that all living beings, even animals, can be benevolent. Thus, the king repented, and he issued a new decree forbidding anyone to hunt in the forest for any living being.
This was one of many stories that recounted the Buddha’s spiritual cultivation throughout many lifetimes. Not only had the Buddha been born in the human realm, but he had also been born as a cow, a horse, a deer, and countless other forms. He had been through it all. As we live our lives, we must not think that only humans matter. Rather than thinking only of ourselves, we should cherish and treasure all beings, as we are all equal.
If we can not only refrain from killing but further save lives, we are doing a good deed. By not killing, we are just observing the precept. Yet going beyond that, we must actively engage in doing good deeds and strive to protect living beings. In this way, we can be a beacon of light for others through the way we live.