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The Golden Mallard

A Jataka Tale About Greed


Golden Mallard
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The Jataka Tales are stories of the Buddha's earlier lives. Because he was not yet a Buddha, in the stories he is called "Bodhisattva." The story of the golden mallard is from Jataka 136, which also is called the Suvannahamsa jataka. It is one of a handful of Jataka Tales with an unmistakable similarity to one of Aesop's fables, in this case, the story of the goose that laid golden eggs. Scholars do not know whether some stories of Greece might have traveled to India, or if stories from India might have traveled to Greece.

Once the Bodhisattva was born a Brahmin. He grew up, and married, and had three daughters . The Brahmin died while his daughters were still young and unmarried, and the bereft family moved from their fine house into a poor mud hut.

Meanwhile, the Bodhisattva was reborn as a mallard drake with feathers of fine, pure gold. The drake also remembered his past life, and he sought news of his former wife and daughters. When he learned they were living in destitution, he determined to do what he could for them.

He flew to the mud hut where they were living and perched on the thatched roof. His wife and daughters marveled at the sight of a golden mallard, and they marveled even more when he spoke to them. He identified himself as their husband and father, reborn as a mallard, and promised he would take care of them.

"I will give you my golden feathers, one by one" he said. "The value of the feathers should provide you with a comfortable life."

Then he plucked out one feather with his beak and let it drift down to the three girls and their mother. Then he flew away, but every few days he returned to leave another feather. In time the money gained by selling the feathers left the family quite comfortable.

But the mother worried. What if the drake stopped coming? Would the family fall back into destitution? Even more, she thought of the many finer and grander things she could have if she could have more feathers at once. So she decided that the next time she saw the drake, she would catch him and pluck out all of his feathers.

The three daughters refused to help their mother carry out her plan. But the mother was undeterred. The next time she saw the drake, she called him to come to her. Then she grabbed him and frantically plucked out his feathers.

But the feathers taken by force were transformed. When she finished, instead of a pile of priceless golden feathers, she had nothing but ordinary mallard feathers.

The plucked bird could not fly, and he remained with the family until his feathers grew back. His new feathers were like any other mallard drake's feathers -- gray, white, blue, green. Not gold. And then he flew away, and never came back.

And the moral is -- be content with what is given you.

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