Four Friends

In Bhutan, the parable of the four friends is very well known, and depictions (like the one below) are seen almost everywhere. This legend talks about harmony within nature, and in some ways, the story has come to symbolize Bhutan's emphasis on harmony between people and nature.

photo M. Noonan


photo M. Noonan

When we were in Bhutan, our group met with Lama Gembo Dorji who reviewed this story with us. Here are his words:

It is a good story because it is recorded in the Sutra in the teachings of the Buddha. And it tells about his earlier life. The Buddha had many lives before becoming a fully enlightened Buddha. So it’s during one of his lives, his earlier lives. The story occurs in Beneras.

In one of the forests in Beneras, there lived four animals. It so happened that in that region everything was going on well. There was a good crop, rain falling on time, no calamities, no famine. All the people, they were happy.

And then the king was very curious, because surrounding his province there were a lot of problems going on – a drought and so on. So he was really surprised why in his province, why that it’s so peaceful and everything’s going well. And then he took the help of astrologers, who can do predictions. So he found that all these good things, they were because of these four animal friends living upstream of Sumalti province.

And it so happened that in that particular forest, there  

were four friends – a bird, a rabbit, a monkey and an elephant. So these four friends, they were living in harmony and they respected each other very much. So because of the respect to each other, and because of their friendship – this bond of friendship, this created this brought all these good things to the province.

One day, those four animals came together and began to tell their own stories to see who is more wise and older. So it happened that they had a big tree. The elephant said that he could remember when the tree was his height – at one time was his height. So then the monkey said oh then I must be senior to you, because I could remember when I was small the tree was so small that I could hop over the tree. I could go over the tree. And then the rabbit said oh in that case I must be elder to you too, because when the tree was just sprouting out from the ground a small tree, I gave the manure. And so because of my manure, it grew into a big tree so fast. And so the bird said, in that case I am much, much wiser and elder to you all, because I was the one who brought the seed from a different place.

So size wise, strength wise, the bird is just a small one and the elephant is too powerful big. But they respect each other. They found that the bird was the eldest, the wisest and then so on. So, in spite of the strength, in spite of the size, they respect the elder, and they began to develop a very good friendship. So because of that power of friendship, and the respect to each other, all the surrounding areas in the province had experienced this sudden good atmosphere.

It’s written in the Sutra that these four friends were the Buddha himself and his three attendants. In our language, we call it Kyngao and then Shalipou – three of his main attendants. The Karma, or the law of cause and effect, is such that in those millions of years, maybe before they were born together in the same place and even when he became Buddha in India, they were his attendants. So this is what you call the law of Karma in Bhuddhism.

Noonan: When we see pictures of the four friends they are standing on each other.

So, that is the artistic version – also, to emphasize that the bird is the wisest, the eldest, sitting on the highest place over the other friends.

Noonan: It looks like they are using each other to reach the fruit. Is that not in the Sutra?

No. Nothing to do with that.

Noonan: So, it is not like they are cooperating to get this fruit. That’s not the story that is in the Sutra?

No. That is not the story. In the Sutra, it is not mentioned. In the Sutra, only their life – how the Buddha has acquired all these merits, even when he was born as an animal. At the time he was not a human being, but he was animal – he was taking the body of animal – but even then, he was acquiring these merits.

Noonan: Do some people tell the story of the four friends cooperating to get the fruit? Do some people change the story?

People can. They see the art in the painting and then they tell it that way. In other words, maybe to explain something differently. It is not that they are lying. It is just that we are using this as a kind of example, a kind of metaphor, to explain something. So maybe the fruit – you can presume it as enlightenment, or the ultimate goal. And then, since Buddha got enlightenment before his friends, you could take that also. But it is not in the sutra.

Noonan: You have done a very good job explaining. Thank you so much.

Noonan: I guess I have one last question if you don’t mind. In order to prepare us to teach young people back in the United States, can you teach us anything about how Bhutanese people look at nature or how nature and people are related in Bhutan?

Everything has to be born from nature. It has to take birth from nature. And we have been knowledged from nature. So the relationship between nature and you becomes like a mother and child. And then as a practitioner, if you want to get enlightened, we need nature. It’s associated. When we say enlightenment, it means seeing the completion the wisdom side of your mind. Enlightened doesn’t mean that we are reaching somewhere different. It just means seeing the wisdom side of your mind. And that can be achieved only through the paths that nature takes – you know, the place.

In many textbooks, we find that Buddha was born under a tree, he was preaching under a tree, he died under a tree. That signifies how much this Buddhism is attached to nature. And then, in all his teachings, he emphasizes the importance of nature. So here nature doesn’t mean just the environment. Environment and all the other living things which reside in that environment also.

Noonan: You are a wonderful teacher. Thank you so very much for meeting with us.


Content provided by Canisius College students under the direction of Michael Noonan, PhD.