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