The Buddha shared this story to the children several thousand of years ago. This story is an edited excerpt from Old Path, White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh.
Buddha took birth or the form of earth, plants, humans, birds and many other animals for many thousand years prior to his present birth as human.
It’s the story of heron, a crab, a plumeria tree, and many small shrimp and fish. Here, the heron was a wicked and deceitful creature who caused death and suffering to many other beings. The heron made suffering to the plumeria tree too, Buddha was the plumeria tree. He learned from the incidence – if you deceive and harm others, in turn, you will be deceived and harmed.
Buddha was the plumeria tree growing close to a fragrant, cool lotus pond. No fish dwelled in that pond but not far from that pond was a shallow and stagnant pond in which many fish and shrimp and a crab lived. A heron flying overhead upon seeing the crowded situation of the fish and shrimp devised a plan. Hence, he landed at the edge of their pond and stood there with a long, sad face.
The fish and shrimp asked “Mister Heron, what are you thinking about so seriously?” Heron replied “I’m thinking about your poor lot in life. Your pond is muddy and foul. You lack adequate food. I feel terrible pity for your hard lives.” The small creatures asked heron if he could be of any help.
Heron said “Well, if you allow me to carry each one of you over to the lotus pond not so far from here, I could release you in the cool waters there. There is plenty to eat over there.”
“We would like to believe you Mister Heron, but we have never heard that herons care anything about the lot of fish or shrimp. Perhaps you only want to trick us in order to eat us up.”
“Why are you so suspicious? You should think of me as a kind uncle. I have no reason to deceive you. There really is a large lotus pond not far from here filled with plenty of fresh, cool water. If you don’t believe me, let me fly one of you over there to see for himself. Then I’ll fly him back to tell you whether or not I’m telling the truth.”
The shrimp and fish discussed the matter at some length before at last agreeing to allow one of the elder fish to go with the heron. The fish was tough and bristly, his scales as hard as stones. He was a swift swimmer who could also maneuver well on sand. The heron picked him up in his beak and flew him to the lotus pond. He released the old fish into the cool waters and let him explore every nook and cranny of the pond. The pond was indeed spacious, cool, refreshing, and a plentiful source of food. When the heron returned him to the old pond, the fish reported all he had seen.
Convinced of the heron’s good intentions, the shrimp and fish begged him to fly them to the pond one by one. The crafty heron agreed. He picked up a fish in his beak and flew off. But this time, instead of releasing the fish into the pond, he landed near the plumeria tree. He placed the fish in a fork of the tree and ripped off its flesh with his beak. He tossed its bones by the foot of the plumeria tree.
Buddha was that plumeria and he witnessed this entire taking place. He was enraged, but there was nothing he could do to stop the heron. A plumeria’s roots are firmly anchored in the earth. There was is nothing a plumeria can do but grow branches, leaves, and flowers. He cannot run anywhere. He could not call out and warn the shrimp and the fish about what was really happening. He could not even stretch his branches to prevent the heron from eating the helpless creatures. He could only witness the horrible scene. Every time the heron brought a fish in his beak and began to tear at its flesh, he was filled with pain. He felt as though his sap would dry up and his branches break. Drops of moisture like tears collected on his bark. The heron did not notice. Over a number of days, he continued to bring the fish over to devour them. When all the fish were gone, he began to eat the shrimp. The pile of bones and shells that piled up by his roots could have filled two large baskets.
He knew that as a plumeria tree his job was to beautify the forest with his fragrant flowers. But at that moment he suffered terribly from not being able to do anything to save the shrimp and fish. If he had been deer or a person he could have done something. But anchored by his roots to the ground, he could not move. He vowed that if he was reborn as an animal or a human in a future life, he would devote all his efforts to protect the weak and helpless from the strong and powerful.
When the heron had devoured all the shrimp and fish, only the crab remained. Still hungry, the heron said to the crab, “Nephew, I have carried all the fish and shrimp to the lotus pond where they now live happily. You are all alone here now. Let me take you to the new pond, too.”
“How will you carry me?” asked the crab.
“In my beak, just as I carried all the others.”
“What if I slipped out and fell? My shell would shatter into a hundred pieces.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll carry you with utmost care.”
The crab thought carefully. Perhaps the heron had kept his word and truly carried all the shrimp and fish to the lotus pond. But what if he had deceived them and eaten them all? The crab devised a plan to insure his own safety. He said to the heron, “Uncle, I’m afraid your beak is not strong enough to hold me securely. Let me wrap my claws around your neck to hold on while you fly.”
The heron agreed. He waited for the crab to crawl onto his neck and then he spread his wings and flew into the air. But instead of carrying the crab to the lotus pond, he landed by the plumeria tree.
“Uncle, why don’t you put me down by the lotus pond? Why did we land here instead?”
“What heron would be so stupid as to carry a bunch of fish to a lotus pond? I am no benefactor, nephew. Do you see all those fish bones and shrimp shells at the foot of the plumeria? This is where your life will end, as well.”
“Uncle, the fish and shrimp may have been easily fooled, but you can’t trick me so easily. Take me to the lotus pond at once or I will cut you off your head with my claws.”
The crab began to dig his sharp claws into the heron’s neck. Seized by sharp pain, the heron cried out, “Don’t squeeze so hard! I’ll take you to the lotus pond right this minute! I promise I won’t try to eat you!”
The heron flew to the lotus pond where it intended to let the crab down by the water’s edge. But the crab did not release its hold on the heron’s neck. Thinking about all the fish and shrimp so cruelly deceived by the heron, the crab dug his claw deeper and deeper into the heron’s neck until he cut right through it. The heron dropped down dead and the crab crawled into the pond.