Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Is A Sheep As Good As A Lamb?

A popular story in the life of the Buddha and retold in Arnold's famous poem concerns the Buddha and the injured lamb. The Buddha came across a shepherd driving a flock of sheep along a road. Trailing behind the rest of the flock was a lamb with an injured foot. The Buddha picked it up and then asked the shepherd where he was taking the animals, and he replied that he was taking them to Rajagaha for a great sacrifice which King Bimbisara was holding. The Buddha carried the lamb all the way to Rajagaha, met the king, preached to him about the futility of sacrifices, the sanctity of life and the importance of kindness to all being, and the king cancelled the sacrifice.
The story is a popular one, especially in Sri Lanka, where it is often depicted on Vesaka cards and occasionally even appears in temple wall paintings. I have heard it being taught in Buddhist Sunday schools and once I attended a kids' art competition where the winning painting was of the Buddha holding a lamb. Certainly it’s a lovely story and the image of a holy person, any holy person, tenderly holding an animals is a particularly poignant one. The question is 'Where does this story come from?' Well, despite pretty much having been incorporated into the Buddha's biography, the earliest version of the story comes from…The Light of Asia. It is an invention of Sir Edwin Arnold. And where did he get it from? Who knows! But I would suspect that when he created it he was very much influenced by the Christian idea of the 'good shepherd' and those popular images of Jesus holding a lamb. That he should graft a Christian concept/image onto a Buddhist narrative to make it more familiar to a Western readership, was very skillful of him. Less laudable is the fact that many traditional Buddhists know so little of their own sacred scriptures that they actually think something written by an Englishmen in just 130 years ago is from those sacred scriptures.
If you would like to read The Light of Asia have a look at

I am very happy to inform you that the whole of my book A Guide to Buddhism A to Z is now on the internet in Serbo-Croatian due to the diligence and dedication of my friend Branko. Please have a look at The English is available at Anyone want to do it in Hindi, French, Finnish, Spanish or Swahili?


Vasile Andreica said...

Bhante, what would be in your opinion the causes of the lack of knowledge about scriptures in the Buddhist countries and what could be done about that? Is the monastic Sangha not quite doing its job of spreading and keeping the Dhamma with accuracy?

Arun said...

Thank you for this. I haven't heard this story myself, but on a similar note, I've often found recently that I can't find Pali references to stories that I heard and took as the truth when I was younger. When we're children, we don't discern between Canon stories and latter day parables. I suppose the moral we can take from this is, "Be careful what you teach your children!"

bluemoon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bluemoon said...

Reposted due to a previous text formatting error:

"Less laudable is the fact that many traditional Buddhists know so little of their own sacred scriptures that they actually think something written by an Englishmen in just 130 years ago is from those sacred scriptures."Hmm, I find this a very peculiar statement. If I had to check the authenticity of everything I read, then I'd have to begin with your post, and verify that you hadn't made this whole thing up! ;)

I mean, how do you yourself know for sure that Sir Edwin Arnold composed the story ... how could you ever verify this as irrefutable fact? After all, even his nearest and dearest wouldn't necessarily know for sure that he hadn't covertly plagiarised the whole thing!

My point is, it does not seem "less laudable" at all that Buddhists may be oblivious to such details ... rather, it is inevitable and to be expected.

OK then,
All The Best!

Ken and Visakha said...

I'd never heard this particular story before but the important point is that the Buddha, and before him the Bodhisatta, condemned animal sacrifices, something that, to my knowledge, neither Jesus nor any other major religious figure, did.

It's amusing, in its way, that Jesus is supposed to have picked up a little lamb, yet to drive a herd of swine over a cliff to their death. Maybe Jesus' compassion was species specific?

With metta,

Walter said...

One might easily fall into the trap of treating Buddhist scriptures the way Christians treat theirs. The Bible is supposed to be divinely inspired but the Buddhist suttas/sutras are recorded by humans only, and the Buddha was never "God". We have heard of monks using the thick tomes of scriptures as very convenient door-stops. But before we start tossing the scriptures around, we had better understand the contents first... :)

Jay said...