Once upon a time, when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta was born in a village as a potter’s son. He plied the potter’s trade, and had a wife and family to support.
At that time there lay a great natural lake close by the great river of Benares. When there was much water, river and lake were one; but when the water was low, they were apart. Now fish and tortoises know by instinct when the year will be rainy and when there will be a drought.
So at the time of our story the fish and tortoises which lived in that lake knew there would be a drought; and when the two were one water, they swam out of the lake into the river. But there was one tortoise that would not go into the river, because, said he, “here I was born, and here I have grown up, and here is my parents’ home. Leave it I cannot!”
Then in the hot season the water all dried up. He dug a hole and buried himself, just in the place where the Bodhisatta was used to come for clay. There the Bodhisatta came to get some clay. With a big spade he dug down, until he cracked the tortoise’s shell, turning him out on the ground as though he were a large piece of clay. In his agony the creature thought, “Here I am, dying, all because I was too fond of my home to leave it!” And in the words of these following verses, he made his moan:
Here was I born, and here I lived; my refuge was the clay;
And now the clay has played me false in a most grievous way;
Thee, thee I call, oh Bhaggava; hear what I have to say!
Go where thou canst find happiness, where’er the place may be;
Forest or village, there the wise both home and birthplace see;
Go where there’s life; nor stay at home for death to master thee.
So he went on and on, talking to the Bodhisatta, until he died. The Bodhisatta picked him up, and collecting all the villagers addressed them thus: “Look at this tortoise. When the other fish and tortoises went into the great river, he was too fond of home to go with them and buried himself in the place where I get my clay. Then as I was digging for clay, I broke his shell with my big spade, and turned him out on the ground in the belief that he was a large lump of clay. Then he called to mind what he had done, lamented his fate in two verses of poetry, and expired.
So you see he came to his end because he was too fond of his home. Take care not to be like this tortoise. Don’t say to yourselves, ‘I have sight, I have heard, I have a smell, I have taste, I have touch, I have a son, I have a daughter, I have numbers of men and maids for my service, I have precious gold.’ Do not cleave to these things with craving and desire. Each passing through three stages of existence.”
Thus did he exhort the crowd with all a Buddha’s skill. The discourse was bruited abroad all over India, and for full seven thousand years it was remembered. All the crowd abode by his exhortation, and gave alms, and did good until at last they went to swell the hosts of heaven.