Tell Me a Story by Amy Friedman and Meredith Johnson

THE MONKEY KING'S BRIDGE (a Buddhist tale)

Long ago, in a quiet bamboo forest, hundreds of monkeys lived in peace. They had a king who, like the most virtuous, took great care of his tribe.

The monkeys lived on the mangoes that grew in abundance in their forest, but the Monkey King understood they faced dangers from those who might envy their treasures. "Take care," he warned the monkeys, "not to let our fruit fall into the river."

The monkeys took care to pick every mango that grew on the branches overhanging the river, but one day they happened to miss one piece of fruit hidden behind a bird's nest.

After a while, that hidden mango ripened, its stalk grew heavy, and it dropped into the river and floated downstream.

A group of women bathing in the river suddenly smelled a most enchanting scent, and when they discovered the floating fruit, they longed to taste it. They knew, though, that they must take this new discovery to their king.

When the king saw and smelled the mango, he too was curious. He wanted to taste the fruit, but first he called his physician to examine it. And when the doctor announced the mango fit to eat, the king commanded his servants to taste it first. You see, the human king, unlike the Monkey King, worried first about himself.

When at last the servants had proved the mango to be safe, the king took a bite. "That is the best thing I have ever tasted," the king said. "We must find the source of this delicacy."

And so the king led his army to search for more mangoes.

As the army moved upriver, they entered the forest, where they had never traveled. Here they discovered astonishing beauty; they heard sounds they had never before heard and saw herds of roaming elephants and gentle deer living in peace.

When the expedition suddenly smelled that glorious scent, they knew the mango trees were near.

"Look," they cried, staring up into the fruit-filled trees. That's when they spotted hundreds of monkeys.

And those monkeys were eating mangos.

"They're stealing my fruit," the king cried. "Destroy them!"

Many of the king's men carried bows, and onto these they nocked their arrows. Others picked up stones and sticks to hurl. When the monkeys heard the angry shouts and saw what was about to happen, they shrieked in terror. "What shall we do?" they cried, turning their faces to look helplessly up at their leader.

Now the Monkey King's heart swelled with compassion. Free of sadness and free of fear, he knew it was up to him to rescue them. But how?

Quickly the Monkey King clambered to the top of the tallest tree, and he looked to the rocky cliff across the river.

No monkey could jump the entire width of the river, or so it seemed. But the Monkey King leaped, and in a single, astonishing bound he did the impossible. Poised atop the cliff, he looked around and discovered a deeply rooted vine. Without hesitation, he fastened one end of that vine to his leg, and he leaped back to the forest. But as he clutched a branch, he found that the vine was not long enough to tie to the tree. His leg held by the vine, now his body created a bridge between forest and mountain. The Monkey King gave his tribe a sign, instructing them to cross the bridge made by his body.

The terrified monkeys raced across their king's body.

Despite the many feet treading upon his body, the Monkey King held fast. His body grew weak and bruised and battered, but his mind stayed firm, and one by one the monkeys dashed to safety.

The human king stared in wonder. "How can he offer so much?" he asked aloud, and when the last of the monkeys had crossed, the king ordered his men to create a canopy of leaves beneath the Monkey King. "Now," the king commanded, "shoot the vine that holds his foot."

The men did as their king ordered, and the Monkey King fell into the bed of leaves. There he lay, unconscious and near death. "Carry him to the palace," the human king commanded his men.

The Monkey King woke after many days, and when he did, he saw the human king, who had waited patiently at his side.

"How could you give so much?" he asked the Monkey King.

The Monkey King smiled. "I am bound by affection for my tribe," he said. "Our friendly feelings have grown over time. Living together has only strengthened our bond."

Still the king was puzzled "Isn't it their responsibility to serve their king?" he asked. "Not the other way around?"

The Monkey King shook his head. "That is only legend," he answered. "The truth is, seeing my loved ones in danger filled me with so much sorrow, I could not think of selfish interests. And seeing them safe and calm fills me with joy and peace, no matter what has happened to my body."

When the king heard this, he understood he had much to learn from the Monkey King. From that day on, he vowed always to help his own people, no matter the cost to himself. And he ordered that the monkeys of the bamboo forest be protected forever. That, he understood, was wisdom and goodness.

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