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Rabbit on the Moon

The Jataka Tales

Look up at the moon and what do you see? Chandras, god of the moon, carrying a hare. In Sanskrit the moon is known as Sasanka which translates “having the marks of a hare,” and Hindus tell a tale of their god Sakkria who took the hare in his arms to the moon. The Grimms offered a slightly different version of the tale, derived from Ceylon via a tale teller from France; in their version a hare guides Buddha through the wilderness. The mythological Chinese moon, Jutho, is a beautiful young woman with a double sphere behind her head and a rabbit at her feet, while the Mongolians see a hare in the moon’s shadows. During the Han dynasty in China, scholars asserted that a hare lived on the surface of the moon, and a later Taoist fable told the tale of this creature, calling it a gemmeous, creator of the elixir of life. The original, most scholars say, was Indian. Another tale tells of a cassia tree that grows in the moon, the sal tree, and this tree was one of the sacred Buddhist trees, especially visible in mid-autumn, like the tree on the moon.

The myth of the hare in the moon traveled to South Africa as well; there the Hottentots tell a fable in which the moon sends a hare to earth to tell people the moon has died and risen again just as human beings shall. But the hare, either forgetful or malicious, gives the wrong message and instead tells people that the moon has died and gone away, and that’s what shall happen to human beings. When the hare relates to the moon what he’s said, the moon becomes so angry she takes up a hatchet to split the hare’s head, but the hatchet falls only upon hare's upper lip, the origins of the hare-lip. In retaliation, the hare raises his claws and scratches the moon’s face, leaving those dark spots we sometimes see on the moon.

The Tezcucans of Mexico tell a tale of the sun and moon starting out equally bright until one of the gods took a rabbit by its heels and slung it into the face of the moon to dim its light; that, they say, is the blotch on the moon we see to this day and the reason the moon is not nearly so bright as the sun.

Tales travel far and wide, to nearly every land, and as one proverb has it—somnus leporinus--the moon is the watcher of the sky who sleeps with her eyes open, just like the hare.

Of course others see different images on the moon. Some say there’s a man, and the Salish Indians of the Northwestern United States see the toad who was chased there by a little wolf who loved her. The Chinese see frogs on the moon, too, and some say the famed Lady Chang-ngo lives on the moon. Reportedly she drank the liquor of immortality and acended to the moon where she was transformed into a toad.

But this story of the rabbit on the moon derives originally from the Jataka Tales, a collection of more than 500 anecdotes and fables that depict many incarnations of the Bodhisatta as he transformed into a Buddha. The collection came to be understood in many different languages and the tales were and continue to be told in many different ways—almost as various as the various images people have seen on the moon. Boccaccio and Poggio transformed Jataka tales into merry tales and some Welsh bards used them to embellish stories of King Arthur. Even Chaucer used a Jataka story, placing it into the mouth of his Pardoner.

Like the Indian tales of the Panchantantra, the Jataka tales are very old, traditionally passed from one generation to another to serve as sources of moral behavior. The word Jataka is a Pali word which refers to the stories believed to be told by the Buddha to illustrate certain moral points in his sermons, and later, when his disciples recorded them in the collection of Buddhist teachings, the lives of some of Buddha's followers were included. In Thailand and Laos, the Jataka tales vary somewhat, and the number of tales varies too.

On occasion some confusion exists about just what stories are original Jataka tales and which collections contain local folktales and tales from Egypt and Persia. No matter the source, scholars agree that Jataka tales were meant to teach lessons. The Buddha was considered one of the world’s greatest teachers and once described his teaching methodology as being like the four stages of lotus flower, his approach to teaching dependent on the level of intelligence of the pupil.

That is why these stories resonate for people of every age, in every place.

Classroom exercises

What do you see on the moon?

To understand the ways in which stories are transmitted and transmuted, try playing telephone. The first student whispers to the next, "I see _____ on the moon," and on the message travels until it reaches the last person in the circle.

Have students draw a picture of the image they heard (and/or see on the moon), and share the many different images.

What other images do you see in the sky? What stories do you imagine when you see those images?


Some of the following sources will surely delight readers. Who doesn’t need to learn and relearn life’s lessons?

The Golden Foot, adapted by Karen Stone, illustrated by Rosalyn White, Dharma Pub, 1993 (Golden Foot is just one of the series of the Jataka Tales published by Dharma Publishers. Among these are Heart of Gold, The Spade Sage, A Precious Life, Three Wise Birds, Courageous Captain, The Best of Friends, The King and the Goat, The Hunter and the Quail, The Parrot and the Fig Tree, The Proud Peacock and the Mallard, Great Gift and the Wish-Fulfilling Gem, A King, a Hunter, and a Golden Goose, The Rabbit Who Overcame Fear, The King and the Mangoes, The Value of Friends, The Rabbit in the Moon, The Power of a Promise, The Magic of Patience, The Fish King's Power of Truth.

A Treasury of Wise Action: Jataka Tales of Compassion and Wisdom. Berkeley, CA : Dharma Publishing, 1993.

Ellen C. Babbit’s, Jataka Tales; Animal Stories, illustrations by Ellsworth Young. New York, Appleton-Century, 1912, and Babbit’s More Jataka Tales published in 1922. Jones, John Garrett. Tales and teachings of the Buddha : the Jataka Stories in Relation to the Pali Canon, G. Allen & Unwin, 1979.