Three Princes

The essence of Buddhism is self-examination. The only way to overcome the ignorance that leads to our suffering is to acknowledge our faults. The following story, presented to a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist minister and his reaction to it, exemplifies this understanding of self.

Three princes are on a journey thru the forest when they come upon a tiger and her cubs. Prey being scarce, and the need to attend to her cubs, has brought the tiger to the brink of starvation. Seeing this, the first prince says, “The tiger is weak. We can kill her for her fur and sell her cubs.”

The second prince replies,” No, we must show compassion. Let us gather all our provisions and give them to the tiger. We shall experience some hunger so that she may survive.” Saying this, he gathers their food and gives it to the tiger. She regains some strength, yet her hunger continues.

The third prince remains deeply moved. A greater sacrifice is called for to save the tiger and her cubs. He draws his sword and cuts off his arm. He feeds this to the tiger. The tiger quickly regains her full strength and attacks the three princes. The first two are able to escape, but the third, weakened by his loss of blood is caught by the tiger and devoured.

The storyteller now asked the minister, “Who in this story do you most closely resemble?” The minister thought for a few moments and then replied, “The tiger.” Why did he answer this way?

Most followers of the Buddhadharma like to think of themselves as compassionate beings. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that any would think they are like the first prince. The vast majority would say they are like the second prince, willing too make a compassionate sacrifice to aid another sentient being. Very few would say they are like the third prince, and if they did, it probably is their ego talking. The minister, being truthful, said he was like the tiger. Why is he like the tiger?

True self-examination led the minister to the understanding that he too had encountered the three princes. Throughout his life, the interventions of others spared him from suffering. The beneficial results of the actions of others filled his life. He had been the recipient of compassion both large and small, yet he never fully appreciated that which he received. Like the tiger, he consumed the compassion of others, and all which life provided, without expressing an equal measure of gratitude.

The question for us becomes, whom do we resemble? Modern pop-psychology tells us to look for the good things about ourselves. I’m OK, you’re OK. If this is actually true, why is there so much suffering in this world? The Buddhadharma tells us that we have the potential to become an awakened being, just like Shakyamuni Buddha. However, until we confront the truth of our ignorance, and face those aspects that keep us in the constant cycle of suffering, we will never move beyond our suffering. We must admit the tiger in us.