This story perfectly demonstrates harmony, interdependence, co-operation and friendship between four animals who become close friends. I first heard it on a PBS show on Bhutan and it really impressed me. In Bhutan, the story gives a national identity for people to live in harmony with nature, for people to co-operate with each other even with cultural differences, and for families to work together. A conservation ethic has arisen based on it that influences Bhutan’s national policies.
The story is a familiar Tibetan motif derived from the Jataka tales of Buddha’s former lives
In terms of a symbol understanding of this beautiful allegory: The elephant represents our body, the monkey represents the restless mind, the rabbit represents emotions, and the bird is the soul. Here is the story adapted from Buddhist Channel:
Once in a forest in Varanasi, four animals: An elephant, a rabbit, a monkey, and a partridge disputed about the ownership of a tree where all of them had fed. The elephant claimed, “Well, this is my tree because I saw it first.”
To this the monkey replied: “Now, elephant do you see any fruits on this tree?”
The elephant agreed that the tree was without any fruit.
The monkey continued: “That’s because I had been feeding on the fruits of the tree long before you ever saw it.”
Next the rabbit spoke up: “I fed on the leaves of this tree when it was just a small sapling before the monkey ate its fruit and way before the elephant ever saw it.”
Finally the partridge who had been watching the argument, came forward and asserted: “The tree belongs to me because the tree wouldn’t have grown if I hadn’t spit it out as a seed. I helped plant the seed that grew into this huge tree before the rabbit fed on it, or the monkey ate its fruit, or the elephant saw it.”
The elephant, monkey, and rabbit, conceded that the partridge was the first to know the tree. So all of bowed to the partridge and regarded it as their elder brother.
The four animals became friends and decided to share the tree together in peaceful harmony, enjoying the beauty of the tree’s fragrance, the nourishment of its fruits, and the bounty of its shade. They worked together to obtain fruits: The fruits on the ground and on the lowest branches, the partridge and rabbit found by working together. The monkey climbed the tree and dropped the fruits for everyone to share but only the elephant could reach the highest branches with his trunk. The four animals worked co-operatively and with their combined strength, each one benefited and no one went hungry.
Other animals in the forest often saw them together with the partridge on top of the rabbit who was held up by the monkey who rode on top of the elephant. Since then, they were called “The Four Harmonious Brothers.” The four animals were looked upon as an example of peace, harmony, co-operation, interdependence and friendship.