Long, long ago, in the far distant past, the Bodhisatta was born as a swan.1 He grew up to become the leader of a great flock of swans. They were known as the Dhatarattha clan. Their feathers were the color of morning sunlight on a mountain lake—golden and gleaming. They dwelt in a cave, in the Cittakuta mountains, deep in the Himavant, and they were great in number: ninety-thousand golden swans.
Part One: The Queen Has a Dream
Far below, in the city of Varanasi, King Seyyassa ruled the kingdom. One night, the king’s chief consort, whose name was Khema, had a dream. Swans with feathers the color of gold entered by the palace window and alighted on the king’s sofa.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven!
Seven golden swans.
They settled themselves and began a discussion on the topic of truthfulness. Queen Khema could understand every word.
“Consider this,” said one of the swans. He was larger than the others, with bright, intelligent eyes. Was he perhaps the swans’ leader, or their teacher? “Is it possible to be truthful everywhere and at all times?”
The swans jumped in with their ideas.
“Never tell a single lie!” said one. “One lie always leads to another.”
“But,” said a second swan. “What if a life is at stake? What if telling a lie is the only course of action possible to save a life?”
“Indeed,” said a third swan. “Or it may be necessary to avoid causing harm. Harsh words cause a great deal of pain. Better to say, ‘your feathers look lovely,’ than to tell the truth.”
“No!” said a fourth swan. “That’s no reason to tell a lie. If you only tell a lie to flatter another, it would be better to keep your big beak shut!”
So their conversation continued.
In her dream, Queen Khema listened, enchanted and amazed. As night turned to day and the sky began to brighten, the swans fell silent. One by one, they opened their wings and set forth through the window. The Queen, in her sleep, murmured in delight. She lay there, entranced. But then a great longing overcame her. She wanted to hear more from the golden swans. And because she was the chief queen, and used to giving orders, she called out, “Seize them! Seize the swans! Bring your nets! Catch those swans before they fly away!”
And stretching out her arm, she awoke.
Her handmaidens stood hovering at her bedside, waiting for her to wake up. They were laughing softly.
“Where are the swans, Devi?” they asked.
At once, Queen Khema understood: There were no swans. She had been dreaming.
As she rose from the bed, she thought to herself, “What I saw in my dream must be real. In this world, there must be gold-colored swans such as these. How shall I find them? How shall I hear them again?”
She pondered: “If I were to say to the king, ‘I wish to hear the teaching of the golden swans,’ I know very well he would say, ‘My dear, I have never seen a golden swan, let alone, one that teaches anything. There is no such thing.’ ”
As her maidens dressed her, she continued her pondering: “One thing is certain: The king knows that a woman may have many strange cravings when she is with child.”
She thought for a moment and placed her hands on her belly. “I will tell him I am with child.”
She made a show of being unwell.
She lay down.
She refused to eat.
The king came to her chambers. He sat down beside her and gently stroked her, asking, “Are you ill, my dear?”
“Your Majesty,” she replied, sitting up. “I am not ill. It is just that a longing has arisen. It is simply the foolish craving of a woman with child.”
“Speak, my queen,” replied the king. “Tell me what you wish and I shall present it to you.”
“Very well,” she said. “I shall tell you. This is what I long for: I wish to perform a ceremony….”
The king nodded. This was not difficult. The queen was always performing ceremonies.
“With all manner of scents and flower garlands….” He nodded again. Garlands were everywhere. He could easily obtain for her the most beautiful garlands.
“And then….” The queen paused and took a breath. “I wish to hear a discourse from a certain golden swan, seated on the king’s sofa under a white parasol.”
The king frowned. A discourse from a golden swan? How would he find such a thing?
“If I receive this,” said the queen, “all will be well. But if I do not, I shall surely die.”
The king was alarmed, but he assured her, “If there is such a thing in this world of humans, you shall have it. Do not worry.”
Part Two: The King Devises a Plan
King Seyyassa left the queen’s chamber and spoke to his ministers. He told them of Queen Khema’s desire and asked them, “Is there such a thing as a golden swan who gives teachings?” His advisors had never seen nor heard of swans such as these, but advised him to ask the brahmins.
Brahmins were sent for.
The brahmins said: “Yes, indeed, Your Majesty. According to tradition, there are seven wise creatures, gold-colored, who are endowed with knowledge. These are fish, crabs, deer, turtle, peacocks, and swans. The swans are members of the clan of Dhatarattha.”
The king was pleased. Perhaps it would not be so difficult to fulfill the wishes of Queen Khema. He inquired further, asking where these swans made their home. When the brahmins could not give an answer, all the hunters of the realm were assembled and the question put to them.
One hunter spoke up: “Truly, your majesty, they say there is such a flock of golden swans in the mountains of Cittakuta.”
“Do you know how they may be caught?”
“Yes,” replied one of the brahmins. “It is very simple. The way to catch them is to draw them close to the city. These swans are no different from other wild birds. They must eat to live, and they must be wary of danger in order to survive.
“Here is what you must do: To the north of the city, have your men dig a lake. Make it a refuge, a place of calm and safety. Call it Lake Serene—Khemam Saram. When it is filled with water, plant many kinds of grains by the shore. Plant the lake itself with five kinds of lotus. Choose one clever hunter to make these shores his home, but do not allow any other men to come. Let this hunter proclaim this as a place of safety and freedom from fear. When they have heard this, when they see the ripening grain, various birds of all kinds will descend. So, too, will the swans. When they know of the existence of this lake of calm and peace, one after the other, they will come. Then you may seize one or more of them by catching them in snares.”
The king followed the brahmin’s advice.
To the north of the city, a lake was dug. Mountain streams were diverted and soon the lake filled with water. Grain was planted along the shore. Clusters of lotus, with their wide green leaves, were soon established. Before long, the lake had become a place of great beauty.
The king summoned the hunter Khemaka.
“From now on,” he said, “your wife and family will be provided for. Your duties are simple: keep men away from the lake, and every day, as you walk the perimeter, proclaim this region as a refuge and place of safety. You must report to me the kinds of birds that visit, and when the golden swans have come you will receive a great reward.”
And so the king dedicated the lake as a refuge.
Every day, the hunter walked the circumference of the lake, proclaiming, “This lake is a place of safety! Khemam saram. Lake Serene is free from danger! Khemam saram nibbhayam.”
Part Three: The Birds Come to the Lake
Many kinds of geese and other water-birds came one after the other. Many swans came as well. They cried out in delight as they landed in the shallows. Climbing onto the shores, they fed on the ripe grain growing in abundance. There were white swans and grey swans, red swans and yellow swans, and even black swans.
The hunter Khemaka returned to Varanasi and reported to the king, “At least five different kinds of swans have come to the lake, Your Majesty. Now, it is only a matter of time. Do not worry. In a few days, the golden swans will follow. I am certain of it.”
The king had his drummer proclaim by beat of drum: “Lake Serene is not to be approached by anyone. Whoever goes there and is caught shall have their hands and feet cut off.”
Now, near the mountain known as Cittakuta there were swans living in a golden cave, the Paka swans. Their bodies were strong, like the swans of the Dhatarattha clan, who were their kinsmen by marriage. One day, the young swans who belonged to the clan of the Bodhisatta asked their kinsmen, “Where do you go to feed these days?”
“We feed on the shores of Lake Serene,” they answered. “Why don’t you join us? All kinds of birds come there. And no wonder! The place is like a dream. Grain grows by the shore, bees are buzzing about…. Best of all, it is the safest place in the world. Every day, we hear it proclaimed as free from danger.”
And in this way they praised Lake Serene.
The young swans went to the swan named Sumukha, who was the Bodhisatta’s captain. They expressed their desire to visit this marvelous lake.
Sumukha informed the Bodhisatta, king of the swans. The Swan-King reflected, “Men are clever and full of deceit. There is only one reason why they have created this lake where there was no lake before. It must have been done for the sole purpose of catching us.”
He said to Sumukha: “Let us keep to our own feeding grounds.”
But the young swans wanted to go, and a second time they addressed Sumukha saying, “We want to go to Lake Serene.”
Again Sumukha went to the Bodhisatta.
He said, “I shall not deprive my kinsmen of this pleasure. Let us go, let my relatives enjoy….”
That is how it happened. One morning, as the sun was rising, hundreds of golden swans descended over the rim of the mountains with their wings outspread, alighting in the blue waters of Lake Serene. They enjoyed the ripe grain at the shores of the lake, played swan games, and at sunset returned to Mount Cittakuta.
Khemaka, the hunter, had seen them. All day he watched them. Returning to Varanasi, he informed the king of their coming.
The king was delighted.
“Friend Khemaka,” he said, “If you can seize one or two of these swans, I will show you great honor and shower you with wealth.”
He gave him his wage and sent him off.
Part Four: The Hunter Sets a Trap
Khemaka returned to the lake. Before sunrise, he chose a spot where he could not be seen. He watched to see where the golden swans landed to feed.
In the morning light, the golden swans descended over the rim of the mountain and alighted in the lake—a glorious commotion of wings and webbed feet. Everywhere he looked there were swans feeding, swimming here and there, wading ashore and reaching their long necks to taste the stalks of grain growing along the shorelines. They were great in number—how was he to choose which one to catch?
From his hiding-place he watched them.
He noticed one swan who simply browsed at the place where he landed, eating the grain that was near him. The other swans wandered about, choosing this stalk or that.
Khemaka thought to himself, “This swan is free from greed. This is the one I will catch.”
He observed him closely that day and the next, marking his extraordinary beauty: “This creature is the size of a small chariot. His feathers are like burnished gold. His whole body shines like a mass of gold. This must be their king. This is the one I will seize.”
For six days, Khemaka hid himself and watched the movements of the Swan-King.
He saw that he always landed in the same place at the western edge of the lake. The other swans came skidding in beside him and then climbed on shore, feeding and playing before they flew home.
On the seventh day, when the swans had left the lake, Khemaka took a bundle of black horsehair he had brought with him from the city. He twisted it to make a stout rope and from this he fashioned a snare, which he attached to a long stick. Knowing exactly where the Swan-King would alight the next day, he set the stick at that spot in the shallow water at the shore of the lake, and fastened the snare to its base.
Part Five: The Swan-King is Caught
The next day, as the Swan-King landed in the shallow water, near the western shores of Lake Serene, his right foot slipped into the snare, which tightened about his leg the more he pulled at it. It held him fast, as if it were a band of iron.
The Bodhisatta dragged at the snare and reaching down into the water, struck at it with his mighty beak. First, his gold-colored skin was bruised, then his flesh, then the sinew was severed. His foot would have broken, but he ceased to struggle, for he knew that a maimed body would not be fitting for a king. Next, the pain set in. The Swan-King stifled the urge to cry out, thinking: “If I should utter a cry of alarm, my kinsfolk would be startled. Without feeding properly, they would fly away and being half-starved, they would drop into the water and drown.”
He endured the pain and while the blood flowed from his wound, he bent his head and pretended to feed on the grass nearby. When he looked up and saw that the other swans had finished their meal and were now swimming about and playing in the water, he opened his golden beak and uttered a loud cry to alarm them.
“If other snares are hidden in the lake, let no other swans be caught.”
The swans heard the cry of alarm.
In a moment they had lifted into the air, and beating their wings in fear they flew off. All of them were intent upon making their escape, including Sumukha, whose habit it was to fly alongside the Bodhisatta.
Part Six: A Loyal Friend Returns
As he set forth in flight, Sumukha searched about, and not finding the Great Being in the three main divisions of swans, he turned back, thinking, “Something has happened to the king!”
From above, he saw the limp figure of the Bodhisatta. He alighted in the water and straight-away realized the Swan-King had been caught by a snare, hidden in the waters at the shore of the lake. He began to comfort him.
“Do not be afraid, my king,” he said, “I will do my best to release you.”
The king of the golden swans was thinking, “My flock has all forsaken me. This one alone has returned. Will he, too, forsake me when the hunter comes?” And the thought came to him to test his friend’s loyalty.
“Fly away, Sumukha,” he said. “Noble bird, I entreat you. Go now, quickly, while you are still free.”
But Sumukha, for his part, was thinking, “My king does not know my true nature. I must show him how devoted I am.”
“I am one in heart and soul with you, my king,” he said. “You are my playmate and friend of old. By your side, I will either live or die.”
The Great Being responded, “It is your nature, Sumukha, to do what is right, not to forsake your lord and friend. As I look upon you now, no fear arises in my mind. I know that you will find a way to save me.”
Now the hunter, having seen the swans depart in formation, looked to where he had set the snare. There was the Swan-King, leaning against the stick to which the noose was fastened. His long neck was bent in pain and his wings hung limply at his sides. And beside him swam another swan.
The hunter was overjoyed. Here was not one, but two, of the golden swans!
His first thought was of the honor and reward that would be his. He took a club in hand and quickly approached, wading in to the water to release the trapped swan and take him captive.
But Sumukha opened his wings, lifted into the air, and hovered between the hunter and the Bodhisatta.
In a human voice he said, “What is your name, my friend?”
The hunter answered, “I am called Khemaka, O King of the Golden Swans.”
Sumukha alighted in the water and swam back and forth before the hunter as he spoke:
“Do not imagine, friend Khemaka, that any ordinary bird has been caught in the horse-hair noose you set. This is the chief of an immense flock of swans. He is the Dhatarattha king. Wise and virtuous is he. He ought not to be killed. Listen well to what I say: I will do whatever he was to have done for you. I, too, am gold-colored. For his sake, I will lay down my life. If you are anxious to take his feathers, then take mine. Or, if you would have anything else of his–skin, flesh, sinew, or bone, take it from my body. If you wish to make a tame bird of him, make a tame bird of me. Do not slay him, endowed as he is with great wisdom and boundless compassion.”
Sumukha looked into the eyes of the hunter.
“Khemaka,” he said. “My friend, if you kill this bird, you will never escape from hell.”
Sumukha returned to the side of the Bodhisatta. He stroked the Great Being’s wing with his beak and murmured gentle words of encouragement.
The hunter stood still in amazement. “Here is a simple bird, and yet he can do what is rare for humans: he remains constant in his friendship. What a wise and eloquent creature is this!”
Chills of delight and wonder coursed through his body. He dropped his club and raised his joined hands to his forehead, like one worshiping the sun.
“What is this bird to you?” he asked the swan who swam before him. “Why do you stay by his side, when all the other swans have fled?”
Sumukha answered simply: “He is my king. I am his chief captain, Sumukha. I cannot leave him to his fate, while I am free to fly.”
Khemaka now reflected: “Let the king of Varanasi do what he will with me. I shall make over this captive as a gift to Sumukha. I shall let him go.”
Part Seven: Freedom Bestowed
“I give your lord his freedom,” he said aloud. The hunter approached the Bodhisatta.
Bending the stick, he laid the bird on the mud, then pulled up the stick and removed it from the noose. Then he lifted the wounded swan and carried him from the lake, setting him down on some young kusa grass. Gently, he loosened the snare that bound the swan’s foot.
Great affection for the Dhatarattha king, the Bodhisatta, now sprang up in him. He took some water and washed off the blood, gently, ever so gently, washing it away. Then, by the power of his kindness, nerve was united to nerve, flesh to flesh, and skin to skin and the foot became just as before, no different from the other. The Bodhisatta rested there, his well-being restored.
Upon seeing his king well and whole, all owing to his efforts, Sumukha, in a state of happiness, thought to himself, “This man has rendered us a great service, and we have done nothing for him. If he caught us for the king’s ministers of state and took us to them he would receive a large sum of money. If he caught us for himself, he could sell us and still make a great gain. I will question him.”
Desiring to be of service to the man, he questioned the hunter: “If it was for your own purposes that you set the snare, we gratefully receive the gift of safety. If, however, it was not for yourself alone, but for another that you laid down the snare to catch this swan, by accepting your gift, we have made of you a thief.”
The hunter replied, “I did not catch you for myself.” He told the whole story, from the very beginning, how Queen Khema saw a vision in a dream, how the brahmins advised the king to dig a lake to draw the swans, and how the king promised a great reward if Khemaka were to catch one or two of the golden birds.
Having heard that, Sumukha was thinking, “This hunter has done what is difficult to do, without regard for his own livelihood. If we return to Cittakuta, we would be safe. But the queen would not obtain her desired object, the king would not be established in the five precepts, the hunter would not receive great glory, this act of friendship would not be revealed, and the splendor of the wisdom of the Dhatarattha king would not be known.”
Part Eight: Freedom Refused
Sumukha said, “Friend, you cannot let us go. Present us to the king. He will do with us as he wills.”
The hunter disagreed. “You do not wish to see the king. Kings are dangerous. He would make tame birds of you, or put you to death.”
Sumukha replied: “Friend, Hunter, do not be concerned for us. Don’t you see? By my words, I tamed your cruel heart. In the same way, I will tame the king, for kings are also wise, they are capable of understanding wise speech. Now, bring us quickly to the king. Fashion two cages of tender vines and flowers, a large one for the Dhatarattha king, and a smaller one for me. Carry us to the city, with him in front, and me behind.”
Khemaka fashioned the cages, decorated them with lotus blossoms, and they set off.
Part Nine: The Teaching of the Swans
News was sent to the king of their arrival, and when Khemaka entered the palace, many members of the court had assembled. The king marveled at the sight of these beautiful swans, who looked out from the bars of their cages with such fierce and noble intelligence.
“Set them here, my friend,” he said to the hunter, gesturing to the marble floor before the throne. “Tell us how you contrived to catch them.”
Khemaka described how he had hidden and watched the swans for six days. “There was one swan,” he said, “whose grace and beauty I remarked. Oddly, this one did not care to go searching about like the others for the ripest, plumpest stalks of grain, but always alighted in the same place, in the shallows near the edge of the lake. Every day, he landed there and swam about eating what was near at hand.” Khemaka explained how he had carefully set his snare and caught the swan on the seventh day, at the very moment that he alighted.
“I see,” said the king. “Very clever. But here you are with two swans. How did you catch the other one?”
“I did not catch him,” said Khemaka. “He comes to you of his own free will.”
“What?” said the king, astonished. “What do you mean?”
“Your majesty,” Khemaka began, “it is remarkable to witness the steadfast and loyal nature of these creatures. The swan I captured is the leader of a great flock of swans. The second swan is named Sumukha. He is the other’s captain and dear companion. He returned to protect his king, and would not fly away to safety. He extolled his king’s wisdom and goodness, and exhorted me to release him. My heart was softened. Indeed, I would have let them both go, Sire, despite your commands, but they instructed me to bring them here. They would not have me disobey you.”
The king sat silent for a long time. Finally, he spoke. “Release them from their cages, and let the noble swan give a teaching. I wish to hear him speak. As does the Queen.”
Queen Khema was sent for. A ceremony was performed, with solemn music and the lighting of incense. Fresh flower garlands were set about the hall. The swans were released from their cages. They stepped down onto the polished floor, stretched their wings and turned their necks, grateful for this freedom of movement after the long journey from Lake Serene.
“Brave and noble swan,” said the king, addressing Sumukha, “We await your teaching.”
Sumukha stood looking at the king, but never uttered a word.
The king grew impatient. He addressed Khemaka. “Why does he not speak? Does he remain silent in my presence out of fear?”
Khemaka was about to answer, when Sumukha lifted his proud head and addressed the king. “I have no fear, your majesty. But before I speak, I wish to know if you are to be trusted.”
“Why of course I am to be trusted,” said the king, somewhat ruffled by Sumukha’s words. “Why should I not be considered a man of my word?”
“Did you not give orders to create a lake of great beauty, to plant its shores with grain, and to have one man walk its borders calling out ‘This place is free from danger!’ and ‘This place is free from fear!’ Did you not entice the birds in order to capture one or more of the golden swans? Was this not all deception?”
“Well, yes,” admitted the king. “I did so, but not to kill you and eat your flesh. Only in order to satisfy the longing of my queen (and mine as well) to hear a teaching from the golden swans.”
“Whoever utters noble words, with the intention of causing harm, that one prepares a place for himself in hell. You have acted without consideration, your majesty,” said Sumukha, rebuking the king.
The king now gave orders that honey, parched grain, and sweet fresh water be brought for the swans, and he himself fed them.
The Dhatarattha king then engaged the human king in friendly conversation and drew from him an account of his sincere intention to rule wisely and well. Then Sumukha asked the king’s forgiveness for upbraiding him, and explained how terrified he had been when the Dhatarattha king of the swans had been captured.
When the two had understood each other, the king honored the two swans, and as the light began to dawn, he gave them permission to depart. He himself lifted the Bodhisatta in his arms while Queen Khema lifted Sumukha and they let the golden swans fly free.
Part Ten: Return to Cittakuta
The Swan-King and his captain Sumukha set off for their home in the mountains. As soon as they were sighted, a welcoming party of swans came to meet them. Suhema, the Swan-King’s wife, was among them. United, the swans returned to Cittakuta, where great celebrations took place.
Thereafter, the story of Sumukha’s unwavering friendship was often told. Small cygnets acted out the parts and vied with each other to play the role of the brave swan who returned to protect and rescue his friend. Far below, in the city of Varanasi, the story was also told. Small boys and girls played out the story, circling like birds with their wings outstretched, and landing in the lake to defend and rescue the king of the swans.
As for Lake Serene, the birds continued to visit there and feed. Khemaka continued to roam the shores calling out, “This lake is a place of safety. Khemam saram. This lake is free from danger. Khemam saram nibbhayam.” When the lake was first dug, these words were lies and Khemaka knew it well. But now they were true, and he was under the king’s orders to make sure the lake remained nothing other than a place of peace and safety.
Spiritual Friendship in Suvannavanna Hamsa
Clearly, this story is about friendship. There is something beautiful in the image of the swan separating himself from the flock and returning to the lake to search for his friend. This image is then strengthened by a sequence of other images—the swan declaring his loyalty and then defending the captured swan when the hunter approaches.
But there is another element of friendship that is visible in the story: the way we are moved and even transformed by the steadfast loyalty of another. Witnessing courage and unflinching loyalty arouses in us similar impulses. We sense that we, too, are capable of sacrifice and compassion. Khemaka, the hunter, is so moved by Sumukha’s commitment to protect, defend, and accompany his friend and king, that he forgets his own motivation in capturing the swan. He drops his club and raises his two hands to his forehead, in an act of reverence. From this simple gesture we learn that Khemaka is more than just a man who gains his livelihood through hunting. He has an undiscovered spiritual nature, one that is now ready to blossom.
Applying the metaphor
What are we ready to drop? How can we recover a sense of deep reverence for the natural world?
In the story, the captured swan is the Buddha-to-be, who finds himself in great peril, like our home planet at this time. We are reminded that we can also remember, return, and protect the natural world, while rediscovering a sense of wonder and awe. We can become true friends to our planet Earth. ◆
This story appears in the Summer 2020 issue of Parabola, PRESENCE. Find the full issue in our online store.
1 Bodhisatta is a Pali word which means “awakening being, or being destined for awakening” and refers to the Buddha in his former lives. In the story, the Bodhisatta is also referred to as the Great Being (Mahasatto), as well as the Swan-King.