This picture of The Four Friends or “Thuenpa Puen Zhi” is on a wall or building almost everywhere you turn in Bhutan. We were immediately curious, so we decided to ask about its significance. Since my rendition of the story would not be nearly as captivating or accurate as the one that was told to me, I found a version online at http://bhutanjournals.com/history-culture-tradition/buddhism/the-four-harmonious-friends/. I think that this is a wonderful story that really demonstrates an important aspect of Bhutan’s rich and beautiful Buddhist culture.
Long ago, there lived a rich man in a city named Shravasti in the country of India . Because the rich man loved the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, he built a fine temple for the Buddha and his monks. When the temple was finished, he invited them to come to live in the new temple.
The Buddha and thousands of his monks began traveling toward the new temple in Shravasti. The young monks went quickly and were soon ahead of the Buddha.
The Buddha went slowly and peacefully, teaching and helping people along the way. The senior monks Shariputra and Moggallana, who were also important Dharma teachers, traveled slowly beside the Buddha.
Night came and the only place to sleep along the road was a small town. All of the hundreds of young monks arrived there first. They prepared a nice room for the Buddha, then settled down in all of the extra rooms and beds in the town and went to sleep.
When the senior monks arrived, all the rooms and beds in the town were already filled with younger monks. There was no sleeping space inside for the senior monks, so they had to sleep outside under the trees. Even Shariputra, who was the highest of all the senior monks, had to sleep outside.
The Buddha saw that this was not right. The next morning he called all of the monks together and asked them, “Which monks deserve to get the best rooms, the best food and the best water?”
Some monks answered, “Those monks who came from a high class family should get the best things.” Others said, “Those monks who have the most money.” Others said “Those monks who are more educated.” Others said, “Those monks who have done the most meditation.” Others said, “Whoever gets there first.”
The Buddha replied, “Oh Monks and everyone who follows my teachings: listen. Seniors should always go first.” It is not good that last night Shariputra, who is the highest among the senior monks, and also the great Moggallana had to sleep outside while young monks slept inside on a bed.”
The Buddha explained, “Even animals learned long ago that by showing respect to their seniors, their daily lives would be orderly and happy. And because of the good deed of showing respect, after they die they will have a happy and higher next life.
The monks said to the Buddha, “Please tell us more about the animals,” and the Buddha told this true story of long, long ago.
Once upon a time, three animal friends lived by a large banyan tree: a bird, a monkey, and an elephant. After a while, they stopped respecting each other and began to argue a lot. “I’m first;” “No, me first;” “You got the best one;” “I want that one.” Thus it continued day and night.
The three friends knew that this wasn’t good and tried to figure out how to solve their problem. They thought that if they knew who is the oldest, they could each show respect to the older ones. But because animals don’t know their birthdays, they didn’t know who of the three was older.
Then the animals had an idea. They said to each other, “Oh friends, let’s measure our age by the size of this great banyan tree. How big was this tree when you remember it first?”
The elephant said, “I remember this tree when it was only as big as a bush. When I was a baby, I walked over it and it tickled my stomach.”
The monkey said, “I remember when the tree was even smaller. I remember when I was a baby monkey, I sat down and the leaves on the top just touched my nose. I ate the little leaves on the tiny treetop.”
The bird said, “Friends, long ago there was a great banyan tree not far from here. I ate the seeds from it, and pooped a white speck at this very spot. The seeds in that speck sprouted and grew and became a tiny tree, which has now grown into this large banyan tree. So because I knew this tree before it was born, I am older than both of you.”
The monkey and the elephant said, “Oh bird friend, now we know that you are the oldest. From now on, we will respect you, so you should go first. As you are older and wiser, please give us advice, and we will listen to you.”
Then the elephant said to the monkey, “Oh monkey friend, as you are older than I, you should go before me and I because I am the youngest I will go last.
Then because he was senior, the bird gave good advice to the monkey and the elephant. He advised them to do good things and not to do any bad things. The bird also did his best to follow his own advice.
After the three animal friends began to respect each other in this way, their daily life became peaceful and happy. They lived harmoniously together for many years. After they died, they were born again as humans in a better life.
After the story was finished, the Buddha said to the monks, “Long ago these three animal friends learned how to live together happily by respecting those who were older. From now on, you should respect those who are senior to you. Speak politely to them, listen to their advice and always give them the best rooms, best food and best water. By doing this, you will follow my teachings.” Then the Buddha said:
“If you know the Dharma, you will respect your seniors. You will be praised in this life, and happy in the next.”
When the Buddha finished explaining how important it is to respect those who are senior, he said, “In those days, Moggallana was the elephant, Shariputra was the monkey, and I myself was the wise bird.”