This selection is reworked from a collection of Buddhist Jataka tales retold by Mark McGinnis in Buddhist Animal Wisdom Stories, which in turn drew from a late 19th Century collection by E.B. Cromwell, which found its source in the Pali Buddhist scriptures, which are some of the earliest Buddhist texts dating to the 4th Century BCE. Despite the number of iterations, the Ox’s character rings true as the Jataka tales recount the prior incarnations of the Buddha.

Spoiler Alert: This is one of the stories found in When It Matters Most.

In a time before time, there lived in the northern hills of India a massive Ox. It was of such size and strength that no other animal was its match. As he passed through the forest, even mighty Lion left him alone.

Yet despite his size and strength, Ox was known for his gentle nature – never exerting his power over other creatures. For this, he was treated with great respect.

One day, little Monkey decided to test this goodness. As the giant passed under his tree, Monkey dropped a piece of ripe fruit on Ox’s head. Landing with a thud, the fruit burst, dripping down the great beast’s forehead.

Ox stopped only for a moment, looking neither to the right nor the left, neither up nor down. Then he continued on his way, unfazed.

Monkey remained undaunted in his mission. He dropped another piece of fruit. Then another. Soon, Ox dripped with juice from head to tail. Still, he looked neither to the right nor the left, neither up nor down. Instead, he altered his course and waded into a river, letting the current clean away Monkey’s mischief, before chewing the lush grass on the opposite bank.

That evening, Monkey contemplated another test. He reasoned that it’s one thing to disregard fruit that might fall on its own accord. It’s quite another to ignore a direct encounter.

The next day as Ox moved through the forest, Monkey slipped down a vine and yanked the great beast’s tail before scrambling back into the trees. Ox paused for a moment. He looked neither to the right nor the left, neither up nor down, and continued on his way.

Monkey waited for an hour, then again slipped down the vine and slapped Ox’s behind before pulling his tail. Nothing.

At night, Monkey stared into the sky, plotting the next test. There must be some way to prod a negative reaction out of the giant.

The following morning, Monkey slid down his vine and ran alongside Ox, tickling his underbelly and poking at his flank. He climbed onto the magnificent animal’s back and pulled at his ears.

Suddenly, in the midst of his revelry, Monkey realized that Ox is no longer moving. The great beast displayed no anger, not bothering to look to the right or the left, neither up nor down. He simply…waited. Very slowly, Monkey reached for a nearby vine and then quickly ascended into the canopy. Glad to be safe, he set off to find dinner before plotting another test.

Keen eyes followed Monkey as he departed. They belonged to Owl, who had watched the tests unfold and could no longer contain herself.

Having witnessed Ox’s humiliation at Monkey’s hand, Owl swooped down to offer the giant her support, ‘My great friend, you are the most powerful creature in the forest, even mighty Lion leaves you in peace. You could stop Monkey with a look, let alone a hoof. Why do you allow him to torment you?’

‘My good friend, you are kind to be concerned, but you are mistaken. Monkey is not my enemy; he is my helper.’

‘Your helper? A minute ago, he was pulling on your ears.’

‘You know how I feel about my size and strength, how those qualities could define me. If I want to grow in character, I must embrace my opportunities as they arrive. When everyone treats you well, it is easy to be gentle; but to be gentle toward one who does not treat you well, that is a challenge. Monkey’s assisting me in deepening my character.’

‘But Monkey thinks that he’s in control.’

‘It does not matter what Monkey thinks, my dear Owl. It matters how I choose to respond.’