The Giant Turtle’s tale is one the stories that our elders use to narrate to us sitting huddled around the fire in the evening of the winters cold. The tales are from the popular Buddhist tales about the many lives Buddha was reborn on Earth in different forms and these stories tell us the wonderful joy, compassion, wisdom, and loving kindness that he showed to help others in each of these lives.
Once upon a time, there lived a giant turtle in the deep blue sea. He was a king turtle and ruled over all the animals in his vast sea kingdom. He would swim for miles among the beautiful and varied sea creatures of the sea helping them with their problems and wishing them all well. They loved him and everyone in his kingdom was happy and peaceful.
One day he crawled up onto the beach to take a nap and rest from the hard work of swimming across his kingdom. He slept for a very long time, for thousands and thousands of years. Because of his gigantic size, as large as a continent, when the raindrops fell on his back between the cracks of his enormous shell, it formed sparkling rivers and lakes. The great giant turtle slept on unstirred.
In the mornings, the winds sweeping tiny grains of sand onto the turtle’s back forming mountains and valleys. In the afternoons, the birds flew over, dropping tiny seeds onto the turtle’s back. The seeds sprouted, and there on the turtle’s back grew flowers and grass and trees. The giant turtle slept on unstirred.
The sun warmed the turtle through the days. The moon watched over him through the nights. As time passed, the seasons embraced the giant turtle with Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, and animals that lived on the turtle’s back experienced the seasons and multiplied. The giant turtle slept on unstirred.
One day, not knowing the difference between the earth and the giant turtle’s back, a child drifted among the mountains and valleys to pick some wild flowers. The next day she returned with her family. “This will be a good place to build a house. We can grow rice and get salt from the sea,” said her father. The giant turtle slept on unstirred.
The next year another family moved to the little mountain, and then another. Roads were built and merchants came to set up shops. A prince even built a palace. People pulled their carts and rode their carriages over the streets cutting deep ruts into the turtle’s shell. Their cities became a heavy burden on his back, and the noises they made drummed in his ears. The fires they built burned his skin. Still the giant turtle slept on unstirred.
And so it went on until one day the giant turtle was awakened by the unbearable pain from the fires. He wanted to cool himself, so he began to crawl toward the sea. He did not hear the people cry, “Earthquake! Earthquake!” or see them run everywhere on his back. When the giant turtle reached the sea, he immersed himself in the cool water to ease his pain. As the people on his back saw water rising all around them, they screamed, “Flood! Flood!
For the first time, the giant turtle realized that there were people living on his back. Seeing their terrible commotion of pain and fear, he crawled back gently onto the beach not wanting to bring further sufferings into their lives. For another several thousand years, he let the fires burn his skin and the rumble of the city shake him. During the days he held back the tears and at night he let them flow. So great was his pain and so silent were his tears that no one knew of his sacrifice.
Finally the giant turtle decided that he needed to return to the sea. Slowly raising his head, he spoke to the people, “Do not be afraid. I will not hurt you. I am a giant turtle, and you are living on my shell. I must go back into the water, or I will die.” The people upon hearing the giant turtle’s plea, were astonished and one by one, gathered their belongings and moved back onto the land where they created new villages and cities and their lives carried on as before.
Everyone who lived on the giant turtle’s back were so grateful for the kindness and they bowed to him, saying, “For thousands of years, you gave us your back on which to build our world, and now you saved our lives. You are a kind king turtle and surely you will become a Buddha in the future.”
The birds flew over the turtle and placed garlands of fragrant flowers around his neck. Monkeys rubbed his sores with healing herbs, and elephants trumpeted sweet music to soothe his ears. The people swept the sand from his back with peacock feathers, and the giant turtle crawled back into the sea.
When Buddha finished narrating this tale, he said, “I was the king turtle, and the people that lived on my back became my disciples.”