The Tale of the Merchants at Sea

Here’s a retelling of the Samudda-vāṇija Jātaka (no. 454). It’s a great little tale, which depicts our current environmental situation with uncanny precision. It is the Buddhist version of the widespread flood myth, which probably originated in Mesopotamia perhaps 3000 BCE. The setting here, which depicts the flood as afflicting lost merchants in a far-off land, perhaps preserves a memory of the distant origins of the story.

The story is ideal for a children’s class on the environment. But I haven’t found any up-to-date translations. So I have used the old translation (which you can read here) as a basis, and modernized the language and cleaned up the narrative a little.

Once upon a time, when Brahmadatta was king of Benares, there stood near Benares a great town of carpenters, containing a thousand families. The carpenters from this town used to advertise that they would make a bed, or a chair, or a house. But after being paid an advance, they couldn’t make a single thing. So people abused those dishonest carpenters whenever they met them. They were harassed so much that they could live there no longer.

“Let’s go into some foreign land,” they said, “and find some place to live.” So to the forest they went. They cut down trees, built a mighty ship, launched her in the river, and took her away from that town. Then, together with all their families and friends, they sailed down the river to the ocean.

There they sailed at the wind’s will, until they reached an island that lay in the middle of the sea. Now in that island grew all kinds of wild plants and fruit-trees: rice, sugar-cane, banana, mango, rose-apple, jackfruit, coconut, and every other kind of delicious food.

Another man had been shipwrecked on that island before them. He lived there, eating the rice and enjoying the sugar-cane and all the rest, by which he had grown strong and sturdy. He went naked, and his hair and beard were grown long.

The carpenters thought, “If this island is haunted by demons, we shall all perish; so we will explore it.” So seven brave, strong men, armed with the five kinds of weapons, went to explore the island.

At that moment the castaway had just had breakfast, washed down with sugar-cane juice, and in high contentment was lying on his back in a lovely spot, cool in the shade on some sand which glistened like silver plate. He was thinking, “Life is good here! If I was in civilized lands, I would have to work all day for my food. Here I have all I want, provided by Nature herself!” He burst out in song, just for the joy of it.

The scouts who were exploring the isle heard his singing and said, “It seems to be the voice of a man. Let’s go and meet him.” Following the sound they came upon the man, but when they saw him naked with such long shaggy hair they were terrified.

“It’s a goblin!” they cried, and put arrow to bow ready to shoot.

When the man saw them, he called out in fear, “I am no goblin, sirs, I am a man: spare my life!”

“What!” they said. “Do men go all naked and defenceless like you?”

But it was true. He was a man, and eventually they began to talk pleasantly together. The new-comers asked how the castaway came there.

The castaway told them what had happened. “As a reward for your good deeds you have come here.” he said. “This is a first-rate island! No need to work with your hands for a living. There’s endless rice and sugar-cane, and anything else you might want, and all growing wild. We can all live here without anxiety.”

“Is there nothing else,” they asked, “to hinder our living here?”

“Only this,” he said: “the isle is haunted by spirits, who get furious when their home is polluted. So when you go to the toilet, dig a hole in the sand and hide it there. That’s the only danger, there is no other. Only always be careful on this point.”

So they all made their home on the island and lived happily, becoming strong and healthy on the plentiful diet of fruits and grains.

Now, among these thousand families there were two master workmen, one at the head of each five hundred people. And one of these was foolish and greedy of the best food, the other wise and not always worried about getting the best of everything.

Then they thought, “We have not had a party for a long time. Let’s make some toddy from the juice of the sugar-cane.” So they fermented some sugar-cane juice and made toddy, a strong liquor. They all got drunk, and sang, danced, and laughed together. But being thoughtless they relieved themselves here, there, and everywhere without hiding it, so that the island became foul and disgusting.

The spirits were enraged that these thoughtless men made their beautiful island all foul. They got together for a spirit conference to discuss the matter.

“We have cared for this island for so long,” one spirit said. “We made it beautiful, and provided it with everything that you could want. When these strangers came, we welcomed them and shared everything with them, holding nothing back.”

“All we asked,” said another spirit, “was that they respect the land and not pollute it. They knew this, but still they fouled everything.”

They sat in silence for a time. Finally, one of the spirits spoke up.

“It is too much,” he said. “We cannot endure any more. Let us call the sea and cleanse the island! Let us bring forth a flood, and wash the men back to the ocean from where they came!”

The other spirits agreed. They determined to raise up the ocean to drown the island in fifteen days time, at the full moon when their power was greatest.
But there was a good spirit among them who thought, “These people have done wrong, but they don’t deserve to die.”

So out of compassion she approached the people while they were sitting at their doors chatting pleasantly after dinner. The spirit made the whole island one blaze of light. Adorned in splendor she stayed poised in the northern sky and spoke to them.

“Carpenters!” she said. “The spirits are angry with you. Do not stay in this place! In half a month from this time, the spirits will bring up the sea and destroy you one and all. Flee now, or you will all perish!”

With this advice, she returned to her own home. All the people were terrified, and a great noise arose as they argued in confusion about what this message meant.

Meanwhile another spirit, who was cruel-hearted, wanted revenge on the people. “Perhaps they will follow her advice and escape,” he thought. “I will prevent them from leaving, and bring them all to utter destruction!”

So he approached the people just like the other spirit had done, blazing with light and standing in the southern sky.

“You have been warned of a great danger,” he said. “But that was a lie! There will be no flood. The spirits have always looked after you – we don’t wish you any harm. That other spirit is just selfish, and wants to have the island all to herself. Ignore her and her ridiculous threats. See, the sky is clear, the living is good. Stay, and enjoy the good life you have made for yourselves here. The spirits of this place will bring you all you need.”

When that spirit had left, the foolish carpenter lifted up his voice and cried, “Let all people listen to me! We have been a people lost. We were cast out of our homes, driven to wander across the wide ocean. Against all hope we found this, our new home. How can we leave now? Surely the southern spirit speaks the truth!”

And all those foolish people who only wanted to eat and drink listened to him and wished to stay.

But the wise carpenter did not agree. “We have advice from two spirits,” he said. “One speaks of danger, and begs us to flee, while the other tells us to have no fear and that we should stay. We do not know which of these is telling the truth. This shows that one should not just believe everything you hear. Considering both messages, the wise should consider carefully in their own hearts and then make a balanced decision. So let us build a great ship. If we work hard together, we can complete it before the full moon. Then, if the warning of a flood comes true, we will be saved. If there is no flood, then no harm is done. We can leave the ship and continue to live here.”

“Ridiculous!” said the foolish carpenter. “You see a crocodile in a teacup! The first god spake in anger against us, the second in affection. We know this, for the spirits have always been kind to us here. If we leave this wonderful island, where shall we go? And why should we go back to working hard like slaves, when we have all we want? But if you must go, take your tail with you! We want no ship!”

And so the foolish carpenter, with his 500 followers, went back to their drinking. They laughed and sang even louder, paying no attention to the filth that they were making.

The wise man went with his 500 and built a ship, large enough to hold them and their belongings.

On the day of the full moon, at the time of moon-rise, up from the ocean a wave arose, and it swept knee-deep over the whole island. The wise man, when he saw the rising of the wave, cast loose the ship. Those of the foolish carpenter’s party were scared, but they said to one another, “A tsunami has arisen! Never mind, it will sweep over the island, but it will be no deeper.”

But the tsunami did rise deeper. It rose waist-deep, then man-deep, even as deep as a palm-tree, and it rolled over the whole island.

The wise man, skilful and reflective, not greedy for good things, departed in safety with his 500. But the foolish, greedy carpenter, having no thought for the dangers of the future, was destroyed with all his people.

6 thoughts on “The Tale of the Merchants at Sea

  1. (Source:

    According to Buddha – Sun and Moon outshine humans (sounds like it but not sure)

    “It isn’t right, monks, that sons of good families, on having gone forth out of faith from home to the homeless life, should get engaged in such topics of conversation, i.e., conversation about kings, robbers, & ministers of state… talk of whether things exist or not.

    “There are these ten topics of [proper] conversation. Which ten? Talk on modesty, on contentment, on seclusion, on non-entanglement, on arousing persistence, on virtue, on concentration, on discernment, on release, and on the knowledge & vision of release. These are the ten topics of conversation. If you were to engage repeatedly in these ten topics of conversation, you would outshine even the sun & moon, so mighty, so powerful — to say nothing of the wanderers of other sects.”

  2. Retold by Ken and Visakha Kawasaki

    The Punishing Wave
    Jataka 466

    It was while staying at Jetavana that the Buddha told this story about Devadatta.

    After his three attempts to kill the Buddha had failed, Devadatta made five demands–that bhikkhus live only in the forest, that they eat only food received on almsrounds, that they wear only rag robes, that they stay only under trees, and that they eat neither meat nor fish. The Buddha rejected the demands, saying, “Enough, Devadatta! Any bhikkhu who desires to do so may undertake these austerities, but I will not impose them.”

    “Whose words are nobler,” Devadatta exclaimed, “the words of the Tathagata or mine? I declare that, for all their lives, bhikkhus should follow these rules. Whoever desires release from suffering, let him come with me!”

    At that time, there were five hundred Licchavis who had recently ordained as bhikkhus. These young men were impressed by Devadatta’s bravado, and they decided to follow him. Some laypeople, as well, were persuaded that these austerities were necessary and gave their support to Devadatta.

    The Buddha asked Devadatta whether it was indeed his intention to create a separate Sangha, and Devadatta replied that it was. “Devadatta,” the Buddha warned, “creating a schism in this way is a grievous thing to do!”

    Completely ignoring the Buddha’s warning, Devadatta announced to Venerable Ananda that, henceforth, he would be observing Patimokkha independently from the Buddha’s Sangha. When this was reported to the Buddha, the Blessed One proclaimed, “Devadatta is doing something which will be of no benefit to himself and which will, in fact, cause him to be tormented in Avici hell.”

    On the next Uposatha Day, Devadatta took his followers to Gayasisa to observe the Patimokkha. The Buddha summoned Venerable Sariputta and Venerable Moggallana and asked them to go to Gayasisa and to bring those bhikkhus back to Rajagaha.

    Devadatta welcomed the two chief disciples and sat them beside him. As he taught the assembled bhikkhus, he attempted to imitate the Buddha. After a while, still trying to act like the Buddha, he claimed to be suffering from an aching back and asked Venerable Sariputta and Venerable Moggallana to continue instructing the young bhikkhus while he retired to rest.

    The two chief disciples taught the Dhamma so clearly and skillfully that all five hundred of those bhikkhus abandoned Devadatta and returned to Rajagaha.

    Kokalika, Devadatta’s personal attendant, rushed to his master’s chamber and shouted, “Get up, Devadatta! Sariputta and Moggallana have taken away your monks. Why didn’t you listen to my warning? I told you not to trust those two!”

    Without getting out of bed, Devadatta muttered, “Sariputta and Moggallana cherish evil desires! They are under the control of evil desires.” Kokalika was so disgusted by this jibberish that he kicked Devadatta in the chest, causing him to vomit hot blood.

    After this incident, Devadatta’s health steadily worsened. One day, he said to his followers, “I desire to see the Teacher. Make it possible for me to see him.”

    “When you enjoyed good health,” his disciples retorted, “you were at odds with the Teacher. Now that you are ill, we will not take you to him.”

    “Please do not destroy me!” Devadatta begged. “It is true that I have felt hatred toward the Teacher, but the Teacher has not felt even so much as a twinge of animosity toward me. I have thought evil of the Tathagata, but, in his mind, there has never been a single thought of malice toward me. Even among the eighty great disciples there is no hostility toward me. By my own deeds alone am I forlorn, cut off from the Buddha, separated from the great disciples. I must go to the Buddha and reconcile myself with him!”

    Hearing this heartfelt plea, his followers relented and prepared a litter. They placed Devadatta on it and carried him slowly toward Savatthi.

    Venerable Ananda heard that Devadatta was coming and announced to the Buddha that his cousin was coming to make his peace.

    “Ananda,” the Buddha replied, “Devadatta shall not see me.”

    Later, Ananda reported that Devadatta and his entourage had reached the city, and the Buddha repeated his statement that Devadatta would not succeed in seeing him.

    When Ananda announced that Devadatta had reached the lotus tank, the Buddha declared,”Even if he enters Jetavana Monastery itself, he will not succeed in seeing me.”

    Meanwhile, Devadatta’s fever was increasing, and he asked his bearers to stop at the lotus tank so that he could drink and bathe the sweat from his body. As he stepped from the litter, he began sinking into the earth–to his ankles, his knees, his waist, and his chest. When he had sunk up to his neck, the earth opened, and fires of Avici hell flared up around him. As he was being engulfed in the flames, Devadatta cried out, “With these bones and with my last breath, I take my refuge in the Buddha, perfectly enlightened, endowed with knowledge and conduct, well-gone, knower of worlds, supreme trainer of persons to be tamed, teacher of gods and men, enlightened, and exalted!”

    The earth closed, and Devadatta was reborn in Avici hell, where he was joined, in time, by those who had followed him, had supported his schism, and had, like him, reviled the Buddha.

    When the Buddha heard that Devadatta had, as he was sinking into the earth, taken refuge, he predicted that, after many eons of torment and many more thousands of eons of misery, Devadatta would, at last, become a Pacceka Buddha named Atthissara.

    One day, the bhikkhus were talking about this in the Hall of Truth. “Devadatta,” one of them said, “through greed and without reason, set himself against the Buddha. With no regard for the future, he caused a schism in the Sangha and doomed himself and all his followers to hell.”

    When the Buddha heard what they were discussing, he said, “Bhikkhus, Devadatta had no eye for the terrors of the future, and, both in former times and now, he led his followers to utter ruin.”

    When they asked the Buddha to explain, he told them this story of the past.

    Long, long ago, when Brahmadatta was reigning in Baranasi, there was a carpenters’ village with a thousand families near the capital. In this village, there were two master carpenters, each of whom was the leader of five hundred families. These two master carpenters were very different from each other. One was renowned for his selflessness and wisdom. His followers, likewise, were generous and trustworthy. The other was extremely greedy and dishonest, and his followers were unreliable. After they had agreed to build a house, a shop, or a stable, or to make a bed or a table and chairs, and had received a large advance from a customer, they usually did nothing whatsoever in return. These men had cheated so many customers and had become so notorious that people began scolding and abusing all the carpenters of the village indiscriminately.

    In time, the notoriety of the disreputable carpenters spread, the business of the entire village was ruined, and all faced bankruptcy. The two leaders realized that they had to find a new place to live. “Let’s go to some foreign land where we can begin again,” they suggested to their followers.

    As soon as this had been agreed upon, the men went into the forest and began felling trees. They cut planks, built a huge ship, and launched it in the river. At night, they quietly collected their families and put them on board. Following the river to the ocean, they sailed far away, thus escaping their creditors.

    The wind carried them to a lush and beautiful island, where they could see all sorts of fruit and plants growing abundantly.

    The wise leader was afraid that there might be yakkhas haunting the island, so, before allowing anyone else to disembark, he took seven of his bravest men, armed with the five kinds of weapons (sword, spear, bow, shield, and axe), to explore the island.

    What the carpenters did not know was that the island was inhabited by a shipwrecked sailor, who was living there very comfortably, eating wild rice, sugar cane, tubers, and a variety of succulent fruit, including mangos, bananas, and jackfruit. His hair and beard had grown long, and he had become stout and strong from the nutritious food. His clothes had long since rotted away, and, being alone, he went about naked.

    That morning, having finished his breakfast, this castaway lay in the shade on the fine sand of the beach, which glistened like silver, and sang to himself, “How I pity those poor folk who live in Jambudipa, having to plow their fields in the hot sun! To me, this island is better than Jambudipa could ever be.” In his contentment, he began singing louder and louder.

    The leader heard the voice and followed it to the secluded beach. When he saw the naked man with his long beard and unkempt hair, he shouted,”A yakkha!” The other scouts quickly drew their weapons.

    “Wait!” the castaway shouted. “I’m not a yakkha! I am a man like you. Don’t hurt me!”

    The leader ordered the others to lower their weapons, but he cautiously asked the stranger, “Why would a man lie here naked and defenseless?”

    “I’ve always been alone on this island,” the castaway explained, “so there is no reason for modesty, nor for weapons. I assure you that I am a man!”

    Convinced that he was speaking the truth, the carpenters offered him a cloth to cover his body and asked him who he was and how he happened to be on the island. Delighted to be with fellow humans, the castaway eagerly related his tale.

    “This island is a wonderful place!” he concluded. “Everything grows wild, and you can get by without any effort at all. There is no need to work with your hands for a living.”

    “Are you completely alone here?” they asked him.

    “As I said, there are no other humans,” he replied, “but there are devas.”

    “Are they friendly?” the leader asked.

    “They are not hostile, but there is one thing about which you must be careful. These devas are quite sensitive. Being extremely refined, they are easily offended by filth. Excretions from the human body are repugnant to them. You have to keep yourselves and the island clean. When you relieve yourselves, you must dig a hole in the sand and cover the excrement. That is the only danger, but it is very important.”

    Reassured, the leader and his men returned to the ship and told the others what they had learned. Everyone rejoiced that they had found such a delightful place and rushed ashore. After parceling out the land, they used the timber from the ship to build huts for themselves and settled down. The castaway took up residence in the new colony, and everyone thrived because of the comfortable climate, the healthy environment, and the abundant food.

    For some, however, life on the island was too easy. Being bored, they sat around and grumbled that there was nothing to do. One day, one of them suggested, “Let’s have a festival!”

    “That’s a great idea!” another agreed.

    “We need liquor!” called out a third.

    “Hooray!” everyone shouted enthusiastically.

    They all began working together. The women decorated the compound as though it were Tavatimsa. The men collected sugar cane, squeezed out the juice, and let it ferment into alcohol. Soon everything was ready for a grand celebration.

    As soon as the makeshift orchestra had struck a few notes, people started singing and dancing. Having tasted no alcohol since arriving on the island, the men drank greedily. Soon everyone was drunk, and the merrymaking became riotous. Both men and women wandered into the forest to relieve themselves, but no one remembered to cover the mess. After drinking even more, they no longer bothered even to wander off. They befouled the beautiful sandy beach with their excrement, urinated on the palm tree trunks, and vomited right on the pathways. Partying until the wee hours of the morning, the villagers did not even return to their homes. In their stupor, they lay down wherever they happened to be and fell into drunken slumber.

    The next morning, the devas were outraged. “Our lovely island has become polluted!” cried one young deva.

    “These humans are disgusting!” cried a second.

    “How can we put up with this nasty smell?” exclaimed a third.

    “Our playground is a mess!” complained another.

    “Let’s make it rain to wash away the filth.” suggested an older deva.

    “I have a better idea!” shouted an impetuous deva. “Let’s create a great wave which will completely sweep over the island. That way, we can wash away the filth and get rid of these obnoxious creatures at the same time.”

    “Let’s do it on the next full moon!” someone suggested, and the others agreed.

    One deva, who had been quietly listening to this talk, withdrew from the others and pondered the situation. “These human beings are thoughtless and foolish, but they are not all hopeless. I cannot bear to see them all destroyed so cruelly.” Filled with compassion, he decided to warn the settlers.

    One night, after the carpenters had finished their supper, while they were sitting in the open and chatting, the deva appeared above their heads in a blaze of light. Standing there in great splendor, he spoke in a stern voice. “Men,” he said, “the devas are angry with you for getting drunk and fouling our paradise. In just two weeks, the moon will be full. At that time, the devas are planning to create a great wave which will sweep over the island and destroy you, one and all. You must flee from here and save your lives! Mark my words! As the next full moon rises in the sky, a mighty flood will overwhelm this entire island. You are in great danger.”

    Having satisfied his conscience and confident that the people would heed his warning, the deva disappeared and returned to his own abode.

    Another deva, who was bent on destroying the settlers, heard this warning and was afraid that the grand plan would be thwarted. While the settlers were still discussing what they had seen, he appeared in the same way as the first deva had done. “Friends,” he said sweetly, “has another deva spoken to you?”

    “Yes, a deva was here just a few minutes ago,” some men replied.

    “What did he tell you?” the deva asked.

    One man stood up and said, “He told us that, at the next full moon, the devas were planning to create a great wave which would sweep the island and kill all of us.”

    “I was afraid of that,” the deva replied with a winning smile. “You have nothing to fear. That deva is upset that you made such a disturbance the other night and wants to drive you away. He is jealous and does not want to share this island with you. Don’t be foolish and leave this paradise. Where else can you find such abundance? As your friend, I assure you that there will be no wave. There is absolutely no danger to any of you. Please stay here and enjoy yourselves. Let this lovely island be your home for generations to come.” Still smiling, the malevolent deva likewise vanished.

    The greedy leader immediately stood up and shouted, “What a relief! I was frightened at first, but I’m glad that second deva came and cleared things up. Now we know that we have nothing to fear. It is true that our island is a paradise; it has everything we could ever want. Of course, that first deva just wanted us to leave so that he could have it all for himself. We have nothing to worry about!” His followers cheered and shouted their approval.

    After a few minutes, the wise leader stood up. “My friends,” he began softly, “we have heard two devas with two very different messages. One warned us of a great danger, and the other assured us that all was well. We cannot be sure which one was telling the truth. Maybe something will happen, and maybe it won’t. In any case, we have two weeks. Just to be on the safe side, let’s build a ship. Then, if the first deva was telling the truth and a great wave does come when the moon is full, we will not be swept away and drowned. If the second deva was right and nothing happens, we’ll be none the worse for having a vessel ready.”

    “Foolish man!” the greedy leader cried. “Why should we work up a sweat for nothing? You see a tempest in a teapot! It’s obvious that the first deva was jealous. The second deva is our friend, and we can depend on him. This island is indeed a paradise. We don’t need to work, and, if we leave, where are we going to go? Where could we find such abundance and such luxury? This is the happiest place in the world! I can’t believe that you could even dream of wasting our time by building a ship to leave. Besides, it’s only a rumor! We are perfectly safe!”

    Without trying to refute this foolishness, the wise leader shook his head and walked away. All those who had confidence in his wisdom quietly agreed to follow his advice. For the next two weeks, they worked steadily to build a ship and to have it fitted out before the full moon. On that day, not knowing what to expect, but ready for any eventuality, the leader stood on the deck of the ship and welcomed his friends. Before the moon rose, they were all safely aboard their sturdy vessel some distance from the shore.

    As soon as the moon appeared above the horizon, the ocean began churning. The foolish carpenter stood on the shore with the families of his five hundred followers and watched as the water receded. The wise leader ordered that the anchor be raised, and the ship drifted out. When the first wave struck, it swept across the island, but the water was only knee-deep. Nevertheless, all those on the island clung to one another in alarm.

    “A wave has come, but it isn’t very deep,” their leader reassured them. “Hold on to the trees, and we’ll all be safe.” The second wave reached their waists, and the people began to panic. The third wave, which was chest high, was much stronger and swept away the children. The fourth wave reached the tops of the palm trees and drowned the adults. The fifth wave, as high as a mountain, swept over the whole island and washed away everything in its path.

    Having concluded his story, the Buddha said, “Thus this is not the first time, bhikkhus, that Devadatta has been caught by pleasures of the present, and, without looking to the future, has met destruction along with his companions.” Then he identified the Birth. “At that time, Devadatta was the foolish carpenter; Kokalika was the unrighteous deva who lied to the carpenters; Sariputta was the compassionate deva who warned them of danger; and I was the wise carpenter.”

    • You’re very welcome.

      This story is not included in our newly published collection “Jataka Tales of the Buddha — An Anthology” from BPS. We’ve done 217 Jatakas in three volumes.

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