Once upon a time there was a hare and a tortoise who both longed for moksha (liberation from worldly suffering). They were accepted as disciples of a very great master who decided that they should compete against each other for moksha. He produced an ancient map and pointed out the special route to moksha, adding that they must not veer from this narrow path as it would be difficult to find again, winding so deep within the forest of samsara (illusion). The swift hare listened impatiently, already confident that he could easily cover the distance in a short time. The gentle tortoise listened carefully, fully aware that it would be a long, slow journey for him. The other disciples whispered amongst themselves: “How can the master humiliate the poor tortoise like this? The hare will clearly win the race.” However, when the master overheard their doubting whispers he merely smiled to himself.
The next day all the disciples assembled to watch the race begin. The hare and the tortoise waited side by side at the gate until the master declared the race officially underway and fired the starting pistol into the air. The hare leapt high in the air, performed a dazzling pirouette, then sent up a cloud of dust and pebbles as he sped off up the road. The tortoise lumbered slowly after him. “Remember!” called the master behind them. “Do not leave the path.”
After his initial display of verve, the hare quickly became bored and hungry. Seeing the tortoise as a mere speck on the road far behind him, he chuckled to himself, “I will wait until this dull creature has almost reached the finishing line and then leap ahead just in time to victory! Ha! I have so much time to enjoy myself before then.” So he left the path and began to explore the countryside for vegetable patches and orchards to satisfy his ravenous appetite.
As you can imagine, it took the tortoise a very long time to progress along the path. Whenever he grew weary and gazed longingly at the cool forest ponds and soft grassy verges, he remembered his master’s instructions and continued steadfastly along his way. The hare, on the other hand, was enjoying raiding the vegetable patches so much that he rarely returned to the path – only often enough to check the progress of his competitor. It was due to this that the hare missed many jewels along the way, glistening rare gems that the tortoise collected and wore on his shell. As time passed, his shell radiated many splendid colours, lighting up the dark path through the deep forest.
After many years of travelling, the tortoise reached a signpost marked: ‘Moksha 12 miles’. The countryside became mountainous now and snow shimmered on the distant peaks. The tortoise felt a rush of joy and continued steadily up the steep path. The hare arrived, observed the signpost and quickly decided to raid his last vegetable patch before his spectacular leap to victory. “After all, 12 miles is a fair distance for that old slug, and I’m feeling very hungry.” The thought of seasonal sweet baby carrots was simply too much for him and he loped off to the nearest farms to investigate their gardens.
Alas for the hare – a wily farmer had set a trap for such thieves and the unlucky hare was caught with a carrot in his mouth. The farmer dragged him off to the local jail where he was locked up in a dark, musty cell. The hare tried all his powers of persuasion to be freed, but to no avail. He was left alone to gaze miserably out through the bars.
As the tortoise neared the top of the highest mountain, he saw a golden ribbon stretched across the finishing line with the word: `MOKSHA’ painted on it in beautiful colours, as well as a large brass band playing on a stage nearby. Then he saw his radiant master stepping towards him. But just at that moment, in his mind’s eye, the tortoise had a vision of the hare – long drooping ears, sad eyes filled with tears – gazing out from behind bars. The tortoise’s little heart was flooded with compassion and he halted before crossing through the ribbon. “I have to help someone,” he said to his master, who remained silent, but nodded.
So the tortoise journeyed back down the mountain. Using his remarkable powers of intuition, he soon found the hare. When the hare saw how beautiful the tortoise had become, emanating such glorious colours, he realized just how stupid he’d been and bowed his head in humility. “So, now you must go back and start all over again,” advised the tortoise. “And I will be waiting for you.”