Times of hardship bring out the best, and the worst, from the human soul, as illustrated by this particular story that took place long ago, at a time when Buddha was traveling through the lands of India. A famine had fallen on the peoples of the region. The rains did not arrive, the fields dried under the sun, and the crops were lost. Those who dwelled in towns and cities struggled to survive.
As so often happens in such circumstances, there were people who thrived, who grew rich at the expense of the misery of others. Every day, a disciple would come to the sangha, describing what he had witnessed and what he had been told along the way.
‘Some merchants are taking the grain from their silos to sell it in other places where they still have money to pay for it, and the little that they do sell here they sell for the price of gold,’ said a disciple who had just arrived from Varanasi.
‘I have been told that there are people who are selling themselves as slaves in order to be fed by their masters,’ said another, an expression of deep sadness in his eyes.
‘Yesterday, in the city, the merchants’ guards stabbed a man who tried to take a bag of rice from their barns,’ another said.
‘The greatest sadness is that of the children of the suburbs,’ said Buddha, ‘who are starving in the streets, while the rich accumulate grain and milk in their stores.’
‘Summon everyone,’ said the Buddha, rising to his feet. ‘We must do something to alleviate the hunger of the poorest.’
The disciples of Lord Buddha did what he asked and gathered hundreds of people in the great square of the city. The simplest and humblest people, many of them famished and in dire need, flocked to the place. But many merchants and rich people from the city also came, because everyone respected the Buddha and wanted to hear what he had to say.
‘Citizens of these rich lands,’ said Buddha from a raised arcade that amplified his voice, ‘misfortune has fallen on the region, but as soon as the rains come, these lands will again fill you with blessings, and provide enough food for all.’
‘However, until that time,’ he continued, ‘people have to survive. There is sure to be enough food in the stores of the richest to feed everyone in the city. If the rich share what they have in these moments of scarcity, you can all survive until the rains come and the crops are renewed.’
The poorest and hungriest among Buddha’s audience looked at each other with a glimmer of hope in their eyes, but the rich frowned, lowered their heads and stirred uncomfortably. Some of them left the square swearing that they would never again respond to the call of the Buddha.
‘I do not have enough for my family and my servants,’ a rich man said, lying.
‘He who is poor is so because he is a lazy man,’ said another, contemptuously. ‘Every one is responsible for their own destiny. If someone does not have anything to eat it is because they did not work hard enough and did not create reserves, like we did.’
‘There are too many poor people,’ another added. ‘We cannot take care of everyone. Let them seek help elsewhere.’
There was silence in the square.
The Buddha lowered his eyes. His heart had shrunk at the unconsciousness of those men. Discouraged that not one among the rich had offered to relieve the hardships of the needy, the Buddha asked for the last time, in no more than a whisper:
‘Is there no one here willing to donate some food, so that the children from the poorest neighbourhoods do not die of hunger?’
The silence hurt his ears.
Then, suddenly, a small voice spoke out in the middle of the crowd.
‘I am willing, Lord Buddha.’
A girl, not more than seven years of age, peeked out through the clothes of the richest. She was the daughter of a merchant, who had tried in vain to stop her from speaking.
‘My name is Supriya,’ said the girl, ‘and I have a bowl in which I can collect food for those who are hungry.’
Buddha’s face lit up with joy.
‘Oh, little one! Your gesture has restored my hope in the human heart. But, how are you going to do this all by yourself?’
‘Oh no, Lord Buddha, I am not alone!’ said the girl. ‘I’m sure my father, mother and my brothers and sisters will help me. I will go from house to house with my bowl asking for food for the poor, and I’m certain not one will close the door to me.’
The discomfort amongst the richest became apparent. The little girl, with her generosity and commitment, had embarrassed them. Many of them felt ashamed.
‘I think I have a couple of sacks of rice in my warehouse,’ the girl’s father said, raising his voice without daring to raise his eyes.
‘Now I remember that I once left a supply of dried vegetables in an old barn for situations like this,’ said a man of the highest caste.
‘I’m sorry that I was so mean,’ another said, opening up. ‘I should not have forgotten that my father was hungry once too. Supriya, count on me to help you.’
That afternoon, Supriya began her journey through the richest neighbourhoods, going from house to house, asking for her bowl to be filled with food. After word of what happened in the square had spread, nobody could refuse to give her rice, milk, fruit or vegetables.
The next day, other children from wealthy neighbourhoods joined Supriya with their own bowls. Together with the disciples of Buddha and the Buddha himself, they formed a small army of compassion.
For many weeks, Supriya collected food from the rich quarters and took it to the hungriest of the suburbs, walking from one side of the city to the other. From time to time, exhausted by the effort of so many days, the girl would fall asleep under the big banyan tree that stood next to the temple; and, when she woke up, she would always find that people had filled her bowl and left other provisions in sacks and jars to distribute among the poor.
‘Sometimes, a tender heart is able to soften thousands or millions of hard hearts,’ the Buddha commented to his disciples, ‘and that tender heart can be hidden anywhere.’
Adapted by Grian A. Cutanda (2018).
Under license Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA.
This story is based on the version by Sapp (2006), which in turn was based on the adaptation of Krishnaswami (1999). I have not found any other versions of this Buddhist story.
- Krishnaswami, U. (1999). Shower of Gold: Women and Girls in the Stories of India. North Haven, CT: Linnet Books.
- Sapp, J. (2006). Supriya’s bowl. In Rhinos & Raspberries: Tolerance Tales for the Early Grades, pp. 29-30. Retrieved from http://www.jeffsapp.com/r_r.pdf.
Associated text of the Earth Charter
Principle 10a: Promote the equitable distribution of wealth within nations and among nations.
Other passages that this story illustrates
Preamble: The Global Situation.- The benefits of development are not shared equitably and the gap between rich and poor is widening. Injustice, poverty, ignorance, and violent conflict are widespread and the cause of great suffering.