The Hermit and the Hare
The Jataka is an ancient collection of stories about the Buddha before his last (human) life. They illustrate points of dharma and teaching using the vehicle of folk narratives and morality tales in a distinctly Hindu style, populated with forests, kings, talking animals, and always a character who is the Buddha in a previous life. Each story is prefaced by Gautama's introduction and conclusion illustrating the point of the tale and revealing which character was whom.
In the "Story of the Hermit and the Hare," the Buddha is at the beginning of his preaching career, resting in Deer Park with his first five disciples. A young man named Yasas appears, eager to quit his wealthy lifestyle, now seeking out the Buddha to become his follower. However, a group of Yasas' old friends, led by Vimala, has come to dissuade him and to restore him to his old ways. Buddha tells the story within the hearing of all of them.
From the Andre Ferdinad Herrold text, Blum translation (1927), with minor edits.
There was once a hermit who dwelt in a ravine far up in the mountains. He lived miserably and alone. His clothes were made out of bark; he drank only water, and he ate nothing but roots and wild fruit. His sole companion was a hare. This hare could speak like a human being, and he liked to talk to the hermit. He derived great benefit from his teachings, and he strove earnestly to attain wisdom.
One year, there was a terrible drought: the mountain springs dried up, and the trees failed to flower or bear fruit. The hermit could no longer find food or water; he became weary of his mountain retreat, and, one day, he cast aside his hermit's robe.
The hare saw him and said, "Friend, what are you doing?"
"You can see for yourself," replied the hermit."'I have no further use for this robe."
"What!" exclaimed the hare, "Are you going to leave the ravine?"
"Yes, I shall go among people. I shall receive alms, and they will give me food, not just roots and fruit."
At these words the hare became frightened; he was like a child abandoned by its father, and he cried, "Do not go, friend! Do not leave me alone! Besides, many are ruined who go to live in cities! The solitary life of the forest is alone praiseworthy."
But the hermit was determined: having decided to go, he would go. Then the hare said to him: "You would leave the mountains? Then leave! But grant me this favor: wait a day longer, just one day. Stay here today, tomorrow you may do as you please."
The hermit thought, "Hares are good foragers; they often have a store of provisions hidden away. Tomorrow this one may bring me something to eat." So he promised not to leave until the following day, and the hare scampered off joyously.
The hermit was one of those who held Agni in great reverence, and he was careful always to keep a fire burning in the ravine. "I have no food," he said to himself, "but at least I can keep warm until the hare returns."
At dawn the following day, the hare reappeared, empty-handed. The hermit's face betrayed his disappointment.
The hare bowed to him and said, "We animals have neither sense nor judgment; forgive me, worthy hermit, if I have done wrong." And he suddenly leaped into the flames.
"What are you doing?" cried the hermit. He sprang to the fire and rescued the hare.
Then the hare said to him, "I would not have you fail in your duty; I would not have you leave this retreat. There is no longer any food to be had. I have given my body to the flames; take it, friend; feed upon my flesh. and stay in the ravine."
The hermit was deeply moved. He replied, "I shall not take the road to the city; I shall remain here, even if I must die of starvation."
The hare was happy; he looked up at the sky and murmured this prayer: "Indra, I have always loved the life of solitude. Deign to hear me, and cause the rain to fall."
Indra heard the prayer. The rain fell in torrents, and presently the hermit and his friend found all the food they wanted in the ravine."
So ends the story of "The Hermit and the Hare." Buddha looks at his audience and states that the evil-minded young men who sought to dissuade Vasas from the path of the dharma are represented by Vimala -- who was the hermit of the story. The hare was the Buddha himself. The Buddha then declares, in what is formulaic of the Jataka:
Just as I kept you from following the evil path when I was a hare living in the ravine, Vimala, so shall I show you the way to holiness, now that I have become the supreme Buddha, and your eyes will see, your ears will hear.
So Vimala, his companions, as well as Vasas, remained with the Buddha.