Once the Buddha was born as an ant. Unlike the other ants he was a rich copper colour, with strong legs and sensitive antennae. It was late spring, and he marched out of the nest along with all the other ants to forage for food. Following the scent marks left by his many kin, he trotted along over twigs and stones, finding seeds and carrying them back to the nest. A fiddler sat on a branch by the side of the way, playing a lively jig. Each ant, as he passed the cricket, said ‘Hullo! Aren’t you collecting any seeds?’ But the cricket just concentrated on his melody.
The copper-coloured ant, too, stopped for a moment to listen and asked the cricket the same question: ‘Aren’t you collecting any seeds?’ The cricket smiled, but he was too deep in his fiddling to talk. Back at the nest the ants were gossiping amongst themselves. ‘What a shiftless animal that cricket is. Never stores up any food!’
Summer came, and there was food everywhere. The ant was amazed at the sheer quantity of food that he and his family were able to collect. They raced around in the hot sun scavenging meat, finding seeds, drinking the juice of freshly fallen fruit. In the long evenings the cricket’s jaunty tunes lightened their way, and the copper-coloured ant often slowed right down to enjoy the jigs and reels as he passed by. ‘Not collecting any food yet? Shame!’ said the ants.
Autumn came. The ants’ larder was piled to bursting with food, and the cricket, who had been practising every day, now played complex and beautiful songs that hinted at the gathering chill. ‘That cricket will come to a bad end!’ said the ants.
With the first hard frost, the ants retreated. After a day or two, the copper-coloured ant, deep inside the nest, could hear the cricket knocking at their door, begging for a scrap of food – but not one ant moved to help him. The copper-coloured ant remembered the cricket’s wonderful music and stared at his elders in shame.
The next spring came, and again the copper-coloured ant marched out along with his family to gather food. That evening as he walked home, he heard the sounds of a fiddle. Looking into the bushes he saw a young cricket playing a cheerful, simple tune. The ants ahead of him in line considered the cricket. ‘Not collecting any food? Hmph!’ But as the copper-coloured ant trotted past he smiled at the fiddler and thanked him for the tune.
Back at the nest the ants were already gossiping. ‘Another year, another foolish cricket. Won’t they ever learn?’ The copper-coloured ant waited for a pause in the chatter, then spoke up.
‘We’re very good at collecting food, aren’t we?’
‘Oh, yes we are! It’s what we do!’ said all the other ants.
The next day, too, the copper-coloured ant smiled at the fiddler as he walked by, and in the nest he remarked on the gathering skill of the ants.
Spring blossomed; and one morning, very early indeed, the copper-coloured ant took a handful of extra seeds and crept outside. He found a sunny patch of land near the nest and, all by himself, scraped out a little earth. He dropped a seed in, covered it, and went on to bury all the other seeds he had found. Then he ran back inside just in time to see his many family members stretching and waking up, ready for a day’s work collecting and storing food. That day too, he smiled at the fiddler. As he walked away he felt his legs lift with the cadences of the cricket’s tune. ‘Great tune!’ he said, to the ant behind him, who said ‘Yup! Great tune.’
Every night that month he remarked, in one way or another, on the skill of the ants at gathering food; and every day he never forgot to exchange a cheerful glance with the cricket. Each evening as he walked back in line he noted, to whomever happened to be ahead or behind in the queue, that the cricket’s music was good and getting better. When the next full moon came the cricket had been practising with extra determination and his music reflected the ripening of the flowers and fruits in the woodland.
That night in the nest, the ants said—as they always did—‘Silly cricket. He never gathers any food!’
And the copper-coloured ant said, ‘Well, we’re very good at gathering food. He’s good at playing music.’
The other ants all agreed. ‘We’re good at gathering food. He does play good music, that’s true!’ But then some of the older ants said, ‘Still, he’ll starve to death this winter, just like all the crickets always do.’
The next morning the copper-coloured ant got up very, very early and crept outside. First he went to look at his garden. Where he had planted seeds, there were fine plants heavy with flowers. Then he ran to where his friend the cricket was snoring away after a long night’s performance. ‘Wake up! I have to talk with you!’ said the ant. The cricket stirred, heavily, then opened an eye.
‘What do you want? I’m tired.’
‘I need to ask a favour of you. You mustn’t play any music today, not a note. Can you do it?’
The cricket was confused, but he liked the little copper-coloured ant who always smiled at him, and so he agreed.
That evening, as the ants marched home, there was no music to liven their way. Without knowing why, they were tired and sad. The copper-coloured ant said to the nearest ants, ‘Where’s our cricket? It’s hard to work without his music.’
Up and down the line the gossip spread. ‘Where’s our cricket? Where’s our music?’ And that night, the ants were sore and spoke little. They had not gathered as much grain that day as they usually did.
The next day, the cricket played again as usual, and all the ants listened with extra attention. Their legs lifted a little higher, their feet flew down the path, and a few of them smiled shyly at the cricket. That evening the gossip in the nest was all about the cricket. ‘What happened?’ ‘We missed his music yesterday – glad we had it today!’
The hottest days of summer had passed, and the red evenings of autumn were filled with the cricket’s music. Even the eldest ants smiled as they passed him on the way home. One day, the copper-coloured ant showed the other ants the small garden he had prepared. It was amazing! Now their storehouses were packed full of seeds and extra food for the long cold winter ahead. That night, the ants were chatting away, and once again, the copper-coloured ant remarked, ‘We are good at storing food, aren’t we!’
‘Yes, we are’ said the others.
‘We can’t play music, though.’
‘We have the cricket! His music is wonderful. It helps us through the long hot days, and cheers us up at night.’
Then the copper-coloured ant chose his words very carefully. ‘The cricket never gathers any food, though. What will happen to our music?’ And the ants were all very quiet.
The ants worked on through the autumn as leaves began to fall. The cricket’s music ripened too, and he played them new rhythms and melodies every evening. Too soon, the first frost came. That night, huddled underground, the ants were all very still. After a little while, there was a knock on the door. ‘It’s me,’ said the cricket. ‘I’m cold and hungry. Are you in there?’
The ants all looked at one another, silent and sad. Then the copper-coloured ant, every so softly, said ‘Shall I get the door?’—and all the ants cheered with joy. That night even the eldest ants could be seen waving their antennae to the fiddler’s merry tunes. Later the cricket, well fed and very grateful indeed, softly played them to sleep.