Buddha told this story while journeying through Kosala. When he came to the village of Nalakapana (Cane-drink Village), he stayed near the Nalakapana Lake. One day, after bathing in the pool, the monks asked the novices to fetch them some canes for needle-cases. After getting the canes, however, the monks discovered that, rather than having joints like common canes, the canes were completely hollow.
Surprised, they went to Buddha and said, “Venerable Sir, we wanted to make needle-cases out of these canes, but from top to bottom they are quite hollow. How can that be?”
“Monks,” said Buddha, “this was my doing in days gone by.” Then he told this story of the past.
Long, long ago, on this spot there was a lake, surrounded by a thick forest. In those days the Bodhisatta was born as the king of the monkeys. As large as the fawn of a red deer, he was the wise leader of eighty thousand monkeys that lived in that forest.
He carefully counseled his followers: “My friends, in this forest there are trees that are poisonous and lakes that are haunted by ogres. Remember always to ask me first before eating any fruit you have not eaten before or drinking any water from a source you have not drunk from before.”
“Certainly,” the monkeys agreed.
One day while roaming the jungle, the monkey troop came to an area they had never before visited. Thirsty after their day’s wanderings, they searched for water and found this beautiful lake. Remembering their master’s warning, the monkeys refrained from drinking. They sat and waited for their leader. When he joined them he asked, ” Well, my friends, why don’t you drink?”
“We waited for you to come.”
“Well done!” said the monkey king. Then he walked a full circuit around the lake. He noticed that all the footprints led down into the water, but none came back.
“My friends,” he announced, “you were right not to drink from this lake. It is undoubtedly haunted by a demon.”
Suddenly, the ogre, in a hideous guise, rose up out of the lake and appeared before them. He had a blue belly, a white face, and bright-red hands and feet. “Why are you sitting here?” he asked the monkeys. “Go down to the lake and drink.”
The monkey king asked him, “Aren’t you the ogre of this lake?”
“Yes, I am. How did you know I was here?”
“I saw the footprints leading down to the water but none returning. Do you prey on all those who go down to the water?”
“Yes, I do. From small birds to the largest animals, I catch everything which has come into my water. I will eat all of you too!”
“Oh, no, ogre,” said the monkey king, “we are not going to let you eat us.”
“You must be parched. Just drink the water,” taunted the monster.
“All right, ogre, we will drink some water, but we are not going to fall into your power.”
“How can you drink water without entering the lake?”
“Ogre!” the monkey king cried. “We need not enter your lake at all. All eighty thousand of us can drink through these canes as easily as through a hollow lotus stalk. We will drink and you will not be able to harm us.”
The monkey king requested that a cane be brought to him. Then, recollecting the Ten Paramitas he was perfecting, he recited them in a solemn asseveration of truth, and blew into the cane.
Instantly, the joints disappeared, and the whole length of the cane became hollow. After hollowing several more in the same way, the monkey king toured the lake. “Let all canes growing here become perfectly hollow throughout,” he commanded. Because of the great virtues of Bodhisattas, their commands are always fulfilled. Therefore, every single cane that grew around that lake instantly became hollow and has always remained so.
(There are four miraculous phenomena which will endure throughout the whole kappa [eon]. What are the four? First, the figure of the hare can be seen in the moon [Jat 316]; second, fire will not touch the spot of the baby quail’s nest [Jat 35]; third, no rain shall fall on the site of Ghatikara’s house [Ghatikara Sutta, MN 81]; and fourth, the canes that grow round this lake will remain perfectly hollow.)
At last, the monkey king seated himself with a cane in his hands. The other eighty thousand monkeys likewise arranged themselves around the lake, each with a cane. They all dipped their canes into the water and drank. They satisfied their thirst, but the ogre could not touch a single one of them. Frustrated and furious, he returned to his home in defeat.
When all had finished, the monkey king led his followers back into the forest.
When Buddha had ended his lesson, he showed the connection, and identified the Birth by saying, “Devadatta was the water-ogre of those days; my disciples were the eighty thousand monkeys; and I was the monkey-king, so fertile in resourcefulness.”
Nalapana Jataka: The Case of the Hollow Canes (Jat 20)
“Jataka Tales of the Buddha: Part V”, retold by Ken & Visakha Kawasaki. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013