The Four Harmonious Friends is a Buddhist image that conveys the truth of our interdependence.
This is a photograph of a painting at Tashilunpo monastery at Shigatse in Tibet. It shows a bird standing on a rabbit, itself standing on the shoulders of a monkey. The monkey is eating fruit while standing on the back of an elephant. The elephant is using its trunk to pick up the fruit from the tree.
There are different way in which you could comment on the parable of the four harmonious friends. I’ll describe the image in terms of mutual interdependence. The animals are symbolic of how we achieve more if we work together and not think only of ourselves.
The story starts with a sapling and a bird, often thought of as a partridge. At first the bird, a flightless bird, could scratch around and find small bits of plant to eat on the ground. But as the tree grew the bird couldn’t get enough food.
But then the rabbit arrived and could eat what was on the ground and if the bird stood on the rabbit’s back it too could eat from higher up the tree.
But the tree still grew and once again the bird couldn’t reach up to eat.
Enter the monkey who could climb the tree and pick fruit for them all to eat.
Of course the tree grew again and the monkey couldn’t reach the fruit at the top of the tree but when the elephant arrived they could all climb on top and get higher and all have enough food.
The message of course is that we all have different talents and can help each other in our own ways - if we work together.
In another account the background to the story is when the assumption is made that age confers seniority. In his legend the animals were arguing about who was oldest – and therefore had seniority.
The elephant claims he was the oldest because the tree was already large when he was young. The monkey said the tree was small and the rabbit said the tree was a sapling. But the bird said that he had excreted the seed from which the tree grew, so they all agreed the bird was the oldest. Seniority may not be obvious and may well be irrelevant.
It can also be said that the bird finds the seed and plants it, the rabbit waters it, the monkey fertilises it and the elephant protects it until it is a big tree full of fruit - which they all can eat and enjoy.
The painting shows a land of plenty, something of a paradise where the land is fertile and trees and fruit are abundant. A metaphor for our human existence if only we looked out for each other and put others before ourselves.
The bottom line is, in harmony we can all contribute to each other’s lives.