The Shepherd Who Understood the Language of Animals

In Northern Tibet, you can see many yaks and sheep with red wool tassels tied to their ears for decoration, but never do you see donkeys or asses with red tassels. Do you know why?

It is because Tibetans have a custom of "setting free" several yak and sheep each year. Most yak and sheep are raised for their meat; however, some are spared or "set free" each year. Everyone in a family will help to decide which of their livestock is the favorite yak or sheep. These favorites are marked with the tsai-ta; their ears are pierced and then a braid of red wool is hung from the ear. Yaks and sheep marked by the tsai-ta are blessed because their lives have been set free. No one dares to kill any livestock marked with tsai-ta, not even thieves. This is the story of how this custom was started.

A long, long time ago, there was a very wealthy nomad family in Northern Tibet. They had so many yaks and sheep that they couldn't even count them. They hired an honest and kind young man to be their shepherd.

Every day, the shepherd brought the yak and sheep out to the pasture to graze. Every day at noon he sat at the same spot on the hillside to eat his meal of roasted barley (you-za). Near where he sat, there was a mouse hole. When he had finished his lunch each day, he would toss a few pieces of barley into the mouse hole. This routine went day after day, year after year.

One day as the shepherd was eating lunch, a very small old man jumped out of the mouse hole. He was an earth god. The god had a beard as thick as a yak's tail, and as white as a sheep's wool. He had eyes as small as a mouse's, but the color of green turquoise.

The earth god said to the shepherd, "Thank you for sharing your you-za with me every day for so many years. Today I want to return the favor by giving you whatever you wish for."

The shepherd replied, "I don't want anything. Even if I had anything, I wouldn't have anywhere to put it, as I don't have a home."

"Surely there is something you wish to have. Please tell me; otherwise I have no way of returning the kindness you have shown me through the years," the earth god insisted.

"All right, if you feel that you must give me something, teach me the languages of all the birds in the sky and all the animals that run over the land."

The earth god said, "Done! In return for your generosity, I will teach you the languages of all the birds in the sky and all the animals that run over the land." He then blew a puff of air into the shepherd's ear and disappeared.

All at once, the shepherd could understand the language of all living souls. He could clearly understand all of their moods: happiness, anger, sadness, and joy. The shepherd could understand the rabbits telling each other where to run, and the ants working together to gather food, and the pure song of the birds as they flew through the sky. But once he understood all the animals' languages, he also began to be troubled.

It was a fine summer's day on the high pastures. The sky was very blue and there was no trace of clouds. All the wild flowers were in bloom. The sheep in the pasture had fleece as white as clouds and were enjoying the good summer grass.

But the shepherd was not happy, because he overheard an old mixed-color mother sheep calling out to its lamb. This is what the mother sheep said:

"Yang, yang. . .my child, listen to me. Tomorrow our master will kill me, then you will be an orphan. My poor child, listen to my advice now. You must never walk at the front of the herd; if you do, the grey wolf will catch you and eat you. Neither should you walk at the back of the herd; if you do, the shepherd will whip you. And don't walk at the side of the herd, or you will be pierced by the yak's horn. Please walk in the middle of the herd. It is the safest place to be." And the mother sheep and the lamb both cried that they would be separated the next day. They cried and cried until they lost their voices.

The shepherd heard the whole story and was filled with pity for the sheep. When he returned to his master's house, he couldn't put the herd into the fold, nor could he drink any tea or eat any dinner. Instead, he knelt down in front of his master and begged:

"My dear master, I have been a servant at your house for many years. I have worked hard to tend your herd. In payment for my years of service, please let me go now and take the mixed-color sheep and her lamb." The shepherd could not stop crying.

His master was very confused. "You have been a shepherd at our house for years. We have never mistreated you. Why do you want to leave so suddenly? Why are you so sad?"

"I have no reason, I just don't want to stay here anymore. Please, just give me the sheep and lamb and let me go, I beg you."

The master still did not understand, but as the shepherd had been such a loyal servant for many years, he gave the shepherd the two sheep and his blessing to leave. The shepherd was very happy. He put tassels of red wool onto his two sheep's ears to mark them, and let them run with his master's herd.

After leaving his master's house, the kind shepherd came to a wide field and wandered aimlessly. He did not bring any clothing or food, nor did he bring any shelter. He walked alone for a long distance. The more he walked, the more he heard sad stories among the animals. The more stories he heard, the sadder and more frustrated he became, until he was in a dazed state.

One evening, he came to the foot of a rocky mountain. Above his head, there was a crow's nest. The shepherd was so tired that he lay down to sleep by a pile of rocks. As he was falling asleep, he heard the mother crow coming back to her nest. The baby crows were crying noisily:

"Mother, mother, why are you coming home so late? We are starving, please give us some food."

The mother crow answered: "Today I flew over a hundred mountains and and a hundred valleys. I picked through the trash of a hundred houses and only found a rotten shoe. I was so hungry myself, I almost did not make it home. Maybe your father has found some food for us. Where is he?"

But the father crow was not home yet. The crow family was very disappointed and went to sleep with empty stomachs.

In the middle of the night, the shepherd heard the father crow returning. The baby crows woke up and started crying, "Daddy, daddy, what have you brought us to eat? We are starving."

The father crow replied, "I did not find anything to eat today. In the evening, just as I was ready to fly home, I found a green stone the size of a walnut among the trash in front of the King's palace. Because I was so hungry, I gulped it right down. But it is stuck in my throat because my neck is so thin. I can't breathe!"

"Oh father, if you die, what will happen to us? Please teach us how to fly, please teach us. . " the little crows cried. But they fell silent and the shepherd heard a noise that sounded like "Pa!" as the father crow choked to death, and then he heard the father crow fall to the ground.

In the morning, the shepherd continued his journey. He saw a man riding a horse with a colt running behind. The colt was out of breath and called out, "Mother, mother, please wait for me! I need your milk and cannot walk anymore."

The mother horse was also out of breath and replied, "My child, you have to go at your own pace. I can't wait for you. There is a needle under my saddle that is sticking me and it is unbearable. I have to run as fast as I can. Only when I reach our destination will our master take off the saddle and take the needle out of me."

The shepherd heard the exchange between the two horses and ran to catch up to them. He called out to the rider, "Wait a minute, please wait!" The rider asked, "What is the matter? Why do you ask me to stop?"

"You had better get off your horse and check under your saddle. Your horse may die."

The rider dismounted and took off the saddle, half-expecting to find nothing. But instead he found a needle that was stuck through the saddle and was sticking the horse in the back. When he removed the needle, the horse bled very badly, but at least she was out of pain. The rider asked the shepherd, "How did you know there was something wrong?" But the shepherd didn't know how to answer and stayed quiet.

The rider thought the shepherd must be a god to know things without seeing them. He pleaded with the shepherd to come with him to the King's palace to treat the King, who was very sick.

"I am a servant of the King and have been sent to find a famous doctor to heal him. Several days ago, the King lost his spirit-guardian turquoise. Since then, he has been bed-ridden and is very ill. You must come back with me to cure him" the rider said. The shepherd refused, saying "I am not a doctor. How could I cure him?"

Still, the rider insisted and finally the shepherd agreed to go. When he saw the King, the shepherd realized from his pale face that the King was going to die very soon. The shepherd was very afraid but was determined to do whatever he could to help save the King.

The shepherd remembered what the rider had said about the King losing his spirit-guardian turquoise. He asked the rider to go quickly to the mountain where he had slept the night before, and to look for a dead crow. Soon the rider came back with the dead crow's body and the shepherd cut it open. Inside the crow's throat was stuck the King's spirit-guardian turquoise.

The King started getting better right away. Within a few days, he had fully recovered despite his narrow escape from the death god. In gratitude, the King made the kind shepherd a knight and insisted that he have whatever he could need or want.

However, the shepherd could still understand all the animals' languages and heard all of their sufferings. Finally, he couldn't stand it any longer. He went back to his old pasture and found the earth god. The shepherd begged the earth god to take back his gift. The earth god agreed and blew another puff of air into the shepherd's ear. Immediately, the shepherd lost his ability to understand the languages of the birds who flew through the sky and the animals who ran over the earth. And he was happy.

When he returned to the King's palace, the King asked him why he had been missing for several days. This time, the shepherd told him the whole story of what had happened, and told him of the great suffering of the animals. The King was touched by the story and by the shepherd's kindness. The King gave a royal order: "All of my subjects should be kind to the animals. Do good deeds for animals, and set some of your yaks and sheep free."

Ever since that time, nomads who live on the Tibetan plateau set their favorite yaks and sheep free. They mark their animals' ears with tsai-ta, just as the kind shepherd did, to show that the animals are blessed and have been set free.

from "Folklore of Northern Tibet" by Tarei Tsering-Yuzhen
Translated by Chun-Wuei Su Chien
Edited by Chi-An Chien

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last updated: 2/23/00