The Buddha told this story as something that took place in one of his previous incarnations. At that time, he was a simple man with a wife and three daughters. He was always kind to people and was dearly loved by his family. Unfortunately, he died before he could marry his daughters so he felt very sad. When he entered into the soul’s world, he observed what was happening on earth, and saw that his family was almost poverty-stricken.
So he returned to his family as a beautiful golden swan and said to his wife, “I have come to you in this form. Once a month I shall come and leave one of my gold feathers for you to sell. In this way you will easily be able to meet with all your expenses.”
So every month he used to come and leave a golden feather.
The wife was very happy, and the daughters also were so delighted when they saw their father. The swan used to stay for a few minutes and then leave.
One day an idea entered into the wife’s mind: “My husband may not come regularly, or he may change his mind and stop coming, or he may grow old and die. The best thing is for me to catch him and strangle him the next time he comes, so that I can take away all his feathers.”
The daughters were simply shocked: “How can you do this kind of thing, Mother?”
The wife said, “All right, I won’t strangle him. But I will take away all his feathers. If he cannot fly anymore, no harm. You will take care of your father.”
The daughters pleaded with their mother, “Please, we love our father so deeply. He is so kind to us. He could have stayed in the soul’s world, but he comes in the form of a swan to help. Look at his love for us.”
But the mother would not listen. The next time the bird came, she caught hold of him by the neck and took away all his feathers, one by one.
It was most painful to the swan and he cried and screamed most pitifully: “What are you doing? I have been so kind to you.”
When she was finished, the bird was suffering like anything and it could not fly anymore. Then all of a sudden all the golden feathers turned into ordinary white feathers: they no longer were made of gold.
The greedy wife felt miserable and the daughters were smitten with grief. But what could the daughters do? Their mother was so cruel. Then the mother went inside her room and opened a box where she had been keeping the gold feathers that she had accumulated but had not yet sold. She knew that she still had many gold feathers, enough to meet her family’s expenses for at least six months. But as soon as she opened the box, she found that these feathers, too, had turned into ordinary white feathers; they were no longer gold.
The three daughters, with great love and affection, each day fed the poor swan and showed him tremendous concern. The mother was now helpless; she hated her fate. “This is what happened because of my greed,” she said to herself.
The daughters said to her, “This is what you have done! Even if our father had not come for six months or one year, we could have lived comfortably on the golden feathers that you had saved in your box. Now father does not have golden feathers anymore.”
The father said, “This is your fate, my fate.”
Slowly and steadily the feathers of the swan grew back again, but this time they were pure white, so the wife did not bother to take them from the bird. Finally the bird was able to fly away. The children were very happy that the bird was released. Now their father would be happy. They said, “He will be able to do everything in his own way.”
The mother felt miserable, not because the bird had gone away, but because of her stupidity. She was not going to get any more golden feathers and once again she was poor.
GIM 98. 24 January 1979↩