The tale of The Four Friends is a common subject of paintings found in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, temples and in Thangka art work. Lord Buddha used this story to illustrate the value of seniority and the wisdom that experience and age bestows.
Four friends: an elephant, a hare, a monkey and a bird – all lived in a forest. They mutually took shelter and enjoyed the fruits of a large tree. One day they got into an argument over which of the four was the eldest of the group. The elephant argued that he was the oldest as he saw the tree in its maturity when he was yet young, the monkey from his point of view was the eldest because he saw the tree when it was small and the hare said that the tree was a sapling when the hare was small and thus argued that he was the eldest. The bird was quiet for some time and then revealed that he actually was the oldest because he had excreted the seed that produced the tree!
The other three friends acknowledged the bird’s claim to be the eldest. Even though the bird was the smallest he had the respect of the others. Also it was revealed that the bird was actually a manifestation of Lord Buddha! The four lived in harmony and cooperation under the tree.
Lord Buddha told this tale to teach his followers the value of wisdom and seniority and mutual respect and teamwork. Sometimes it is said that the four animals also represent all the four levels of creation: beings who live in the air, those that live on the ground, those that live in the trees and those that dwell underground. All four classes of beings should live in harmony and with mutual respect and partnership.
Most Four friends paintings depict the friends seated on the elephant always near the beloved tree.