The paintings of hares in the moon shown on the exterior of the Tooth Relic shrine refer to one of the most famous of the Jataka stories, describing the previous lives of the Buddha before his final incarnation and enlightenment. According to the Jataka story of the Hare in the Moon, the future Buddha was once born as a hare. One day the hare was greeted by an emaciated holy man, who begged him – along with a fox and a monkey, who also happened to be passing – for food. The fox brought a fish, the monkey some fruit, but the hare was unable to find anything for the holy man to eat apart from grass. Having no other way of assuaging the ascetic’s hunger, the hare asked him to light a fire and then leapt into the flames, offering his own body as food. At this moment the holy man revealed himself as the god Indra, placing an image of the hare in the moon to commemorate its self-sacrifice, where it remains to this day.
The Jataka fable may itself be simply a local version of a still more ancient Hindu or Vedic myth – traditions referring to a hare in the moon can be found as far away as China, Central Asia and even Europe, while the story also appears, in slightly modified form, in one of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.