A short while after this conversation with Ananda, it happened that Shariputra traveled with the Buddha and various of the Brothers to Savatthi. Some of them went ahead and chose suitable sleeping quarters for themselves. Shariputra, being old and feeble, was the last to arrive. He found all of the sleeping quarters occupied. That did not trouble him and he chose the root of a tree. But it was winter and when the chill of early morning came, he began to cough. He rose. The Buddha had also risen early and discovered him because of his coughing. The Buddha was concerned when he heard the reason why Shariputra had not been provided with a proper sleeping place. He called the Brothers together and asked if they had given thought as to who should be allotted the best seat, the best sleeping place, and the best food. Some said that the best should be given to those who had belonged to the Brahmin class or the nobility . . . Others said those who could expound the Dharma. Others again would give the best to those who could attain the four jnanas, or stages of meditation, or to those who could exercise supernormal powers.
“No,” said the Buddha, “none of these things merit the best, but old age alone. Long ago there was a great banyan tree on the lower slopes of the Himalayan range. Near it dwelt three friends, a partridge, a monkey, and an elephant. As they desired to live together in peace and concord, they decided to give preference and greatest respect not to the cleverest or wisest, but to the one who was oldest, Because he was of the greater size, they first asked the elephant how far he could remember back. He looked at the branches of the great banyan tree above them and said:
‘When I was small, I used to walk over this banyan tree, and the topmost twig touched my belly.’
“Next they questioned the monkey and he replied: ‘When I was small, sitting upon the ground I gnawed the topmost twig of this banyan tree.’
“Lastly the partridge spoke: ‘When I was small, there was no banyan tree in this place, but there was one growing in the open space over there. One day I ate of its fruit and voided the seed of it in this place, and from that seed grew this banyan tree.’
“Whereupon the elephant and the monkey said to the patridge: ‘You are the oldest. Henceforth we shall honour and reverence you; we shall support you and abide by your counsels.’
“Thereafter those three dwelt together in mutual respect, confidence, and courtesy. If animals know the rules of courtesy, how much more should you [monks], who have left the world. Those who are oldest should receive the best sleeping quarters, and the best food, and be treated with respect.”
from Footprints of Guatama the Buddha