The Bodhisatta was once an ascetic who lived with his wife in the Himalayas. He had no interest in marriage, but his parents insisted. So he had a golden statue of a woman made and told them he would only marry someone as beautiful as her. His parents sent the statue out across India in a carriage and told their emissaries that if they found the woman, they were to give her parents the statue in exchange.
Eventually they met a young woman as pure and beautiful as a nymph, who looked exactly like the statue. Like the Bodhisatta, she did not want to be married, but her parents made the trade and sent her away. Though the Bodhisatta and his wife resided together, they lived a virtuous, celibate life as though they were saints. When the Bodhisatta’s parents died, he and his wife gave away their vast wealth and renounced the world.
One time while down in the city to get salt and seasoning, they took up residence in the royal park. After eating some low-quality rice, the Bodhisatta’s wife grew weak from an attack of dysentery. Before making his morning alms round, the Bodhisatta carried her to the city gate and laid her down on a bench. While he was out gathering food, she died. A crowd of weeping and lamenting people gathered around her, but when the Bodhisatta returned, he sat on her bench and calmly started to eat. The people were shocked that he felt no sorrow over her death, so he gave them a lesson on impermanence, explaining that death is inevitable and sorrow serves no benefit. Then people gave her funeral rites, and the Bodhisatta returned to the Himalayas alone.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
When a landowner’s wife died, he was so depressed that he stopped eating, bathing, and caring for his farm fields, and he spent long hours wandering around the cemetery. One morning, the Buddha divined that this man was ready for a spiritual breakthrough, and only he could end his grief. So, after completing his alms round, the Buddha went to the man’s house and taught him that all things are impermanent and one should not grieve over what is lost. Then the Buddha told him this story about losing his own wife in the past, and the man did have a breakthrough in understanding.
The Bodhisatta’s wife was an earlier birth of the Buddha’s wife.