The Bodhisatta was once a merchant who led large oxcart caravans to trade with distant lands. As he prepared to leave on a long, dangerous journey through a vast desert, he heard that another merchant, a young and stupid man, was going to make the same journey. If they traveled at the same time they would tear up the road and it would be difficult to find enough water, grass (for the oxen to eat), and firewood. So the Bodhisatta went to discuss the situation with the young merchant, and given a choice, he decided to go first and the Bodhisatta would leave later.
As the foolish young man’s caravan reached the middle of the wilderness, a goblin who lived there devised a plan to make the travelers discard their drinking water so he and his small gang could easily attack and eat the weary men. Using his magic powers, he conjured up a majestic carriage, and the goblins, disguised as humans and soaking wet, with lotuses and water lilies on their heads, rode toward the approaching caravan. The young merchant stopped to talk with the goblin, who told him the difficult part of the journey was over and there was plenty of rain and many lakes up ahead. The goblin suggested that the merchant lighten his load and ease the journey by dumping his water. Not doubting the goblin’s story, the young man ordered his men to smash their heavy water jars. But, of course, they found no water the rest of the day and went to sleep weak and hungry because they had nothing to drink and couldn’t cook their rice. The goblins came during the night and devoured all the men and oxen, leaving nothing but bare bones behind.
Six weeks later, the Bodhisatta began his journey with five hundred carts, and halfway through, the goblins approached him with the same story. His men believed the lie and wanted to ditch their water so they could travel faster. But the Bodhisatta recognized the ruse and refused, explaining to his men that if there really was rain ahead, they would hear thunder, see storm clouds and lightning, and feel wind. When they came to the place where the foolish young merchant’s group had been massacred, they circled their wagons for the night to make a fortified camp and kept watch, swords in hand, until morning. When they left, they swapped their weakest carts for some of the abandoned ones that were stronger and took the most valuable merchandise. All the men made a great profit and returned home safely.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
Anathapindika, a wealthy supporter of the Buddha known for his extreme generosity, brought five hundred of his friends, all followers of other sects, to hear the Buddha preach. After listening to his lesson, they all became dedicated followers of the Buddha, keeping the precepts and showing charity. But later, when the Buddha went away for many months, these men reverted to their former faiths.
When the Buddha returned, these fickle men came to see him again, and the Buddha reminded them that his teachings were the only complete, indisputable truth, and nobody who followed his path would suffer in hell. Then he told them this story to emphasize his point.
The foolish young merchant was an earlier birth of Devadatta, a disciple of the Buddha who became his nemesis, and the caravan workers who died were earlier births of Devadatta’s followers. The Bodhisatta’s workers who safely reached their goal were earlier births of the Buddha’s followers.