The Bodhisatta was once a wise and respected man. A large festival was happening in his city and the king’s gardener wanted to join the festivities, so he asked the monkeys living in the royal park, who benefited from eating its fruits and shoots, to water the young plants in the garden for him while he was away. The monkey king agreed, and the gardener gave him the waterskins and watering cans. Wanting to do a good job, the monkey king told the other monkeys they needed to conserve water or they might run out before getting to all the plants. He told them to pull up the plants to see the size of their roots and give lots of water to those with big roots and just a little water to those with small roots.
The Bodhisatta walked past the park and saw some monkeys at work. He asked why they were pulling up the trees and the monkeys told him they were following their king’s orders. The Bodhisatta rebuked the monkey king for being a fool and commented to his followers that this was an example of how ignorant people who desire to do good end up doing harm.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
While on an alms pilgrimage, the Buddha was invited to eat lunch at a man’s home and they did so in his lush garden. Walking around the garden, some of the Buddha’s disciples saw a bare patch and they asked the gardener what had happened. The gardener told them a boy from the village had been hired to water the plants and he pulled all the young plants up to judge how much water they needed by the size of their roots. These plants withered and died, making the space they saw.
When the disciples later told the Buddha about it, he told them this story so they knew it was not the first time the boy had destroyed a garden. The monkey king was an earlier birth of this village boy.