The Bodhisatta was once an ascetic who lived alone in the Himalayas. One time he went down to a city to get salt and vinegar, and he slept in the royal park. The next morning, the king saw the Bodhisatta out collecting alms and, impressed by his demeanor, invited him into the palace for a big meal. After they talked, the king told the Bodhisatta he could stay in the park as long as he liked and all his needs would be met.
The king came daily to pay respect to the Bodhisatta, who preached to him about ruling righteously with patience, kindness, and compassion and avoiding anger. To show his appreciation, the king tried to give him a village that had revenue of one hundred thousand coins, but the Bodhisatta was not interested in worldly things and refused.
After living for twelve years in the park, the Bodhisatta felt he should take a journey. At the Ganges River he boarded a ferry whose foolish owner collected fares after his passengers reached the other side. Often they gave him nothing, and fights broke out. The ferryman asked the Bodhisatta what he would pay, and he answered, “I will tell you how to increase your wealth, welfare, and virtue.” Once on the other side, the Bodhisatta advised him to increase his wealth by collecting his fare before taking the passengers across and increase his welfare and virtue by not getting angry. The ferryman had assumed he would also get some money in addition to the advice; when he didn’t, he threw the Bodhisatta down on the ground, sat on his chest, and punched him in the mouth. It was an example of how some people are just too stupid to receive good advice; it’s like giving gold to animals.
The ferryman’s wife saw him attacking the Bodhisatta and told him to stop. Now angry at her too, he jumped up and knocked her down, causing her to miscarry. He was arrested and taken to the king, who punished him.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The ferryman of the past was an earlier birth of a ferryman in the Buddha’s time. A disciple of the Buddha who lived in the countryside traveled to visit the Buddha and arrived late. The ferryman told him to wait until morning to cross the river, but the disciple insisted on going right away. The ferryman took him, but traveled slowly and steered poorly, causing the boat to take on water, making the disciple’s robe wet. Because of this, he was unable to see the Buddha that day.
The next day, the Buddha asked the disciple why he didn’t come see him the day before. When the disciple explained what had happened, the Buddha told him this story so he knew that the ferryman was also an ignorant and crude man in the past.
The king was an earlier birth of Ananda, one of the Buddha’s top disciples.