The Bodhisatta was once a prince. The queen’s first child had been devoured by a goblin shortly after birth. (In a former lifetime, the goblin and the queen had been rival wives in the king’s harem. One was jealous due to being barren, so she prayed that in a future life she would be able to eat the other’s children. For this reason, she was born as a goblin.) For her second delivery, the queen was surrounded by guards, but the goblin still got in and ate the baby. During the queen’s third pregnancy, not knowing the vengeful goblin had died, the king had blacksmiths build an iron house to protect the baby. The Bodhisatta was born and raised safely inside this house, always surrounded by guards.
The Bodhisatta grew up wise and strong, and when he turned sixteen his father let him out of the iron house and gave him the crown. He was led on a stately procession around the city and for the first time ever he saw beautiful parks, lakes, and homes and wondered why he had been kept imprisoned all his life. The king’s advisors told him the story of the goblin eating his two brothers and assured him that his isolated upbringing was through no fault of his own.
Pondering his life, the Bodhisatta realized that though he had escaped the wrath of the goblin and his iron prison, he could not escape disease, old age, and death—so he resolved to become an ascetic. When he was brought before his father, he said he wanted nothing to do with royalty and was going to depart, explaining in depth that accumulating wealth is pointless because everything is impermanent and death is inevitable: only a holy life prepares a person for the future.
When the sermon was complete, the Bodhisatta set out for his new life. His words were so powerful that his father also decided to renounce the world and then so did everyone who lived in the city. They all followed the Bodhisatta into the Himalayas. Indra, king of the gods, saw the vast crowd and sent Vissakamma, heaven’s chief builder, to make a monastery for them all.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
One time while talking to his disciples about the Great Renunciation, which was the beginning of his path to enlightenment, the Buddha told them this story so they knew he had also forsaken the throne for a religious quest in the past.
The Bodhisatta’s father and mother were earlier births of the Buddha’s father and birth mother, and the people who followed the Bodhisatta into the ascetic life were earlier births of the Buddha’s followers.