The Bodhisatta was once an ascetic who lived in the Himalayas. The king was righteous and wise and always sought to improve himself, and he asked people to tell him his faults so he could correct them. But nobody, from his closest advisors to ordinary citizens living outside the city gates, ever shared any criticisms. So he left his advisors in charge of the kingdom and traveled in disguise with his chaplain out to the countryside, looking for honest answers. Still, he heard nothing but praise.
One day, out in a frontier village, a wealthy landowner saw the king. Impressed by his appearance (a dainty body and golden skin), he invited him to his house and prepared him a magnificent meal. Just as the food was being served, the Bodhisatta and a private Buddha (those who reach enlightenment on their own and do not teach the path to others) who lived in Nandamula Cave deep in the Himalayas arrived. The king gave his plate of food to his chaplain, the chaplain gave it to the Bodhisatta, and the Bodhisatta gave it to the private Buddha. The private Buddha began to eat, without offering to share. The landowner did not understand why they did this, so he asked them one by one and was told that each had greater virtue than they did. The king said his chaplain was his teacher and did much to help him. The chaplain said he lived in the city with a family and had many pleasurable indulgences, while the Bodhisatta lived alone in the forest without cravings. The Bodhisatta said he gathered roots, honey, herbs, scraps of meat, and other forest foods to eat, while the private Buddha never possessed anything. And the private Buddha, when asked why he didn’t share, confirmed he was superior among them all.
The landowner thanked them all for teaching him the precedence in giving alms. Then the Bodhisatta and the private Buddha both went on their ways, and the king remained at the landowner’s home for a few days before heading home.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The landowner of the past was an earlier birth of a landowner who faithfully supported the Buddha and his disciples. One day he decided he should show honor to dharma, but he didn’t know how. When asked, the Buddha suggested the landowner give a gift to Ananda, one of his top disciples and his personal attendant, nicknamed the “Treasurer of Dharma,” since he had committed everything to memory. The landowner invited Ananda to his home with great splendor and gave him a variety of choice foods and enough expensive cloth to sew three robes. Since the offering was for dharma, Ananda considered himself undeserving. He put the food in his bowl and took everything back to the monastery, where he gave it to Sariputta, one of the two chief disciples. But Sariputta also felt unworthy and gave it to the Buddha, who ate the food and kept the cloth since no one was above him.
When the Buddha heard some of his disciples discussing how the gift ending up with the Buddha was the appropriate result, he told them this story so they knew that this was not the first time food rose in successive steps to the person who most deserved it.
The king and the chaplain were earlier births of Ananda and Sariputta.