The Bodhisatta was once an ascetic. He was born into a wealthy family, but was not interested in worldly things and would not let his parents fix him up with a wife. When his parents died, he, along with his six young brothers and one sister, gave away the family fortune and became an ascetic. They went to the Himalayas, taking a friend, a male slave, and a maid with them, and lived a holy life near a lotus lake eating the fruits and roots of the forest.
They took turns collecting food – though the Bodhisatta, his sister, and the maid were exempted from this duty – and whoever gathered it that morning laid out eleven portions and banged a gong to signal the food was ready to be picked up.
Their perfect virtue caused the throne of Indra, king of the gods, to shake. When Indra divined the cause he wondered whether they were just free of desire or if they were proper sages and decided to test them. For three days in a row, Indra caused the Bodhisatta’s share of food to disappear. On the first day, the Bodhisatta assumed it had been a mistake. On the second he figured someone was subtly informing him of some fault in his behavior, and on the third he sounded the gong and summoned the others to a meeting.
The three brothers who had gathered food over the last three days denied withholding his share, so the Bodhisatta decided it must have been stolen, and everyone felt agitated by the possibility. At this point three other beings who lived near them – the forest’s chief tree fairy, an elephant who had escaped from his owner to live free in the forest, and a monkey who had performed in a snake-charmer show and also escaped – joined the meeting. All thirteen of them swore an oath that they had not taken the food and invited curses (They hoped the thief would have great treasures, a big family, sweet food to eat, a heart full of desire and pride, and faith in the stars and lucky days – things that would ruin an ascetic’s life.) to befall the guilty.
Indra, who had been watching the proceedings, revealed himself and asked the Bodhisatta why they all disdained the things that brought most humans such joy. He answered that desires were chains that bound men, leading to sin and misery. Indra was pleased by this answer and confessed his experiment. The Bodhisatta rebuked Indra for making sport of them, but accepted his apology. Indra saluted them all and returned home to heaven. And for the rest of their lives the band of ascetics never wavered from their righteous path.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
A man of noble birth gave up his easy life to become a disciple of the Buddha and was completely dedicated to dharma. One day during an alms round he met a beautiful woman and fell in love at first sight. Overcome by passion, he became so depressed he stopped cutting his hair and nails and cleaning his robes, became thin and weak with yellow skin and veins sticking out of his body, and no longer took joy in his life of solitude.
When the Buddha found out about his problem he told this disciple the woman was wicked and he should get her out of his mind. Then the Buddha told the disciple this story to explain how in the past he himself not wavered from the righteous path when he was an ascetic. Hearing this, the disciple overcame his lust and regained his health.
The Bodhisatta’s brothers were earlier births of Sariputta, Moggallana, Punna, Maha Kassapa, Anuruddha, and Ananda, six of the Buddha’s top disciples. His sister and maid were Uppalavanna and Khujjuttara, two of the Buddha’s top female disciples. The tree fairy was Satagira, a goblin who supported the Buddha and worked hard to spread his message; the slave was Citta, one of the Buddha’s most devoted lay followers; the elephant was Parileyya, an elephant who cared for the Buddha during a time he stayed alone in a forest; the monkey was Madhuvasettha, a prominent brahmin from the Buddha’s time; and Indra was Kaludayi, another of the Buddha’s top disciples.