The Bodhisatta was once Indra, king of the gods. The mother of a wealthy merchant once pleaded with him, her only son, to give alms, be virtuous, observe the holy days, and follow the teachings; but the merchant completely rejected religion and righteousness. One full-moon holy day, she offered him one thousand coins to keep the vows and go to an overnight sermon. For the love of money, he agreed, but that night he slept instead of listening. When the merchant returned home the next morning, he rudely demanded the money from his mother, refusing to eat her food until he got it.
Later, the merchant decided to sail on a trading voyage to faraway lands. His mother begged him not to go because there were many dangers at sea. And she added that they already had plenty of money, so this new business was unnecessary. When she grabbed his hand to stop him from going, he struck her and left.
On his seventh day at sea, the winds died and the ship wouldn’t move. The crew cast lots to see who had cursed them, and when the greedy merchant drew the lot three times, he was set afloat on a raft. The moment he was jettisoned, the ship began to sail again.
The merchant’s raft drifted to an island where four female spirits of the dead (specifically vimana petas, ghosts whose blissful lives are regularly interrupted by hell-like tortures) lived in a crystal palace, and he stayed with them until they needed to leave for a week of penance. Next, he encountered eight more such spirits in a silver palace, then sixteen in a jewel palace, and finally thirty-two in a gold palace; and he always left when the spirits did.
Then the merchant arrived in a city with a massive wall and four gates. He was told it was one of the lesser hells, but to him it appeared beautiful. He went inside, arrogantly believing he would become its king. Right after he entered the gate, a man hauling a wheel as sharp as a razor on his head passed by, but the greedy merchant saw it as a lotus flower. He also thought the chains around the man’s body were a beautiful robe, the blood dripping from his head was perfume made from sandalwood powder, and his groaning was a sweet song. The merchant ordered the man to give him the lotus. When told what it really was, he figured the man holding it was lying because he wanted to keep it for himself. Told to hand it over a second time, the suffering man gladly gave it to him, thrilled that his punishment was over and another man who had also hit his mother was there to begin his. The instant the razor wheel touched the merchant’s head, he felt a piercing and tearing pain, like a pestle crushing mustard seeds.
At the moment the punishment began, the Bodhisatta walked by, and the merchant cried out, asking what he had done to deserve this. The Bodhisatta told him that centuries of misery carrying this wheel on his head was the price for a life of utter greed.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The greedy merchant was an earlier birth of a disobedient disciple of the Buddha, who told him this story of his past so he knew that his defiance had once led to great suffering.