The Bodhisatta was once an elephant. He was pure white, stood forty meters tall, and his tusks were seven meters thick and emitted six-colored rays of light. He lived beside a beautiful, bountiful lake deep in the Himalayas and ruled a herd of eight thousand.
One day, while standing between his two queens, the Bodhisatta struck a flowering sal tree with his head. Flowers and green leaves fell on his favorite queen, while dry twigs mixed with dead leaves and red ants fell on the other, and this angered her. Another time, while bathing in the lake, the Bodhisatta sprinkled pollen from a large lotus on his head and gave the flower to his favorite queen, angering the other queen even more. Later, when the Bodhisatta and his wives were giving offerings of wild fruit to five hundred private Buddhas (those who reach enlightenment on their own and do not teach the path to others), the queen with the grudge prayed to be reborn as a human queen so she could send a hunter to kill the Bodhisatta. Then she set her scheme in motion by starving herself to death. She was reborn as a beautiful princess, and when she came of age she married a king and became queen consort, chief of his sixteen thousand wives.
The new queen remembered her previous life and her hatred of the Bodhisatta, and when the time was right, she put on a soiled robe and lay in bed pretending to be sick. The king came and offered her any wish that would make her feel better, and she asked that he summon all the hunters of the kingdom to the palace. The king made it so with a proclamation by the beat of a drum, and soon after, sixty thousand men assembled. The queen announced that she needed a hunter to kill an elephant she had seen in a dream and bring his light-emitting tusks to her, but none of the men had ever heard of such a thing. She chose a tough, hulking, ugly fellow disfigured with scars and strong as five elephants out of the crowd to be her hunter and told him the difficult, dangerous task she proposed, promising a reward of five profitable villages. At first he was terrified, but he accepted the task after the queen promised him success because she had given a gift and made a prayer to some private Buddhas. She gave him one thousand coins and all the equipment (such as an axe, drill, iron pegs, and leather parachute) he would need for the long, arduous journey to the Bodhisatta’s home, and he set out with a promise to succeed.
The hunter traveled seven years, seven months, and seven days across thorny fields, dense forests, muddy swamps, and soaring mountains, all beyond the realm of man, to reach the Bodhisatta’s lake. There he dug a pit, where the Bodhisatta went to bathe and, dressed as an ascetic, sat waiting inside with a poison arrow.
When the Bodhisatta came, the hunter shot him, and the rest of the herd fled in panic while their king roared in pain. Seeing the hunter, the Bodhisatta asked why he wanted him dead, and the hunter told of the queen’s dream. Hearing this, the Bodhisatta knew it was the work of his former queen, and he told the hunter the truth about her.
Not wanting to suffer karmically from being angry, the Bodhisatta told the hunter to cut off his tusks and take them to the queen so he might make merit toward eventually reaching nirvana. The hunter tried, causing great pain in the Bodhisatta’s bloody mouth, but he was so large the hunter couldn’t do it. So the Bodhisatta grabbed the saw in his trunk and cut them off himself. He died soon after, the good queen taking leadership of the herd.
By the magical power of the tusks, the hunter returned to the palace in just seven days. He gave the queen the tusks and rebuked her hatred of the Bodhisatta. Knowing he was dead, the queen was filled with remorse and unbearable sorrow and died that day.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The wicked queen was an earlier birth of a young female disciple. While listening to the Buddha preach one time, she wondered whether she had ever been one of his wives in a past life. When the recollection of that former existence first came back to her, she laughed with joy, but moments later, when she realized what she’d done to him, she burst into tears. Her twofold reaction made the Buddha smile, and when some other disciples asked why he was smiling, he told them the young disciple had remembered a sin she once committed against him, and then he told them this story.
The hunter was an earlier birth of Devadatta, a disciple of the Buddha who became his nemesis and tried to kill him three times.