The Bodhisatta was once an untouchable; and then a deer, osprey, and ascetic in subsequent lives. His name was Citta, and he grew up very close to his cousin, Sambhuta. One day the daughters of a merchant and a chaplain were on their way to relax in the royal park when they saw the two men doing street performances at the city gates. Believing that seeing untouchables was an evil omen, they flushed their eyes with scented water and returned home. The people with these women, enraged at being deprived of a day of free food and liquor in the park, beat the Bodhisatta and his cousin senseless. Deeply upset, the men decided that to have a happy life they should leave and go someplace where nobody knew they were untouchables. They chose Taxila and went in the guise of brahmins to study religion with a famous teacher.
One morning, their teacher was unable to accept an invitation to a man’s home to receive an offering of food. He appointed the Bodhisatta, one of his top students, to take the others there and give the blessing in his place. When the food was served, the hosts told them to wait and let it cool for a moment. But Sambhuta ignored their warning, and the rice burned his mouth. He yelled out, “Hot!” and the Bodhisatta told him, “Spit it out!” In the shock of the moment, they both spoke in their untouchable dialect. Back at the school, other students beat them for their deceit, and the pair was banished from the city. They went off to the forest to live as ascetics and died not long after.
Later, the Bodhisatta and his cousin were born as deer and were always together, cuddling head-to-head and horn-to-horn when they slept, until a hunter killed them with a spear. Then they were born as ospreys and again were inseparable, lying together head-to-head and beak-to-beak, until they were snatched by a man for food.
In the next birth, the Bodhisatta was born the son of a chaplain and Sambhuta was born as a prince; and they could remember their past lives together. As adults, the Bodhisatta went off to the Himalayas to live as an ascetic and his cousin became king.
The Bodhisatta wanted Sambhuta to become an ascetic too, and after waiting fifty years for the right time, he flew down to the royal park. He heard a young boy singing the king’s coronation hymn (all the citizens sang it because they loved their king so much), which included the lines, “Sambhuta is doing great. Who knows if Citta is too?” And with this, the Bodhisatta devised a plan. He taught the boy a new verse of the song and told him to sing it for the king, promising that the king would be pleased.
The boy ran home, and his mother dressed him up spick and span, then took him to the palace where the king agreed to listen to his new lyrics. After the king sang the original, the boy answered the song’s question with the new verse: “Behold my Lord, Citta is at the park gate; and like you, he is doing great.” The king asked the boy where he got this verse, and then he raced off to his park in the royal chariot.
The king saw the Bodhisatta and sat down at his side, expressing his joy and respect to his dear friend. He offered to build him a palace and give him half his kingdom. But the Bodhisatta refused the offer, saying wealth does not bring real happiness, and reminded the king that all things are impermanent. Inspired by this advice, the king gave his eldest son the throne and went off to live as an ascetic with the Bodhisatta.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
Two of the Buddha’s disciples were best friends. They lived together, shared everything, and couldn’t bear being apart. When the Buddha heard some other disciples praising the men’s relationship, he said a friendship in one life was nothing special and told them this story so they knew that he himself had once kept an unbroken bond across four lifetimes.
The Bodhisatta’s companion through the lives was an earlier birth of Ananda, one of the Buddha’s top disciples.