The Bodhisatta was once a king. He was a righteous leader, but grew discontented with governing. He had told his barber to inform him if he ever found a grey hair on his head; this would be the sign it was time to renounce the throne and become an ascetic. And when his barber found the first grey hair, the Bodhisatta immediately gathered his eighty thousand advisors and sixty thousand brahmins to announce that he was abdicating to live out a religious life in the Himalayas. They were all upset and asked him to stay, but he said he was determined to pursue his place in heaven.
After this, his mournful family and other people came to talk him out of leaving, but it was all in vain. His parents came first, asking why he was abandoning them and his many children who relied on him, but the Bodhisatta answered that he must go now. His seven hundred wives came and asked him not to leave them alone, but he said that though he pitied their pain, he wanted to pursue heavenly bliss. His chief queen was pregnant and asked him to wait until after their child was born, and to this he agreed. Their seven-year-old son promised his mother that he would not allow his father to leave, but the Bodhisatta told his nanny to take the boy away so he wouldn’t be able to sway him. His commander-in-chief wondered if the Bodhisatta was under the mistaken impression he was running out of money and went to tell him the royal coffers were full of treasure, but the Bodhisatta said he was not interested in material wealth. A wealthy merchant offered to give the Bodhisatta his fortune, but he said he didn’t want it.
Nothing changed the Bodhisatta’s resolve, and when it came time to leave, he passed the crown to his reluctant younger brother and gave a final lecture on the impermanence of all things. Life slips away like water through a sieve, he said, and those driven by desire enlarge the bounds of hell.
He threw off his royal robes, shaved his head, and took a bowl and staff; and as he walked away, the whole city begged him to stay. When he did not change his mind, people left all their belongings behind and followed him out to the forest in a line twelve leagues long, leaving the city nearly deserted. Indra, king of the gods, saw the exodus and sent Vissakamma, heaven’s chief builder, to make a monastery thirty leagues long and five leagues wide, stocked with everything necessary for the ascetic life, including trees that magically bore a variety of fruits. Vissakamma also used his powers to banish all spirits, dangerous beasts, and hideous sounds from the area. From then on, the Bodhisatta educated and assisted his followers in the ascetic life.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
One time while talking to his disciples about the Great Renunciation, which was the beginning of his path to enlightenment, the Buddha told them this story as an example of a similar renunciation in his past.
The Bodhisatta’s father, mother, chief queen, and young son were earlier births of the Buddha’s father, birth mother, wife, and son. The elder son, commander-in-chief, wealthy merchant, and younger brother were earlier births of Sariputta, Moggallana, Maha Kassapa, and Ananda, four of the Buddha’s top disciples. And the nanny was an earlier birth of Khujjuttara, one of the Buddha’s top female lay supporters.