The Bodhisatta was once a golden goose, king of a flock of ninety-six thousand others living in the Himalayas. One day some of his geese fed in a vast lotus lake near a faraway city, and they told the Bodhisatta it was a fantastic feeding ground and they should all go there. The Bodhisatta replied that it was too dangerous, but they begged him so tenaciously he relented and led the flock there.
When he landed on the lakeshore, the Bodhisatta stepped into a snare and the noose seized his leg. He tried to escape, and the line cut down to his bone, leaving him in severe pain. But he did not cry out because the other geese would fly away without feeding, and then they wouldn’t have the energy to make it back home. Only after the geese had eaten their fill did he yell out the alarm sound of capture, and the flock flew back toward the Himalayas.
When his commander-in-chief didn’t see the Bodhisatta in flight, he flew back to the lake and found him stained with blood lying on the muddy ground. He promised to release the Bodhisatta, even at the cost of his own life, and refused the Bodhisatta’s order to flee to safety.
When the hunter arrived, he was perplexed at why the unbound goose stayed put. The commander-in-chief told the hunter that he loved his king so much he would not leave and begged to be killed in the Bodhisatta’s place. This devotion softened the hunter’s heart, and he released the Bodhisatta, tenderly removing the snare and washing away the blood. Through the power of his kindness, the Bodhisatta’s wound magically healed as if it had never happened.
The two geese knew that the hunter lost money by setting them free, and they wanted to thank him by going to the city and convincing the king to shower him with riches. The hunter warned them not to go because kings are erratic, and they might end up as pets or dinner. But they insisted, the commander-in-chief saying that if he could sway a hunter with blood on his hands, then surely he could convince a king.
The hunter told the king his tale, proclaiming the great virtue of the commander-in-chief. The king, a righteous leader, sat the geese in golden chairs and fed them parched grain, honey, molasses, and other choice foods. During a friendly chat after the meal, the Bodhisatta said the hunter deserved great riches. The king agreed and gave him a large house, a splendid chariot, loads of gold, and control of a village worth a hundred thousand coins annually in profit.
Then the Bodhisatta preached morality to the king, who was so impressed that he tried to hand over his kingdom, but the Bodhisatta refused to rule. He did, however, ask the king to reduce hunting so the creatures of the forest could live without fear.
Back at their Himalayan home, the geese rejoiced at the return of their king. And when they heard exactly how he had escaped death, they all sang praises of the commander-in-chief, the hunter, and the king; wishing them eternal happiness.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The Bodhisatta’s commander-in-chief was an earlier birth of Ananda, one of the Buddha’s top disciples. When Devadatta, a disciple of the Buddha who became his nemesis, planned his third attempt to kill the Buddha, by releasing a drunk, fierce elephant into the street while the Buddha walked his morning alms round, people told the Buddha not to go to the city. But he still went as usual.
When they saw the elephant demolishing houses and crushing wagons, all eighty of the chief elders wanted to face the elephant themselves to protect the Buddha; but he ordered them not to. Ananda, however, had such strong affection for the Buddha that he didn’t listen and stood in front of the Buddha ready to sacrifice his life. After Ananda ignored two orders from the Buddha to leave, the Buddha used his supernatural powers to send Ananda behind him. As the elephant charged, he saw the Buddha’s glorious form and fell down in worship at his feet, never again harming a person.
Later, when the Buddha heard some of his disciples discussing Ananda’s willingness to sacrifice his life for him, he told them this story so they knew that Ananda tried to do the same, even when born in animal form.
The hunter and the king were earlier births of Channa, Prince Siddhartha’s charioteer, who later became a disciple, and Sariputta, one of the Buddha’s top disciples. The ninety-six thousand geese were earlier births of supporters of the Buddha.