The Bodhisatta was once a king’s top advisor. The king had a mighty elephant who served as a messenger, traveling up to one hundred leagues in a day, and always crushed the enemy in battle. The king honored and adorned her, but when she grew old and weak he took everything away, sending her off to fend for herself in the forest.
Later, when there was a shortage of pottery in the palace, the potter explained that he could not increase production because he did not have any oxen to haul in the additional cartloads of cow dung he’d need for making more fires. So the king gave his retired elephant to the potter to do the job.
One day the elephant saw the Bodhisatta and fell down at his feet, lamenting the misery of her present fate and begging him to convince the king to restore her former honor. He promised to try, and went to the king that morning. The Bodhisatta reminded the king of the great things the elephant had done and rebuked him for being selfish and insufficiently grateful. Hearing this lecture, the king not only brought the elephant back to the palace, but also dedicated himself to giving alms and doing good deeds.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The elephant forced to haul dung was an earlier birth of a king’s elephant who was similarly respected and honored. Her stall was decorated with colored hangings and scented with perfumed oils and incense, she was fed the choicest foods, she was vividly adorned when going out, and she had a golden pot set on her dunghill. But when she grew old and could no longer work, she was released to the forest.
One morning, the elephant saw the Buddha going to the city for alms and fell at his feet, begging him to get her honor restored by the king. The Buddha went straight to the palace and told the king it was wrong to revoke a servant’s honor. He reminded the king of the elephant’s merits and said he should show gratitude. Accepting the Buddha’s wisdom, the king brought her back to a comfortable life in the palace.
When the Buddha heard some of his disciples discussing what he’d done, he told them this story so they knew that he’d also had this elephant’s honor restored in the past.
The king was an earlier birth of Ananda, one of the Buddha’s top disciples.