The Bodhisatta was once a king’s advisor. The king’s generosity was legendary across India, but he was disappointed that people who got alms from him were wicked and did not keep the five precepts. He asked the Bodhisatta to find him the most righteous men in the land so he could give them alms and make lots of merit. After describing various kinds of holy men, all deemed unworthy of this great gift by the king, the Bodhisatta told the king about five hundred private Buddhas (those who reach enlightenment on their own and do not teach the path to others) who lived in Nandamula Cave deep in the Himalayas. The king told the Bodhisatta to invite them to his palace and the Bodhisatta told the king to order every citizen to decorate the city, give alms, follow the holy-day vows, and pledge themselves to virtue.
At dawn the next day, the Bodhisatta and the king got on the ground and invited the distant private Buddhas by throwing eight handfuls of flowers into the air: they magically traveled across the land and fell on the private Buddhas. Knowing that this invitation came from one with the seed of Buddhahood within him, the private Buddhas accepted. And since the flowers did not return, the Bodhisatta knew they would come. The next morning, the private Buddhas flew to the palace courtyard where the king gave them great honor and grand gifts for a whole week. When it was time to leave, they thanked the king and flew back to their mountain home.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
One time King Pasenadi, a righteous ruler and devoted supporter of the Buddha, gave him alms and invited the city’s citizens to come watch. The next day the people arranged to give even more alms to the Buddha and invited the king to come watch. Not wanting to be outdone, the king made another alms offering to the Buddha, and then again the people gave one larger than the last. Six times the people bested the king, but then Queen Mallika, his exceptionally wise chief queen, took charge of creating an almsgiving that the people could not surpass. She arranged for five hundred disciples to sit in a wooden pavilion with golden boats in the center. Five hundred elephants held white parasols over each disciple and high-caste girls waved fans and spread fragrance. The king gave the Buddha everything in his alms house plus four priceless objects: a white parasol on a jeweled stand, a couch, a stool, and a footstool.
The day after King Pasenadi and Queen Mallika presented what became known as the Incomparable Gift,1 the Buddha heard some of his disciples discussing it and he told them this story so they knew that in the past he himself had also given an incredible gift after having thought carefully about almsgiving.
The king was an earlier birth of Ananda, one of the Buddha’s top disciples.