The Bodhisatta was once a tree fairy. The king and everyone in his court were terribly wicked, and as a result, society collapsed. People were robbed by the king’s men in the day and by bandits at night. They feared the king so much they hid in forests like wild animals during the day, leaving the villages abandoned.
The Bodhisatta got an annual tribute of one thousand coins from the king, so he thought he might be able to convince him to change his ways. One night the Bodhisatta floated into the royal bedchamber emitting a bright light and announced himself as the god of the Malabar ebony tree. He told the king that careless rulers like him will meet destruction in this life and be reborn in hell in the next. He should go out and see the suffering he’d created; this would motivate him to reform. The king was moved by the Bodhisatta’s words and the next day he put his advisors in charge and set out in disguise with his chaplain to see people in the countryside.
That night they met an old man returning home from the forest with his wife and children. As he removed the barrier of thorns in front of the door, he stepped on one and cursed the king, saying he hoped he’d be struck by an arrow. The chaplain asked the man why he cursed the king since it wasn’t he who put the thorns on the ground. The man answered it was the king’s fault he needed to build a barrier and flee from the tax collectors every day.
The king was filled with guilt and told his chaplain they should return home and begin to set things right, but the Bodhisatta possessed the chaplain momentarily, making him say they should investigate further. They went to another village where they saw a poor old woman who was gathering leaves fall out of a tree. She cursed the king, saying she hoped he would die soon so her daughters could get married. The chaplain asked her why she hated the king when he was not responsible for arranging marriages. The old woman answered that she was picking leaves for her grown daughters who still lived at home; with all the chaos in the kingdom few men wanted to get married.
Next they overheard a farmer in his field cursing the king because his ox had been injured by the plow, saying he hoped the king would be killed by a spear. The chaplain asked the man why he detested the king when he himself was the one who injured the ox. He answered that the accident happened while he was weakened by hunger because tax collectors had stolen his meal.
The next day a vicious cow kicked a man as he milked it, injuring him and knocking over the pail. The man cursed the king, saying he hoped he’d be slain by a sword. The chaplain asked the man why he blamed the king not the cow. He answered that food was so hard to find he had to milk a wild, savage cow that had never been milked before.
While the king and chaplain walked down the road back toward the city, they came upon a cow that had stopped eating due to sorrow: a tax collector had killed and skinned her young calf to make a sword-sheath. The boys caring for the cow cursed the king, saying they hoped he died a sad, childless death. The chaplain asked the boys why they despised the king when he had not killed the calf. They answered that when an evil king reigns, wicked people abound.
Further on they saw crows eating frogs. The Bodhisatta spoke through a frog’s mouth to curse the king, saying he hoped he would die in a fight and get eaten. The chaplain asked the frog why he loathed the king, since it’s not possible for any king to protect every creature, and frogs also eat living things so they have no right to be upset. The frog answered that the king’s oppression of the people destroyed their prosperity, so few people gave alms anymore, and the crows would normally eat some of that food and have less need to eat living things.
When the king finally returned to the city he ruled righteously and devoted himself to charity and doing good deeds.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
One time a king came to hear the Buddha preach. He told the king to rule righteously and that sensual pleasures lead to misery: when people die their virtuous actions are their only refuge. Then the Buddha told this story as an example of a king in the past being saved by following this advice.
The Buddha did not identify any earlier births other than his own.