The Bodhisatta was once a king. Before this, he was a poor laborer and he got hired by a wealthy, virtuous merchant. The merchant, his family, and all of his employees were very devout and kept six holy days each month, but he forgot to tell the Bodhisatta about this when hiring him.
When a holy day came, the merchant gave all his workers rice early in the morning to eat before they began their fast. But the ever diligent Bodhisatta arrived so early he had started work before the rice was served and did not know everybody would be fasting that day. So he was the only one who didn’t stay at home meditating on the moral precepts. At sunset, the Bodhisatta finished work and returned to find out he had been misconducting himself. Feeling terrible, he went and explained himself to the merchant and promised to not eat and keep the other holy-day duties through the evening.
That night he suffered pain, but not wanting to break his fast he did not take the medicines the merchant brought him. At sunrise, the Bodhisatta lay dying. He saw the king’s majestic chariot pass by and prayed that in his next life he would be of royalty. And because of his devotion to keeping half the fast, he was conceived by a chief queen on his return to Earth. The Bodhisatta remembered his previous life, and was grateful for getting such a great reward. When his father died, the Bodhisatta became king.
A poor man who earned a living as a water-carrier wanted to celebrate an upcoming festival in style (buying perfume, liquor, and a garland) with his wife, so he walked six leagues to get a half-penny he had hidden in a brick in the city wall near the north gate. Standing at a palace window, the Bodhisatta saw the water-carrier singing despite walking in the scorching mid-day heat on sand as hot as coals and wanted to know why he was filled with joy.
The king sent a servant to bring the water-carrier to the palace and asked what he was doing. The water-carrier explained he was getting his hidden treasure so he and his wife could have a good time, and this desire burned hotter than the sun. The Bodhisatta asked if his treasure was a hundred thousand coins. When the answer was no, the Bodhisatta asked in succession if it was fifty thousand, forty, thirty, twenty, ten, five, four, three, two, one, half a coin, a quarter coin, four pence, three, two, and one penny. Finally the man told him it was only a half-penny. The Bodhisatta told the man he would give him half a penny so he didn’t need to walk any further in the heat. He thanked the Bodhisatta, but said he would still go get his own money. So the Bodhisatta increased his offer: one penny, then two, on up to a billion coins if the man would not go get his hidden half-penny. But the man always said he would not leave his treasure behind. The Bodhisatta then tried to offer him various jobs, from treasurer to viceroy. But it was only when the Bodhisatta gave the poor water-carrier half the kingdom that he agreed to give up his half-penny coin; although he still loved it so much he chose to take the north half.
The newly named King Half-Penny and the Bodhisatta ruled together in friendship and harmony. But soon King Half-Penny was seized by a desire to kill the Bodhisatta and rule the whole kingdom. Unable to get the thought out of his head, he threw himself at the Bodhisatta’s feet and confessed his obsession. The Bodhisatta forgave him and offered to give him his half of the kingdom and serve as viceroy. But King Half-Penny knew that any similar desires in the future would lead him to hell, so he went off to be an ascetic in the Himalayas.
This turn of events made the Bodhisatta reflect on his life and he was glad he had no strong desires of his own. Filled with ecstasy he sang a song about his own past, “Little desire has brought me great fruits and glory. Standing firm in forsaking desires brings mighty gain.” Nobody understood this, and when his chief queen asked him to explain, he refused. So the queen schemed with the royal barber to get the story. She knew the Bodhisatta did not like this barber because he used the razor first and then grasped the hair with the tweezers. She told the barber that changing his routine would please the Bodhisatta and he might grant a wish. If he did, the queen ordered the barber to ask for the meaning of the song. Her plan worked and the Bodhisatta, though embarrassed about his past poverty, agreed to explain. But instead of just telling the barber, he built a jeweled pavilion at the palace door and told the whole city the tale of his transition from poor laborer to king.
The story inspired the barber to foster virtue in himself, so he left his family behind and went off to live as an ascetic in the Himalayas. Before long he reached perfect insight and became a private Buddha (those who reach enlightenment on their own and do not teach the path to others).
Years later the barber flew back to the city to meet the Bodhisatta. He came out to the royal park with his mother and others and greeted his former barber, who spoke with him in a friendly, informal manner, calling the Bodhisatta by his family name rather than his title. The queen mother and others were aghast at a low-caste man speaking to a king like this, but the Bodhisatta explained that everyone must salute an enlightened person. The Bodhisatta invited the private Buddha to stay at his park, but he chose to return to his mountain home.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
One time the Buddha praised some lay supporters for observing a holy day: giving alms, keeping the moral precepts, not showing anger, expressing kindness, and the like. He told them this story to let them know even doing so for just part of the day earns them great glory.
King Half-Penny was an earlier birth of Ananda, one of the Buddha’s top disciples, and the Bodhisatta’s chief queen was an earlier birth of the Buddha’s wife.