The Bodhisatta was once a musician; the greatest in all of India. Some merchants were away on holiday, and after buying food and perfumes they hired a musician named Musila to play for them. He began to pluck his lute, but the men showed no pleasure. He tuned it down to a middle tone, thinking perhaps they preferred this, but they still sat indifferently. And when he loosened his strings further, their attitude did not change. Finally, Musila asked them why they did not like his playing. “You’re playing?” they asked. “We thought you were just tuning.” Upset, Musila asked if they knew any better musicians, and they told him the greatest musician of all lived in their city. So when they returned home, Musila went with them, hoping to study with the master.
Musila was shown to the Bodhisatta’s home, and he walked right in and started playing the Bodhisatta’s lute. The Bodhisatta’s parents were blind, and when they heard the sound, they cried out, “Shoo, shoo! Rats are gnawing at the lute!” Musila introduced himself and, without playing any more music, waited for the Bodhisatta to return home. When he returned and heard what Musila wanted, the Bodhisatta refused because he divined from Musila’s face that he was a bad person. But not only did Musila implore him to change his mind, his parents did too. So the Bodhisatta agreed to be his teacher.
Despite his reservations about the situation, the Bodhisatta held nothing back during his lessons. And after Musila had learned everything, he wanted to work for the king, so the Bodhisatta went to the palace to get him hired. The king said he would pay him half the Bodhisatta’s rate, but Musila said he would only take the job if he was paid the same as the Bodhisatta because he had learned all his knowledge. The king said if Musila could demonstrate equal skill he would get equal pay, and an exhibition was set for seven days hence.
Worried about his old age, the Bodhisatta lost confidence in himself and believed death was better than the shame he would face if he lost the competition, so he walked alone into the forest to die. But soon after, he changed his mind and returned home. For the next six days the Bodhisatta could not decide what to do, and he went back and forth between his home and the forest so often the grass died along his path. The throne of Indra, king of the gods, became warm and he divined the Bodhisatta’s suffering. Indra went down to earth and told the Bodhisatta he would make sure he won the contest because it was not right for a student to rival a teacher.
A large crowd gathered at the palace to see the master and the student compete. The two began playing the same song together, brilliantly, to raucous applause. Then Indra, floating invisibly above the crowd, told the Bodhisatta to break one of his strings. But, because of Indra’s magic, the string’s sound remained as beautiful as if still whole. Then Indra broke one of Musila’s strings, and it made no sound. Then another of the Bodhisatta’s strings broke, then another, and on and on until all seven strings were gone. But playing with just the body of his lute, the sound still came out. The crowd cheered and waved their handkerchiefs. The Bodhisatta then threw three dice into the air, just as Indra had told him to, and nine hundred nymphs descended from heaven and began to dance.
The crowd shouted angrily at Musila for disrespecting his teacher by claiming to be his equal, and they beat him to death. The king and the people showered the Bodhisatta with gifts, and Indra brought him to play his lute in heaven. The Bodhisatta said he would only play in exchange for getting to hear what acts of virtue the goddesses did to earn their place in heaven, and Indra agreed.
After playing for a week, his songs even better than those of heaven’s own musicians, the Bodhisatta sat down and listened to dozens of the goddesses’ stories. One had given a robe to a monk; others had given scented wreaths, flowers, and sweet fruits. One had listened to a sermon, and another had cared for her in-laws without losing her temper. After Indra’s chariot driver Matali sent the Bodhisatta back to his home, he preached to people how much glory could be gained from just a small amount of merit.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
Musila was an earlier birth of Devadatta, a disciple of the Buddha who became his nemesis. One day some of the Buddha’s disciples told Devadatta he ought to show respect to the Buddha since he had taught him so much. But Devadatta insisted he had learned everything by his own power and got nothing from the Buddha. When the Buddha heard the disciples talking about this, he told them this story so they knew that Devadatta had also repudiated him in the past.
The king and Indra were earlier births of Ananda and Anuruddha, two of the Buddha’s top disciples.