Illisa Jataka (#78)

temple painting of Illisa Jataka

The Bodhisatta was once a barber. The royal treasurer in those days was exceptionally rich and extremely miserly, neither sharing his wealth nor enjoying it himself. He also suffered a host of physical ailments, from a disabled leg to a permanent squint, making him instantly recognizable to all. One day he saw a man enjoying a mug of alcohol and a craving for the same arose in him. But not wanting to share it with anyone else, he decided to have his slave go buy a jar and hide it in a thicket by the riverside. Then he snuck down there to drink alone.

The treasurer’s family had held the same position for seven generations before him, always being generous and righteous. His father was so virtuous he had been reborn as Indra, king of the gods. And at the particular moment the treasurer went off to get drunk in the bushes, Indra wondered for the first time about his family’s legacy. When he divined his son’s wicked behavior he went down to Earth to convert him to goodness.

Taking his son’s likeness, Indra went to visit the king and offered to give him the entire family fortune. The king, being righteous, refused the offer, so Indra went to his son’s house, where nobody could tell he was not the real treasurer. He told the servants to be on the lookout for an imposter and not let him in. Indra then told his son’s family it was time to be generous and he sent the town crier through the streets proclaiming by beat of a drum that he was giving away his treasure and anyone who wanted some should come to his house. And come they did, filling baskets and sacks with gold, diamonds, pearls, and the like.

One man took the treasurer’s carriage and oxen, and as he rode out of the city he sang the treasurer’s praises for giving everything away. Shocked, the treasurer tried unsuccessfully to seize them back, but the man fought him off. He ran home where he saw what was happening and got more beatings from each person he tried to stop.

His servants would not let him in his house, so he went to the palace to ask the king why he was being punished this way. When the confused king told the treasurer of his earlier visit, he asked the king to summon the other person. Indra arrived, but even side by side, nobody, not even his wife and children, could tell who the real treasurer was. Then the treasurer thought of one person who could definitively tell them apart, his barber, the Bodhisatta. The treasurer had a wart on his head, hidden by his hair, and only the Bodhisatta had ever seen it. So the Bodhisatta was brought to the palace to examine their scalps, but Indra, being a god, just willed a wart to grow on his own head and the Bodhisatta was unable to say who the real one was.

The treasurer lost all hope and crashed to the floor in despair over the loss of his riches. Then Indra floated into the air and announced himself, and everyone there bowed before him. He explained to his son how he had risen to this high state in heaven because of his generosity to the poor and enjoyment of doing good deeds. And if his son did not begin to do the same, he would slice off his head with a thunderbolt. The treasurer swore he would give alms and do good deeds, and he kept this promise forevermore.

In the Lifetime of the Buddha

The royal treasurer of the past was an earlier birth of a rich and miserly royal treasurer (known as “The Millionaire Miser”) living in a faraway city. He got an insatiable urge to eat a sweet stuffed cake, but didn’t want to share, even with his wife. So he had her sneak up to the seventh floor of their house and cook a single cake for him using only broken rice. That same morning the Buddha became aware of the treasure’s fate and sent Moggallana, one of his top disciples, to save him by getting him to cook cakes for all the Buddha’s disciples.

Moggallana flew there and floated in mid-air outside the window where the treasurer and his wife were. Thinking this magical sage wanted to eat a cake, the treasurer frothed with anger, repeatedly telling him to leave. But Moggallana stayed and eventually the frustrated treasurer told his wife to make a second cake for him. She mixed in a tiny bit more dough, but it swelled up to fill the pot. And each small piece of dough that was put into the oven swelled large. The finished cakes were put in a basket to cool and when they were ready to serve, she tried to give one to Moggallana, but they had all stuck together. As the treasurer tried to pull them apart his craving waned and he decided to give them all away.

Moggallana accepted the basket and preached to them about how generosity is a blessing. He then invited the couple to come give their cakes to the Buddha and his disciples who were waiting in the monastery six hundred fifty kilometers away; all they had to do was walk downstairs and the door at the foot of their staircase would transport them there. So the couple served their cakes, along with milk mixed with ghee, honey, and sugar, and even after everyone had eaten, there were still leftovers. After a lesson from the Buddha, they climbed back up the stairs and magically returned home where they spent the rest of their lives giving away all their money.

The next day, when the Buddha heard some of his disciples praising Moggallana, he told them this story so they knew that Moggallana, who had been Indra in that earlier birth, had also converted this miserly treasurer to goodness in the past.

The king in those days was an earlier birth of Ananda, another of the Buddha’s top disciples.

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