The Bodhisatta was once a prince. In past lives, two women in a king’s harem had a rivalry so intense that one of them prayed that in a future life she would have the chance to eat the other’s children. In this lifetime one of the women was born as an ogress, allowing her to fulfill her desire, while the other became a chief queen; the Bodhisatta’s grandmother. When this queen bore her first child the ogress ran into the grandmother’s room and devoured the baby in front of everyone before running off. When the queen gave birth again, the ogress did the exact same thing.
During the third birth, guards surrounded the palace and kept a strict watch, but the ogress still snuck into the room and seized the baby, though she did not have time to eat it. She fled with the baby and escaped through the sewers. The ogress fell in love with the child and raised it as her own. They lived in a cave at the cemetery and ate human flesh. Because the boy was human he couldn’t turn himself invisible, but the ogress gave him a root to make it happen.
After the ogress died, the queen gave birth a fourth time and the newborn boy was safe. When he grew up he ascended the throne and was a righteous king. His wise eldest son, who served as viceroy, was the Bodhisatta.
When the son of the ogress no longer had his magic root, people saw him in the cemetery and were frightened because he appeared just like a regular ogre. Fearing he would eventually kill and eat people, they complained to the king who sent soldiers to capture him. He frightened the soldiers and escaped to the forest, living at the foot of a banyan tree and never returning to the city. Now, instead of eating corpses, he grabbed people traveling by road.
One day the king organized a hunt. Just as he was departing, a brahmin came to sell the king a poem for four hundred coins. The king declared that whoever among his friends let a deer escape would pay for the poem, and he gave the brahmin lodging to await their return.
Once in the forest, an antelope ran straight at the king and got away. So the king gave chase, and when he caught up to the deer he chopped it in two with his sword. As he walked back with the carcass hung on a pole, the ogress’s son captured him. The king said who he was and urged the ogre to take the deer instead, but the ogre mocked him and said he was going to eat both. Resigned to death, the king asked permission to return to the city and keep his promise to pay the brahmin so he could die with honor; he would return to the ogre the next morning. The ogre, knowing a virtuous king would never lie, agreed.
The king went straight back to the city and paid the brahmin four thousand coins instead of four hundred. He tried to make the Bodhisatta the new king, but he refused the crown, instead insisting he would save his father by sacrificing himself to the ogre. The king reluctantly accepted, and in the morning the Bodhisatta bid his distraught parents, sister, and wife farewell and walked into the forest with the courage of a lion.
The ogre, waiting in a tree for the king, saw the Bodhisatta approach with no fear. “Cruel ogre, I know you well,” he said. “Eat me and set my father free.” The ogre had never before met a person who didn’t fear death – the Bodhisatta told him he’d never done an evil deed and would surely be born in the glory of heaven – and it frightened him. The ogre decided he could not eat such a virtuous man’s flesh, so told him to gather firewood, hoping he would take the opportunity to run away. But the Bodhisatta returned, built a fire, and told the ogre about another time (as told in the Sasa Jataka (#316)) he had offered his life to help another.
Amazed by the Bodhisatta, the ogre set him free. The Bodhisatta, however, remained there and humbled the ogre to righteousness. As he taught him the five moral laws, the Bodhisatta realized this was not actually an ogre. Ogre eyes are red and do not wink; ogres cast no shadow and have no fear. This must be his abducted uncle, the rightful heir to the throne. Not believing the Bodhisatta’s theory, the man-eater said he would only believe the ascetic gifted with supernatural vision who lived nearby. They went to see him, and the moment the ascetic saw them approaching he asked, “What brings you two descendants from a common ancestor to see me?” Now knowing the truth of his life, the man-eater said he had no desire to be a king. Instead he was ordained by the ascetic.
A great multitude greeted the Bodhisatta on his return to the city and listened to his story. The king went to see his long-lost brother. The king tried, unsuccessfully, to convince him to come take the throne. Then he urged his brother to come live in the royal park, but he also refused this. So the king built a town for one thousand families near the ascetics’ hermitage to ensure they would always receive abundant alms.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The parents of one of the Buddha’s disciples had been reluctant to let their son adopt a religious life, but he begged them and they agreed. After five years he fully understood dharma and then went out to live alone and meditate in the forest to reach spiritual insight. But after twelve years of striving, he still had not achieved it. One day another disciple visited him at his hut and told him that his parents had fallen into ruin. With no children around to protect them, their servants and workers had stolen everything and they were now homeless beggars clothed in rags. The son began to cry and, realizing he had labored in vain for the past twelve years, decided to renounce the monkhood and return home to care for his parents.
The depressed disciple went to listen to the Buddha preach one last time before returning home. The Buddha divined this disciple’s situation and so made his morning talk about the virtues of parents. Listening to the sermon, the son realized that though it would be difficult, he could remain a disciple and still support his parents; and he resolved to do so. He took up abode near their hovel, and from then on out he made two daily alms rounds, one for them and a second for himself. He usually got little food for himself, and some days he got none, so he grew pale and thin.
When some other disciples learned what he was doing, they told him giving offerings to lay people was an offense and they reported him to the Buddha, who summoned him back to the monastery. The disciple admitted sharing the alms he collected with his parents. But, to the surprise of the disciples, the Buddha praised the son instead of rebuking him. He then told this story to explain this was a good thing to do, and that in the past he himself had refused to become king in order to save his father.
The man-eater was an earlier birth of Angulimala, a dreaded bandit who cut off a finger of each person he murdered and wore it around his neck, and who later became a disciple of the Buddha. The ascetic and the Bodhisatta’s sister were earlier births of Sariputta and Uppalavanna, two of the Buddha’s top disciples. The man-eater’s mother was an earlier birth of the Buddha’s wife and the Bodhisatta’s father and mother were earlier births of the Buddha’s father and birth mother.