The Bodhisatta was once a spirit of the sea. A pair of crows, husband and wife, went to the seashore to eat and found an offering of food and drink that some people had just given to a naga. They ate until full and drank until drunk, then went to play in the ocean. Without warning, a fish swam up and ate the wife, and her husband burst into tears.
Other crows heard his wailing and came to see what had happened, and they too were devastated. They all tried to drain the ocean with their beaks to rescue her. They worked, mouthful by mouthful, until their throats and eyes ached from the saltwater and they grew weary. Seeing that their task was impossible, they quit trying and praised the deceased’s beauty, proclaiming the sea stole her because she was so wonderful. The Bodhisatta, hearing them talk nonsense, made a hideous spirit appear out of the ocean to frighten them away.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The flock of mourning crows, including the husband, were earlier births of a group of wealthy elderly men who decided to give away all their belongings to their families and live out their final years as disciples of the Buddha. However, they were not serious in their practice. They lived together at the monastery so they could socialize, did not gain any understanding of dharma, and instead of taking alms, they usually went to eat food at their wives’ and children’s homes. After getting food from their families, they all gathered at one particular house where the wife (the crow eaten by the fish was an earlier birth of her) treated them very well and provided delicious meals. When they learned she had died, they all wailed in sadness, and other disciples came to see what had happened. Shocked at their inappropriate behavior, the other disciples sat around discussing it. And when the Buddha came by, he told them this story so they knew that these men had acted similarly in the past.