Kama Jataka (#467)

temple painting of Kama Jataka

The Bodhisatta was once a wise young man. The king had two sons, and when he died, his eldest son had no interest in taking the throne. Instead, he left the city and lived in a remote border region. He told nobody there about his royal birth and took a job with a wealthy merchant family. But when people learned who he was, they would no longer let him work and they treated him like a prince.

Later, the merchant asked if the prince could send a letter to his younger brother, the king, asking that his taxes be waived. The prince agreed to ask, and the king did it. He also ordered everybody else in the village and the surrounding countryside to pay their taxes directly to the prince. All the money he collected and the honor he received made greed arise in his heart, and he had his brother appoint him viceroy of the region. Soon after, the prince decided he wanted to be king and he marched his troops to the palace, telling his brother to surrender the kingdom or fight for it. The king knew he would face trouble if he killed his elder brother, so he agreed to step aside.

But ruling his kingdom did not quench the new king’s greed and he craved more. When Indra, king of the gods, divined the king’s intent, he wanted to teach him a lesson. He took the form of a young brahmin and went to talk with the king. Indra said he could guarantee victory over three prosperous, powerful cities if the king began his conquest right away. The king agreed to his plan, but, having been put under a spell by Indra, he did not ask the young brahmin any details such as where he came from, how he would accomplish this, or what he wanted in exchange. After the meeting, Indra returned to heaven, and the king, ready for war, sent some men to get the young man. The king’s men, of course, could not find him, and this made the king depressed. Soon he had a high fever and bloody diarrhea, and his personal doctors could not cure him.

When the Bodhisatta, who had recently completed his studies, heard about the king, he went to the palace offering a cure. The king’s doctors were the most renowned around, and at first the king refused to see the Bodhisatta. But when told he was offering his assistance for free, the king let him in. After showing respect to the king, the Bodhisatta asked him what had caused his sickness. This question angered the king, who demanded the Bodhisatta mind his own business and just give him medicine. But the Bodhisatta explained that he must know the circumstances to choose the right remedy. So the king described his encounter with the young brahmin and said his disease arose from his greed. The Bodhisatta did not offer a medicine; rather he explained that desire is a trap because cravings can never really be satisfied. “Be content with having wisdom,” he said, “and you will not be burnt from desires within. You win happiness every time you let a craving go.” And when the Bodhisatta was done preaching, the king was healed and full of joy. He heaped praise on the Bodhisatta and offered a thousand coins, but the Bodhisatta declined payment. He encouraged the king to be righteous from this point on, then he flew to the Himalayas and became an ascetic.

In the Lifetime of the Buddha

The greedy king was an earlier birth of a brahmin who began felling trees on a riverbank so he could cultivate the land. That same morning, the Buddha divined that the brahmin was destined for a spiritual breakthrough, so while collecting alms, he went out of his way to chat with him. And the Buddha returned to talk again at each step of the growing process: clearing the roots, plowing, planting, and so on. The brahmin figured the Buddha came by so often because he wanted some of the grain after it was harvested, and he promised to give him some. The night before the brahmin was going to harvest his field, heavy rain flooded the river and swept away the entire crop. The brahmin was devastated and lay in bed crying.

The next day, the Buddha went to comfort the brahmin. He explained that there’s no reason to grieve for what is lost because nothing can change the past. After hearing this lesson, the brahmin reached a new level of understanding.

Back at the monastery, the Buddha heard some of his disciples talking about what he had just done, and he told them this story so they knew that he had also cured the man’s grief in the past.

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