This past-life story is one of eight told by the Bodhisatta in the Kunala Jataka (#536) as examples of why men should never trust women.
The Bodhisatta was once a king’s wise chaplain. A loathsome, misshapen man lived alongside the palace wall in the shade of a rose apple tree. One day the beautiful queen consort saw the loathsome man from her window and fell madly in love with him. Soon after, she instigated an affair. Each night, after the king fell asleep, she climbed out her window on a cloth rope and crossed over the palace wall via the rose apple tree. After taking her pleasure, she returned to her room, covered herself with perfume, and lay down by the king’s side.
One day, after he made a solemn procession around the city and was returning home, the king saw the pitiful man and asked the Bodhisatta if any woman would ever be with him. This man heard the king and, full of pride, told the tree it was the only one who knew his secret. The Bodhisatta noticed the man’s reaction and deduced what the queen was doing. He told the king his suspicion. Though he was doubtful, that night the king only pretended to fall asleep and he followed the queen out the window. Her lover slapped the queen for coming late, and one of her special lion-head earrings fell out and landed at the king’s feet. He picked it up and returned to bed.
The next morning, the king summoned the queen to come before him wearing all the jewelry he had ever given her. She came with only one earring, saying the other was with the goldsmith. To humiliate her further, the king summoned the goldsmith to expose her lie. Then he threw the missing earring at her feet and ordered the Bodhisatta to chop off her head. The Bodhisatta asked the king to spare her life because she was only acting the way all women do, and he offered to prove it.
The king left the kingdom in the care of his mother, and the two men set out into the countryside in disguise. Not far outside the city they encountered a wedding celebration, and the Bodhisatta told the disbelieving king he could have sex with the bride right then. The Bodhisatta rushed in front of the procession and set up a screen around the king. When the bride’s carriage passed them, the Bodhisatta began to cry and said his pregnant wife was inside the screen and there was no woman to help with the delivery. The father-in-law, thinking that helping a woman give birth would be auspicious and help the newlyweds have a large family in the future, sent the bride in. When she stepped inside the screen, she fell in love at first sight with the king and gave herself to him. Back outside, she announced that it was a beautiful baby boy.
The men continued their journey around India, and the Bodhisatta convinced the king that all women were the same. When they returned home, the king spared the queen’s life, but evicted her from the palace and chose a new chief queen. He sent the loathsome man away too, and cut off the rose apple branch that reached over the wall.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
Five hundred new disciples of the Buddha felt dissatisfied. They had ordained following a quarrel between the Buddha’s Sakya clan and a neighboring clan over who should get water for their crops after their shared dam ran low at the end of the dry season. The Buddha convinced everyone to settle their dispute peacefully. Then, as an act of atonement for planning to go to war, both clans sent two hundred fifty princes to become disciples. But these men had ordained out of respect for the Buddha, not a desire for spiritual growth, and feelings for their former wives led to discontent. To help them overcome their dissatisfaction, the Buddha told them about a momentous sermon on the inherent wickedness of women he had given when he was a cuckoo in an earlier birth, and the sermon included this particular story.