The Bodhisatta was once a royal treasurer. On the same day his son was born, one of his slaves also gave birth to a son. The two boys grew up together and the Bodhisatta allowed the slave boy to get an education.
When the slave boy came of age, the Bodhisatta employed him as his private secretary. The slave knew that any mistake he made would not be forgiven—he would be beaten, imprisoned, branded, and fed slave’s food—so he came up with a plan to leave the city and live free. He forged a letter to a merchant living out at the border saying he was the royal treasurer’s son and had been sent there to unite the two families by marrying the merchant’s daughter. Since the letter had the official seal and the slave came in handsome dress and with perfumes and other appropriate gifts, the plan worked. The merchant believed he really was the treasurer’s son and he gladly gave his daughter to the slave. He lived a life of luxury, but he was arrogant and constantly criticized the food, clothes, and other things he was given as being too provincial.
The Bodhisatta, meanwhile, had his people search all over the kingdom for his missing slave and eventually they located him. The Bodhisatta, angry over what his slave had done, went to bring him back. When news that the king’s treasurer was coming to the border region the slave knew he was the reason for the visit and he wondered what he should do. Running away meant giving up his good life, so he decided to plead for mercy and hope the Bodhisatta would not expose his lie.
The slave put his plan in motion by frequently and publicly lamenting that society was in a state of decay because so many people did not give their parents the respect they deserved. And he claimed he treated his parents with utmost reverence. He then met the Bodhisatta on the road outside town and began acting the role of a slave with his master. He promised to give the Bodhisatta anything he wanted to keep his secret. Though the sight of his slave filled the Bodhisatta with disgust, he promised not to expose him.
In town, the slave continued to treat the Bodhisatta as his master, but the people just interpreted this as him being an extremely gracious and devoted son. The Bodhisatta spoke kindly of his “son” to the merchant and never betrayed the truth. When the Bodhisatta met the slave’s wife, he asked how her husband treated her. His only fault, she replied, was his constant complaining. In order to end this arrogance, the Bodhisatta taught her a verse in a language the slave understood but that she did not, and told her to recite it the next time he found fault in his food.
The slave, now feeling safe in his deceit, grew even more arrogant. And one night when his wife spoon-fed him his dinner and he started to complain, she said: “If you speak arrogantly far from home, your visitor will return and spoil everything. So, my husband, come eat your dinner.” Tricked into thinking the Bodhisatta had actually told his wife the truth, he was never anything but humble for the rest of his life.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The slave was an earlier birth of one of the Buddha’s disciples who used to boast about his wealthy, noble upbringing. It was later discovered that these stories were all lies. When the Buddha heard other disciples discussing their conceited, dishonest brethren, he told this story so they knew that this disciple had been the same way in the past.