The Bodhisatta was once Indra, king of the gods. The king was a cruel man, and he was disgusted by everything old. If he saw an old cart, he would have it destroyed; if he saw an old woman, he would hit and frighten her; and if he saw an old man, he would belittle him somehow, such as making him roll around on the ground like an acrobat. And the king’s friends did the same. So when people in the kingdom grew old, they went away to live in a remote border region, beyond the king’s reach. And since people could no longer care for their aging parents, they went to hell when they died.
The Bodhisatta noticed the population of heaven was shrinking, and when he learned the reason, he came up with a plan to humble the king. He took the form of an elderly man wearing rags and drove a crazy old cart, pulled by old oxen, past the king. The king, making a solemn procession around the city upon his bedecked royal elephant, saw the Bodhisatta and ordered his men to remove the cart. But the Bodhisatta had made himself visible only to the king, so the men could not intervene. Then the Bodhisatta smashed two jars of buttermilk on the king’s head.
While the king was humiliated and distressed, the Bodhisatta took his proper form, floating in mid-air clutching a thunderbolt. He rebuked the king with sharp words for being dumb and cruel and threatened to slice off his head if he did not stop this behavior. He then spoke of the great importance of parents and the value of respecting old age. The humbled king stopped his behavior immediately and forever.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The cruel king was an earlier birth of Lakuntaka, one of the Buddha’s top disciples and most renowned preachers. He was very small, like a dwarf kept for amusement. Once, thirty disciples from the countryside came to pay respect to the Buddha at his monastery. On the way in through the gate they saw Lakuntaka and, thinking he was just a novice, they pulled on his nose, ears, hands, head, and robe, and shook him about roughly and rudely.
When their conversation with the Buddha finished, these disciples asked him if they could meet Lakuntaka, who they had heard so much about. When the Buddha explained who he was and that they had already met him, the disciples asked why a man of such devotion and achievement was so insignificant. Then the Buddha told them this story to explain that it was a punishment for his misbehavior in a previous life.