The Bodhisatta was once an ascetic who lived in a band of five hundred others in the Himalayas. Their master was an elder named Kesava, and the Bodhisatta was both his top student and a close friend. One rainy season they all went to the city to get salt and vinegar, and they stayed in the royal park being cared for by the king. When it was time to return, the king suggested that Kesava remain behind because he was very old. He agreed. All the others returned to the mountains, and the Bodhisatta became their leader.
Kesava missed the Bodhisatta and was not happy living alone in the city. Because of this, he slept poorly, which made him unable to digest his food properly, and he fell ill with dysentery. The king’s doctors looked after him with leeches, but his condition did not improve. So Kesava asked to return to the Himalayas, and the king sent one of his advisors and some foresters to accompany him. Kesava’s depression broke the moment he saw the Bodhisatta.
The Bodhisatta made him an unseasoned broth of millet, wild rice, and leaves, which immediately cleared up the dysentery. The advisor asked why he preferred such a humble food compared to the royal rice and meat he ate courtesy of the king. Kesava explained that it doesn’t matter whether food is fancy or plain, a meal served with love is always the best.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
Anathapindika, a wealthy supporter of the Buddha known for his extreme generosity, prepared morning meals for five hundred disciples every day. This impressed the king, and he started doing the same at the palace. The king’s food was the absolute best available, but it was served by the king’s advisors, not the king himself, so the disciples came and took some, but went elsewhere to eat. They gave the families that had long supported them the king’s food in exchange for whatever the families were serving that day.
One morning, the king received an abundance of wild fruit, and he ordered it taken to the disciples eating at the palace, and this was when he was told that there were no disciples there and why. So the king went to discuss the matter with the Buddha, who explained that the best food is that which is served with love, no matter whether it is fancy or plain. Then the Buddha told the king this story as an example.
The master ascetic was an earlier birth of Baka, a god who was converted from false beliefs by the Buddha in the Baka-Brahma Jataka (#405). The king who supported the Bodhisatta and his advisor were earlier births of Ananda and Sariputta, two of the Buddha’s top disciples.