The Bodhisatta was once a king. He had four sons and one day they asked the charioteer to show them a flame of the forest tree. First he took the eldest son to the forest and he saw the tree while the buds were sprouting. The next son went later when the leaves were green, the third went when the flowers were blossoming, and the fourth when it was bearing fruit. Sometime later, when the four brothers were sitting together, somebody asked them what a flame of the forest tree is like. The first brother answered, “Like a burnt stump.” The second said, “Like a banyan tree.” The third, “Like a piece of meat” (because of the red flowers). And the fourth, “Like an acacia tree.” Annoyed by each other’s answers, they went to discuss the matter with the Bodhisatta. He told them they should have asked the charioteer to tell them what the tree was like at times besides what they were seeing.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
Four disciples took meditation topics from the Buddha and went out to their own remote locations for intensive training. One had the subject of the “six spheres of touch,” another the “five elements of being,” the third the “four principal elements,” and the fourth the “eighteen constituents of being,” and each had a breakthrough and became an arahant.
When they returned to the monastery and discussed their experiences with the Buddha, one of the disciples asked how it was that four different modes of meditation lead to the same nirvana. The Buddha answered that it was like the sons who saw the flame of the forest tree, and then he told them this story to explain.
The Buddha did not identify any earlier births other than his own.