The Bodhisatta was once a farmer. He made a modest living growing various vegetables and herbs. People called him the spade sage because his shovel was his only significant possession. One day he decided to take up a religious life in the Himalayas, so he hid his shovel and became an ascetic, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the shovel and he returned to his old life. Five more times he left but returned home. The seventh time, determined not to backslide again, he took his shovel and threw it into a river, closing his eyes as he did it so he could not come back and find it. When the shovel hit the water, he shouted out with joy, “I have conquered!”
The king, having just returned from putting down a rebellion on the border, heard the Bodhisatta’s shout of triumph and wondered what it was about. He brought the Bodhisatta to see him and, explaining that he had just won a battle of his own, asked what his conquest was. The Bodhisatta answered that victories such as the king’s were of no importance, only victories over lust and greed really matter. So impressed was the king by these words that he lost his lust for the throne and asked the Bodhisatta if he could join him. Upon hearing the news, the entire city also chose to become ascetics and a procession twelve leagues long headed toward the Himalayas.
The throne of Indra, king of the gods, became warm and he looked out to see the migration below him. He ordered a monastery built to accommodate the masses and drove away all noisy creatures from the area. When the group arrived, the Bodhisatta made a formal declaration renouncing the world, and all the others did the same. The took up their abodes and became obedient disciples of the Bodhisatta, every last one eventually reaching insight.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
One of the Buddha’s disciples had first visited a monastery on a whim and converted because he was so happy with the food. He studied hard, but after six weeks his desire for the outside world returned and he quit. Five more times he joined and left. Finally, on his seventh try, all desire left his heart and he eventually became an arahant.
The Buddha heard his disciples discussing this and told them this story as a reminder that overcoming attachment to the world is difficult for most people, and he too once struggled mightily with it in the past.
The king was an earlier birth of Ananda, one of the Buddha’s top disciples, and the residents of the city were earlier births of the Buddha’s current followers.