The Bodhisatta was once a farmer. He made a modest living growing vegetables and herbs, and people called him the Spade Sage because his spade was his only significant possession. One day he resolved to become an ascetic, and he took up a religious life in the Himalayas. But he couldn’t stop thinking about his spade and he soon returned to his old life. Five more times he left with the same intent but quit for the same reason. The seventh time, determined not to backslide again, he closed his eyes and threw his spade into a river so he could not come back and find it. When the spade hit the water, he shouted out with joy, “I have conquered!”
The king, having just returned from putting down a rebellion on the border, was bathing in the river and heard the Bodhisatta’s declaration of triumph and wondered what it was about. He summoned the Bodhisatta to come 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 unimportant; only victories over lust and greed really matter. And while he explained the dangers of cravings, he reached full insight and floated into the air for the conclusion of his sermon. 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, everyone in the 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. They 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 left. Five more times he joined and quit. Finally, on his seventh try, all desire left his heart and he not only remained, he 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.