The Bodhisatta was once a potter. Four private Buddhas (those who reach enlightenment on their own and do not teach the path to others) had flown down from their Himalayan home to collect alms in his village, and when they came by his house, the Bodhisatta invited them in for a meal of fine food. Impressed by their character, the Bodhisatta asked them about their path to enlightenment, and each told their story of having once been a king who renounced his throne to follow a religious life.
The first king ate some delicious mangoes from his garden. Seeing the king pick some, other men did so too, and they climbed the tree and beat the branches with clubs to get every last fruit. On his way home, the king stopped to get some more mangoes and was dismayed to see the tree’s broken branches. Nearby was a barren mango tree still standing beautiful and undamaged. Understanding this as a metaphor for life—having possessions leads to misery, so the wealthy live in fear while the poor do not—he resolved to be like the barren tree. He stood below it and quickly reached spiritual insight; then he touched his head and was magically wearing the clothes of a private Buddha. He stood in the air and preached a sermon to those around him before flying off to the Himalayas to begin his new life.
The second king saw a woman grinding perfume. She wore a jeweled bracelet on each arm and they made no sound as she worked. Then she put the bracelet from her right arm onto her left, and the two bracelets jangled. This made the king realize that by living alone one has no conflict with others. Pondering this, he reached insight and flew off to the Himalayas just like the first.
The third king saw a hawk flying with a piece of meat in its mouth. Other birds surrounded it and attacked with their feet and beaks, so the hawk dropped the meat and was left in peace. Another bird seized the meat, suffered a similar attack, and also dropped it. And so did a third. The king realized human desires are like the meat; whoever relinquishes them will find happiness. So he gave up his palace with sixteen thousand women, attained insight, and flew off like the others.
The fourth king saw several bulls just released from their pen set upon a single cow in lust. Wanting the cow for itself, one of the bulls gored another to death. Understanding that the power of desire brings sorrow, the king abandoned everything. He found insight and flew off like the others.
Impressed by their guests, the Bodhisatta and his wife both wanted to renounce the world and live the simple life of ascetics. He told his wife to care for their children so he could go. Not wanting to delay, she took a pot and said she was going to the water tank—but she really ran out of town and joined a band of ascetics, never returning home. His wife gone, the Bodhisatta had no choice but to continue working and caring for his two young children. When they were a bit older, he started to cook rice in a different way each day: sometimes underdone, sometimes overcooked, sometimes without enough salt, sometimes with too much salt, and so on. Once the children understood the differences, the Bodhisatta gave them to some relatives and began his new life as an ascetic.
Sometime later, the Bodhisatta met his wife again. She asked if he had killed the children, and he assured her that he had waited until they could understand things before giving them away. Then they each went their own ways and never met again.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
Five hundred friends had heard the Buddha discuss dharma, and they renounced the world together to become his disciples. One night thoughts of desire filled their heads. The Buddha constantly watched over his disciples—the same as a one-eyed man guards his eye, a mother her son, a yak its tail, and a jay its egg—so he knew what was happening to them. He called an assembly and lectured them, explaining that there is no such thing as a petty sin. Every wrong thought, he said, no matter how small, must be considered because these thoughts can grow and bring great ruin. Then he told them this story as an example of how in the past, having proper thoughts resulted in private Buddhahood. When the Buddha was finished, all five hundred disciples became arahants.
The Bodhisatta’s wife and son were earlier births of the Buddha’s wife and son, and his daughter was an earlier birth of Uppalavanna, one of the Buddha’s top female disciples.