The Bodhisatta was once a king. In his life before this, he was a poor laborer. One day he took four portions of sour gruel without salt or oil to eat before going to work. But when he saw four private Buddhas (those who reach enlightenment on their own and do not teach the path to others) out collecting alms he gave the gruel to them instead, hoping he would gain much merit and not be born into a poor family in his next life. And his wish came true.
During the Bodhisatta’s grand coronation ceremony, in which the city was made as resplendent as a city in heaven, he remembered his past life and knew that having all the gold, jewels, elephants, and dancing girls that were now his was due to the simple alms gift he had given the four private Buddhas. His heart filled with joy and he sang a song: “My simple gift of gruel to the Buddhas brought me this reward. The animals, gold, land, and girls divine are mine because of giving alms.” From that point on, the song was sung throughout the kingdom, by musicians and townsfolk alike.
His gorgeous chief queen wanted to know the meaning behind the song, but she dared not ask. However, one time the Bodhisatta granted her a wish and she said she didn’t want elephants or horses or anything like that, she wanted to know the meaning of his song. The Bodhisatta agreed, but instead of just telling her, he built a jeweled pavilion at his palace door and told everyone the tale of his transition from poor worker to king. Then the Bodhisatta asked his queen what she had done to become the most beautiful, graceful woman in the land and she said that in her past life she was a royal slave and had given rice as alms to a holy man. They then built six charity halls around the city and were generous and righteous throughout the rest of their lives.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
Before marrying King Pasenadi, a righteous ruler and devoted supporter of the Buddha, the exceptionally wise Queen Mallika was just the daughter of a garland-maker. One day she and some friends were walking to a flower garden when she saw the Buddha coming into the city. She gave him three portions of sour gruel that she had packed to eat later, and after he received it, the Buddha smiled. Ananda, one of the Buddha’s top disciples, asked the Buddha why he smiled and he answered that thanks to her modest offering, she would become chief queen by the end of the day.
Mallika continued on to the flower garden, and soon after, the king heard her singing. Struck by her beauty, he asked if she was married. Finding that she wasn’t, he took her back to his palace and married her. They were a happy, loving couple. Everyone in the city heard how her simple offering had led to great prosperity.
When the Buddha heard some of his disciples discussing the matter, he explained just how great the virtue of Buddhas is and told them this story so they knew something similar had once happened to him in the past.
The queen of the past was an earlier birth of the Buddha’s wife.