The Bodhisatta was once a horse merchant. One time, while taking five hundred horses to sell in the capital, he stopped to lodge for a night in what had formerly been the grand estate of a wealthy merchant. But the family had suffered misfortune, and now only one poor old woman lived there. She had a horse she had raised from a foal and loved like a son, but she could only feed him leftovers and grass. Arriving at the estate, the Bodhisatta’s horses smelled this special horse and would not enter the grounds. The woman told the Bodhisatta her horse had gone out to graze, but would return soon, so he sat down and waited, knowing that when this special horse was back in the stable his horses would go in.
When the woman’s horse returned, the Bodhisatta saw that he was a peerless thoroughbred and wanted to buy him. The woman refused, saying it would be like selling a foster child. But the Bodhisatta said he could provide the horse with a luxurious life: he would eat only refined foods and always have a cloth canopy over him and a rug to stand on. Wanting her horse to be happy, she agreed. The Bodhisatta gave her six thousand coins plus a new dress and jewelry. When the horse saw her like this, he cried tears of joy because she was no longer poor.
When the Bodhisatta continued on his journey, he fed his new horse some ordinary rice gruel as a test to see if he knew how special he was. The horse refused to eat it and told the Bodhisatta that while this ordinary food was good enough coming from the woman, the Bodhisatta had the means to serve the better food that he deserved. The Bodhisatta asked forgiveness from the horse, explaining that it was only a test; then he gave him the fine food he had promised.
When the Bodhisatta came to the king’s courtyard, he kept his special new horse separate from his others, giving him the promised canopy and carpet. The king noticed the horse and asked to see him run. The Bodhisatta climbed on and they raced around the courtyard so fast that everybody there saw a circle of horses without a break. Next, the horse rode over the surface of a pond without even the tips of his hoofs getting wet, and then he stood on the Bodhisatta’s outstretched palm. The king was so impressed that he paid the Bodhisatta half of his kingdom to buy the horse.
The king made him his horse of state. He gave him a stable as glorious as his own bedchamber and fed him the same food that he ate. And with the horse’s help, the king soon ruled over the whole of India. The king also followed the Bodhisatta’s advice to give alms and do good deeds.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The old woman who raised the horse was an earlier birth of a poor woman who lived in town near the Buddha’s monastery, and the horse was an earlier birth of Sariputta, one of the Buddha’s top disciples. When the Buddha returned to his main monastery after being away for the rainy season, the local people wanted to present gifts to him and his disciples, so a ceremony was planned for the next day. This poor woman arrived the next morning after all the disciples and supporters had already been assigned to each other for the handover of gifts. But the clerk arranging things told her she could give her food to Sariputta, who was at the monastery though not participating in the ceremony.
She waited at the gate for him to leave, and when he came by she led him to her house to give him a meal. Many wealthy families in town who supported the Buddha, including the righteous King Pasenadi, heard that Sariputta was eating at her house, and they sent her a total of one hundred thousand coins. When Sariputta finished eating, he preached to her before returning to the monastery.
The Buddha heard some of his disciples discussing how Sariputta had eaten this woman’s simple food and rescued her from poverty, and he told them this story so they knew that he himself had helped an elderly woman in the past.
The king was an earlier birth of Ananda, another of the Buddha’s top disciples.