The Bodhisatta was once a horse merchant. One time while taking five hundred horses to sell in the capital, he stopped to lodge in what had formerly been the grand estate of a rich 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 could only feed him leftovers and grass. Arriving at the estate to lodge for the night, the Bodhisatta’s horses scented 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 outside to wait, 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 would 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.
Then the Bodhisatta continued on his journey to sell his horses. He wanted to test his new horse to see if he knew how special he was, and so fed him some ordinary rice gruel. The horse refused to eat it and told the Bodhisatta that while this ordinary food was good enough for 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, and gave the horse 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 raced around the courtyard so fast that everybody there saw a circle of horses without a break. Then the horse rode over the surface of a pond without even the tips of his hoofs getting wet, and as a final demonstration of his magnificent powers, the Bodhisatta dismounted and had the horse stand on his outstretched palm. The king was so impressed that he gave the Bodhisatta half of his kingdom in exchange for the horse, which he made his horse of state.
The king gave the horse 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 came 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 all sent her money; about one hundred thousand coins. When Sariputta finished eating he preached to her before returning to the monastery.
The Buddha heard some disciples discussing how Sariputta had eaten this woman’s simple food and rescued her from poverty and he told this story so they knew he had done the same in the past.
The king was an earlier birth of Ananda, another of the Buddha’s top disciples.