Kusa Jataka (#531)

temple painting of Kusa Jataka

The Bodhisatta was once a king. For many years before the Bodhisatta was born, his father and his sixteen thousand wives could not conceive a child. Eventually the loyal citizens, fearing that without an heir an outsider would conquer and destroy the kingdom, assembled at the palace door and demanded the king escalate his efforts to have a son. The king agreed. First he sent out his royal dancers, low-rank, then middle, and then high, into the town, hoping one of them would get pregnant, but none did. Then the king declared by royal drum that he would send his chief queen out, and many men gathered at the palace gate hoping to be the one to take her home.

As the queen came down from the palace, the throne of Indra, king of the gods, became warm. When he learned the reason, he decided to give her the son she desired. He disguised himself as an elderly brahmin, and with his magic powers got in front of all the other men and took the queen the moment she emerged. Both the queen and the king, who was watching from a window, were angry and disgusted that a decrepit old man had grabbed her. Indra took her to heaven and gave her one wish. Surprised and pleased at the turn of events, the queen asked for a son, and Indra said he would give her two: one ugly and wise, then another handsome and dumb. He transported her to the king’s bed, touched her with his thumb, and in ten months the Bodhisatta was born. His handsome brother came along two years later.

The Bodhisatta was so smart he educated himself rather than learn from teachers, and when he turned sixteen, his father decided to give him the throne. His parents asked him what sort of woman he wanted to marry, but he knew no princess would accept someone as ugly as him—he was ugly as a karmic result of an earlier life in which he got angry at his sister-in-law for giving a delicious cake that had been made for him to a private Buddha (those who reach enlightenment on their own and do not teach the path to others) without asking—so he intended to renounce the world and become an ascetic after his parents died. The king was distressed by this news and insisted the Bodhisatta take a wife. Not wanting to upset his parents further, the Bodhisatta schemed to avoid marriage in a way they would accept. He made a gold statue of a woman beautiful beyond the power of tongue to tell and said when a princess who looked like this was found, he would marry her.

His parents put the statue in a covered wagon and sent it out across India, telling their emissaries that if they found this woman they should give her parents the statue in exchange for her. Stopping at every royal city they passed, these men parked the wagon near a river and listened to all the people who saw it, waiting for someone to say it reminded them of so-and-so. One day a princess’s hunchbacked servant walked by the statue and thought it was actually her princess. Furious that she had snuck out of her room, the servant slapped the statue on the cheek, and then burst out laughing at her mistake. The emissaries got the princess’s information and arranged a meeting with the king, who was thrilled at the chance for an alliance and gladly agreed to marry off his daughter.

To ensure that her new daughter-in-law would not run away the moment she saw how ugly the Bodhisatta was, his mother lied that they had a family tradition of wives not being allowed to see their husbands in the daytime until after their first child was conceived. The daughter agreed to this odd condition, so the Bodhisatta was wed and crowned king during a huge celebration.

With his mother’s help, the Bodhisatta was secretly able to see his queen in the light. The first time, he posed as an elephant keeper while his mother showed her around the stables. As a prank, the Bodhisatta playfully threw a lump of elephant dung onto his queen’s back. She was enraged and said she would have the king cut off his hand, but the queen mother calmed her down. Another time he dressed as a stable boy in the horse barn, and there he also threw dung on her. Again the queen mother calmed her down.

Later, the queen asked the queen mother to let her see her husband during the day just one time. So she arranged a solemn procession through the city with the Bodhisatta riding on his elephant behind his handsome brother, and she lied to the queen that the brother was the king and the ugly man was the mahout. At first the queen was pleased to know she had a husband worthy of her beauty. But then the Bodhisatta started waving wildly at her, and she wondered if he might actually be the king because it would be improper to allow such a repulsive and ill-mannered creature to sit with the king. She realized that this would explain why she wasn’t allowed to see him. To check, she sent her hunchbacked servant to see who got down off the elephant first, knowing this person was the real king. After the Bodhisatta dismounted, he saw his queen’s servant and ordered her to keep his secret, so she lied and said the brother stepped down first. The relieved queen believed her.

Wanting to see his wife in the daylight again, the Bodhisatta stood in a lotus pond with a leaf over his head and a flower hiding his face. The queen and her maidens went into the pond to bathe, and when she reached out to pick a flower, the Bodhisatta grabbed her arm and told her who he was. The queen screamed out that a goblin was attacking her and fainted. When she came to, she recognized him as the dung thrower and declared that she would not have such a hideous husband. That very same day, she returned to her father’s home. The Bodhisatta let her go because he knew her heart would break if she stayed. But he vowed to win her back and he put his mother in charge of the kingdom while he followed after her. His mother gave him food in a golden bowl and warned him to be careful because women are impure-minded creatures.

The Bodhisatta packed money, weapons, and his lute and set off; and because of his great strength, he made the one-hundred-league journey in a single day. That night he played his lute and sang for all the city to hear. Hearing such beautiful songs, his wife suspected the Bodhisatta had come after her. Her father, the king, thought the music was so wonderful he wanted to find the musician and hire him as his minstrel. But the Bodhisatta knew he would not get to meet his wife with music. So the next morning, before the king’s men could find him, he left his lute behind and started as an apprentice with the royal potter, thinking that with this job he would be able to make deliveries to the palace.

The Bodhisatta made many beautiful objects, including a special one for his wife. The potter took some of them to the palace to show the king. He asked who made them and called the potter a liar when he claimed it was him. So the potter admitted he had a new apprentice. The king said the apprentice was the true master and paid one thousand coins to have the apprentice make more pots for his eight daughters. When he was done talking to the king, the potter delivered the Bodhisatta’s special pots. When the Bodhisatta’s wife saw her and her hunchbacked servant’s faces on the piece made for her, she knew who made it and refused to take it.

Since he wouldn’t be able to see his wife if he could not do the deliveries, the Bodhisatta turned down the money and left. He then went to apprentice with a royal basket weaver and wove a special palm-leaf fan with a white umbrella (a symbol of royalty) on it for his wife, and then to the royal gardener where he made a garland with a picture of her. But neither got him close to his wife.

The Bodhisatta’s next attempt to reach his wife came in the king’s kitchen. One day, while the cook was delivering food to the king, he gave the Bodhisatta a bone of meat to cook for himself. The delicious aroma of his modest meal wafted across the whole city, and the king ordered it brought to him. It was so delicious the king demanded that from then on the Bodhisatta cook his family’s food; the head cook would deliver the king’s meals and the Bodhisatta would deliver to the daughters. The Bodhisatta was thrilled by the news.

The next day, the Bodhisatta went to the palace with the food on a carrying pole, and when his wife saw him approaching, she was aghast that he was doing a slave’s work. Wanting to drive him away, she shouted insults about his ugly face. The Bodhisatta answered that he craved being with her more than being a king and would do whatever it took to be near her. She locked herself in her room and refused to eat his food, eating her servant’s meals instead. Wanting to test her for any trace of feelings, the Bodhisatta made himself stumble and fall in a heap amidst broken dishes. Worried he had died, his wife came out and checked his mouth for breathing—and as she did, he spit on her. She ran back to her room in disgust, telling him he could easier dig through rock with a wooden spade or catch the wind in a net than win her back.

The Bodhisatta did not see his wife again, and he grew weary and ashamed of his kitchen work—rising early to cut firewood, wash dishes, cook rice gruel, and such things were all tasks beneath a king. But because of his fervent love, he continued. One day he saw his wife’s servant walking by the kitchen and he promised to fix her hunchback and give her a gold necklace if she arranged a meeting. She promised to try. Back at the palace, the servant sang the Bodhisatta’s praises hoping to sway his wife, but this only enraged her, and she would not do it.

After seven months had passed since the Bodhisatta last saw his wife, he finally gave up. It was just at this time that Indra checked in to see how things were going for him. Seeing the Bodhisatta’s failure, Indra decided to make a meeting happen. He sent forged messages in the king’s name (the Bodhisatta’s father-in-law) to seven other kings, saying his daughter had returned home and was available again, so they should take her as a wife.

All seven kings rushed to the city with many followers and were shocked to find the other kings there for the same reason. Furious, they surrounded the city and threatened to attack if they did not get the king’s daughter. He couldn’t just give her to any one king because then the other six would attack, so, to save the kingdom, he chose to kill her and cut her into seven pieces, one for each angry king. He called for the executioner, and the palace was filled with sorrow. The king comforted his queen by telling her that their daughter earned her fate by deserting the greatest king in all of India before her footprints had been wiped off the road she went there by, and the queen knew this was true.

“If only your husband were here now,” the queen lamented to her daughter, “he could defeat all seven kings.” Only then did she reveal that the Bodhisatta was actually in their city. The king and queen assumed their daughter was speaking nonsense from her fear of death, but she pointed to him working in the kitchen and explained the suffering the Bodhisatta had been putting himself through in order to win her back. The king rebuked his daughter for keeping this secret from him and sent her out to beg forgiveness from the Bodhisatta for her terrible behavior, and ask him to help save the kingdom.

The Bodhisatta saw his wife approaching and poured water onto the ground all around him so she had to grovel in mud. She dropped down to kiss his feet and apologized, promising never to do him wrong again if he saved her life. He told her he had no anger in his heart toward her and vowed to capture her enemies. He got a shave and a haircut, donned his royal splendor, and mounted a trained war elephant. With his wife riding behind him, the Bodhisatta led the army out the east gate and rounded up all seven kings as their soldiers fled in fear at the sight of him. Indra was pleased and gave the Bodhisatta a precious, magic jewel.

Wanting to make something good out of the situation, the Bodhisatta ordered his father-in-law’s seven other daughters to marry the seven captured kings, which pleased everyone. The Bodhisatta returned home with his now loving wife and reclaimed his throne, and the pair lived a happy life.

In the Lifetime of the Buddha

A man of noble birth gave up his easy life to become a disciple of the Buddha and was completely dedicated to dharma. One day during an alms round he met a beautiful woman and fell in love at first sight. Overcome by passion, he became so depressed that he stopped cutting his hair and nails and cleaning his robes, became thin and weak with yellow skin and veins sticking out of his body, and no longer took joy in his life of solitude.

When the Buddha found out about his problem, he told this disciple that the woman was wicked and he should get her out of his mind. Then the Buddha told the disciple this story so he knew that in the past he himself had once lost his power and become miserable after falling in love with a woman. Hearing this, the disciple overcame his lust and regained his health.

The Bodhisatta’s father, mother, and wife were earlier births of the Buddha’s father, birth mother, and wife. His younger brother was an earlier birth of Ananda, one of the Buddha’s top disciples; the hunchbacked servant was an earlier birth of Khujjuttara, one of the Buddha’s top female lay supporters; and his servants were earlier births of the Buddha’s present followers.

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