The Bodhisatta was once a judge. A village merchant stored five hundred plow blades at his friend’s home in the city. That friend, also a merchant, secretly sold them and told his friend they had all been eaten by mice—he deposited mouse droppings in the storeroom to convince him the story was true. The villager did not get angry at his friend, he just said he understood it was a case of bad luck. Later the villager said he would take the city merchant’s son down to the river to bathe, but really took him to a friend’s house and kept him hidden away in an inner chamber.
After bathing himself he went to the city merchant’s house and told him a hawk had seized his son and carried him off. The father was furious, and knowing this was impossible he took the villager to see the Bodhisatta. After hearing the story from the city merchant, the Bodhisatta directed the villager to respond truthfully about the allegation. He stuck to his story, but also told the Bodhisatta about his plow blades, finishing with, “My Lord, if mice can eat iron, then hawks can carry off boys: either both are true or neither is true.” The Bodhisatta was impressed that the villager had conned the con man and told the city merchant that if he gave the plows back then he would get his son back, and that’s what he did.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The village and city merchants were earlier births of two men who together led a trade caravan to a faraway town and returned home with a great profit. One of the pair was virtuous and the other was a cheat. When the good man said it was time for them to divide the stock they had brought back, the dishonest man said the celestial alignment was inauspicious, so they would have to wait a while. Really, he was scheming to keep all the goods for himself. He thought, perhaps, because his partner had been roughing it on their caravan trip for so long that after returning home to civilization he would overindulge in fine food and die. The good man, however, remained healthy and two weeks later the men divided their goods.
His business finally completed, the good man went to visit the Buddha, who asked why he had waited so long to come since returning home. The man explained the issue with his partner and then the Buddha told him this story so he knew that his partner was a terrible person in the past too.