The Bodhisatta was once a deer who led a large herd in the forest. When he got old, he put his two sons, Lakkhana and Kala, in charge of the herd, each having half in their care. During crop season people set many traps around their fields to kill animals that came to eat, and many deer died. So each year the herd took to the safety of the mountains, returning after the harvest was done. One year the Bodhisatta said he and the older deer would remain behind, but Lakkhana and Kala would lead the rest to safety.
Knowing of the annual migration, hunters hid along the route to shoot deer. Kala, being dumb, marched his deer quickly and directly to the mountains, passing near villages and continuing to walk during dawn and dusk. Most of his deer were killed. Wise Lakkhana, on the other hand, stayed far from villages and traveled only in the dead of night. He arrived at the mountains without losing a single deer. After four months the deer returned and Kala did not change his ways. The rest of his herd died and he returned home alone, while Lakkhana brought back all his deer safely and earned the Bodhisatta’s praise for being cautious.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
Kala was an earlier birth of Devadatta, a disciple of the Buddha who became his nemesis, and Lakkhana was an earlier birth of Sariputta, one of the Buddha’s top disciples. Devadatta left the sangha with many disciples to set up his own order and declared that he too was a Buddha. The real Buddha sent Sariputta and Moggallana, another of his top disciples, to preach to those who departed, and during the night, after hearing Sariputta speak, they left Devadatta and returned to the Buddha’s fold.
The next morning, the Buddha told this story to let his disciples know this was not the first time Devadatta had led his followers astray, nor the first time Sariputta had made a glorious return.
Kala and Lakkhana’s halves of the herd were earlier births of the disciples who went with Devadatta and the disciples who stayed faithful to the Buddha, while the Bodhisatta’s mate was an earlier birth of the Buddha’s wife.