The Bodhisatta was once an ascetic. He lived in the Himalayas eating roots and fruits, and over time many people came to study with him. One rainy season his five hundred pupils went out of the mountains to get salt and seasoning, but the Bodhisatta remained behind. They stayed in the royal park and were shown great honor and hospitality.
One day a group of men had gathered with the king at the royal resthouse and one of them got up and left the room with the words, “This is a day of good omen.” One of the men asked what a good omen was and another replied that it was the sight of something that appeared lucky, like a perfectly white bull, a pregnant woman, a red carp, or rice porridge. Some of the men agreed with him, but another dismissed his answer and said good omens are what you hear, for example a man saying “full-grown,” “eat,” or “chew.” Some other men agreed with him, but another dismissed this answer and said good omens are what you touch, such as green grass, fresh cow dung, gold, or a clean robe. And some of the men agreed with this third opinion.
When they couldn’t decide the matter they went to ask the ascetics in the park and they too didn’t know the answer. But they said their master would know and so they all returned to the Himalaya to ask him. The Bodhisatta described the true nature of good omens, which included honoring the kind-hearted, being modest among one’s friends, being generous, having a friendly wife of similar age who bears many children, spreading joy, and striving for virtuous living. A week later the ascetics went back to the palace to share this wisdom.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
One time a group of men had gathered and were discussing what a good omen was; whether it was something a person sees, hears, or touches. The group of men debated the three proposals but could not decide, and even the gods in heaven didn’t agree what a good omen was. So Indra, king of the gods, went to ask the Buddha to solve the question and he recited the thirty-eight great omens for all the world to hear, and all of heaven and Earth was impressed.
When the Buddha later heard some of his disciples discussing this as an example of the Buddha’s boundless greatness, he told them it was no marvel since he possessed perfect wisdom. It was more impressive, he said, that he settled a similar debate in the past before he had reached enlightenment and told them this story.
The ascetics studying with the Bodhisatta were earlier births of the Buddha’s followers, and the senior among them who asked the Bodhisatta the question about omens was an earlier birth of Sariputta, one of the Buddha’s top disciples.