The Bodhisatta was once a merchant. One time while leading an oxcart caravan to a distant land he got lost in a remote forest and ran out of food and water. All the merchants sat down in the shade of a huge banyan tree and noticed it was very moist. They cut off a branch on the east and out flowed water. The men joyously bathed and drank. Then they cut a branch to the south and out came rice, meat, porridge, ginger, lentil soup, and more choice foods. They ate their fill. Then they cut away a western branch and out sprang a bevy of beautiful women wearing fine clothes and exquisite jewelry. They all took their pleasure. Lastly, they cut off a branch to the north and out streamed gold, silver, gems, fabrics, rugs, and other valuables. They gathered as much as they could carry.
Still wanting more, the men decided to cut the roots and bring down the whole tree. The Bodhisatta was the only one who stood against their cruel plan, but he was unable to stop their axes from swinging. The naga king who lived there saw what was about to happen to his tree and called forth an army of three hundred archers and six thousand swordsmen who slayed the greedy men, sparing only the Bodhisatta. Then the naga soldiers filled five hundred carts with treasure and led them back to the city, putting everything in the Bodhisatta’s house.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
A group of merchants got together to lead an oxcart caravan to a distant land. Being men of virtue, they went to see the Buddha before setting out and promised to honor him if they returned safely.
Eventually the merchants got lost without food and water in the same remote forest as the merchants of the past and they came upon the same banyan tree. Noticing the leaves were wet, they cut off branches and got water, food, women, and treasures, enough to fill all five hundred of their carts.
Back home, they took great gifts to the Buddha and told him they renounced the merit gained from their donation in favor of the spirit who provided it. When the Buddha heard how they received the treasure, he said they were successful because of their moderation and told them this story so they knew what would have happened if they had been greedy.
The naga king was an earlier birth of Sariputta, one of the Buddha’s top disciples.