The Bodhisatta was once a king, virtuous and generous. He had gone off to fight a battle in a border region and was defeated. He escaped on his horse to safety in a small village. When he arrived there, wearing full battle armor, the villagers fled in fear, except for one man who asked whether he was a royalist or rebel. The Bodhisatta did not reveal himself and answered simply, “I support the king.” The villager, also being for the king, brought the stranger to his home, caring for him and his horse for a few days so he could rest and recuperate. When he was ready to leave, the Bodhisatta told the man that if he ever came to the city, please come see him; ask at the city gate for Maha Assaroha, the “Great Horseman.”
Back home, the Bodhisatta left standing orders with the gatekeepers that any man who asked for Maha Assaroha was to be brought immediately to the palace. But the man, having no reason to visit the city, never came. To entice him, the Bodhisatta raised the village’s taxes, but he still did not come. The Bodhisatta raised the taxes a second time, and then a third. Finally, the villagers, suffering from the unfair financial burden, suggested the man go to the city and see if the stranger he met could intervene with the king on their behalf. They gathered gifts of clothes and a fried cake for the Bodhisatta and his family, and the man took them to the city.
The guard, hearing the name Maha Assaroha, took the man to the palace where he learned the identity of his former houseguest. The Bodhisatta was thrilled to see the villager and treated him like an equal: he gave the man a silk robe worth one hundred thousand coins to wear, told him to sit on his throne, and ordered his chief queen to wash his feet. Then the Bodhisatta beat the drum to call an assembly and announced he was giving the villager half his kingdom. The man relocated his family to the city and the Bodhisatta and he became inseparable friends, ruling in perfect harmony.
The Bodhisatta’s son and his advisors were not pleased with this and eventually worked up the courage to ask him what the man had done to deserve such a rich reward. The Bodhisatta explained how the man had helped him after his defeat in battle and that such noble kindness must be rewarded. Hearing this, the men had no more complaints.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The helpful villager was an earlier birth of Ananda, one of the Buddha’s top disciples. When a king received one thousand splendid, expensive robes, he gave one to each of his five hundred wives and they in turn gave them to Ananda, who was their dharma teacher. The next morning when they had breakfast, the king asked his wives why they were not wearing their beautiful new clothes. When they told him, the king figured Ananda was secretly making money by selling them and got angry, so he went to confront him.
He asked Ananda why he took five hundred robes when the Buddha’s rules forbid his disciples from having more than three. Ananda explained that though he accepted the gift he did not keep it; rather he gave robes to other disciples who needed new ones. Then, to explain to the king that no offerings were wasted, he told what happened to old robes when a disciple gets a new one. First they were turned into cloaks, which were later sewn into shirts, which then became bed sheets, then mats, then towels, then finally the worn fabric was chopped up into bits and mixed into mortar for building houses. The king was pleased with what he learned and gave Ananda the other five hundred robes.
Ananda passed on this new batch to a young disciple as a thank you for all the support he gave him—doing favors, sweeping his room, serving him food and drink, etc.—and let him distribute them to other young disciples. Some disciples asked the Buddha if it had been proper for Ananda to give such a large gift to someone inferior to him. The Buddha explained that Ananda’s actions were acceptable because it was done out of gratitude: it was simply a matter of one good deed deserves another. Then the Buddha told them this story so they knew that in the past he himself had once rewarded someone of lower status for being helpful.