Mahabodhi Jataka (#528)

temple painting of Mahabodhi Jataka

The Bodhisatta was once an ascetic. He lived in the Himalayas, and one rainy season he went down to the city and slept in the royal park. The next morning, the king saw the Bodhisatta out collecting alms and, impressed by his calm demeanor, invited him into the palace for a meal. After listening to him preach, the king invited the Bodhisatta to remain in the city and live permanently in his park. He accepted the offer and stayed there, being fed and cared for by the king, for twelve years.

The king had five advisors, and among their duties was serving as judges. All were wicked, greedy men whose religious beliefs rejected the concept of karma. The first followed the doctrine that beings were purified at birth, so their past actions had no effect on their subsequent lives; the second held that everything was created and controlled by a supreme being; the third thought everything we do in our lives has already happened before; the fourth claimed death brings complete annihilation, so there is no rebirth; and the fifth believed one should only look after their own interests, even killing one’s family if the need arises. The advisors also routinely took bribes to rule in favor of cheaters and thieves, so good, honest people often lost their property.

One day a man who lost a court case because of the advisors’ corruption pleaded with the Bodhisatta to help him. The Bodhisatta went into the court and, after looking into the matter, gave the man his property back. People cheered the decision so loudly that the king heard them, and wanting his subjects to have justice, he asked the Bodhisatta to become a judge. He reluctantly agreed.

No longer able to earn bribes, the advisors plotted to have the king execute the Bodhisatta. They told the king that the Bodhisatta was planning to overthrow him. At first the king didn’t believe them, but they convinced him by pointing out just how large and devoted the Bodhisatta’s following was. The king would not order the Bodhisatta killed, but did want him gone. He told his men to gradually diminish the respect given to him during palace visits, which the king assumed would prompt him to leave.

The next day, when the Bodhisatta came to the palace, he was seated on a simple couch rather than the royal couch he normally used. From this, he assumed someone had slandered him, but he decided not to leave until he found out for sure. On the second day, he was seated on the same bare couch and served some regular food mixed in with the royal food he normally got. The third day he was given his food outside the royal chamber. The fourth day he was given only broth made of rice dust. But despite all this, the Bodhisatta did not leave.

The scheming advisors convinced the king that the Bodhisatta not leaving was proof he was seeking the throne; because if he only wanted alms, he would have gone elsewhere already. So the king gave his advisors swords and told them to cut off the Bodhisatta’s head and throw his chopped-up body on a dunghill.

That night, the king was wracked by guilt and couldn’t sleep. He remembered all the good things the Bodhisatta had done and was distressed because he’d never witnessed him commit even a minor offense; he was just relying on the word of others. His chief queen reassured him that his safety was important, and even his own son must be slayed if there was any risk. One of the king’s dogs, who the Bodhisatta often gave food, heard this discussion and vowed to save the Bodhisatta’s life.

Early the next morning, the advisors hid inside the palace door, and the dog waited on the threshold. When the Bodhisatta approached, the dog barked and bared his fangs. The Bodhisatta had never seen this dog in a foul mood and understood it was a message to flee from the city or the king would have him killed. The Bodhisatta quickly turned around.

The king had been watching from his window and saw the Bodhisatta head to the park, so he followed him. He knew that if the Bodhisatta was his enemy, he’d marshal troops and prepare to attack; if he was his friend, he’d gather his belongings to leave. At the park, the king saw the Bodhisatta coming out of his hut with his bag packed and, pretending ignorance, asked why he was leaving in such haste. When the Bodhisatta answered that he’d read the dog’s thoughts and knew everything, the king admitted his wickedness and apologized. But the Bodhisatta would not reconsider leaving. He preached one final time to the king, and then settled far away in a forest near a frontier village.

With the Bodhisatta gone, the advisors went back to cheating people in court. But they worried that the Bodhisatta would return and again cut off their ill-gotten profit, so they needed to make sure he wouldn’t come back. The Bodhisatta was a friend of the chief queen, and his attachment to her could be a reason to return, so they plotted to have her killed. They told the king that his queen and the Bodhisatta had been sending messages making plans for her to kill the king and put the Bodhisatta on the throne. They repeated the lie until the king believed it, and without investigating, he ordered his advisors to cut up her body and throw the pieces onto a dunghill. After her assassination, four princes vowed revenge for their mother. Word of this reached the Bodhisatta, and he knew that only he could convince the princes to forgive their father and thus save them from doing evil.

The next day, the residents of the village gave the Bodhisatta some monkey meat for alms. After eating, he cleaned the pelt and took it with him to the city, where he urged the princes not to murder their father and promised he would reconcile the situation. They agreed. The Bodhisatta returned to the royal park and sat on his monkey skin. The park-keeper sent word of his arrival to the king; and the king, filled with joy at the chance to see his friend, went to meet the Bodhisatta, bringing his five advisors with him.

The king greeted him and began to converse pleasantly, but the Bodhisatta sat stroking his monkey skin and said nothing in reply. The disappointed king asked if the monkey skin was more helpful than he was, and the Bodhisatta, in order to teach him a lesson about karma, stated that it was. Deceptively implying these things happened when the monkey was alive rather than it just being the skin, he said, “This monkey had transported me on his back, carried my waterpot, swept out my hut, and did various chores. And because it was just a simple creature, I ate its flesh, and now I rest on its fur.”

Misinterpreting this in the way the Bodhisatta knew they would, the five advisors condemned the Bodhisatta for killing a living being, which no ascetic should ever do, and betraying someone who was good to him. The Bodhisatta then used the advisors’ assumptions to refute their specific heresies against the existence of karma. Criticizing him for killing a monkey, he said, was hypocritical according to their personal creeds—if there was no karma, then he did nothing wrong. The advisors were stunned speechless by his wisdom. The Bodhisatta then called the king a fool for associating with the five wicked advisors. Following their sinful behavior not only caused the king grief in this life, but put him on the path to hell for the next. He should stop listening to people’s advice without analyzing it.

The remorseful king forgave the four princes for their intended assassination and ordered his advisors executed for their crimes, but the Bodhisatta told him not to kill anyone else. And when the king commanded their hands and feet be cut off, the Bodhisatta also stopped this. In the end, the king took away all their property, cut their hair into five locks (the style worn by slaves), put them in shackles and chains, covered them with cow dung, and banished them from the kingdom.

After the Bodhisatta urged the king to be vigilant in good behavior, he went to live out his days in the Himalayas, where he developed supernatural power arising out of mystic meditation.

In the Lifetime of the Buddha

One day some of the Buddha’s disciples were discussing his supreme wisdom. When the Buddha heard them talking about it, he said he’d also had perfect knowledge in the past, and he told them this story as an example of how he’d been able to outsmart all his adversaries.

The five advisors were earlier births of Purana Kassapa, Makkhali Gosala, Pakudha Kaccayana, Ajita Kesakambala, and Nigantha Nataputta, religious leaders during the Buddha’s time who preached very different philosophies than the Buddha and denied the existence of karma. The king’s dog was an earlier birth of Ananda, one of the Buddha’s top disciples.

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