The Bodhisatta was once an elephant. He lived in the Himalayas, and a herd of eighty thousand followed him as their leader. But whenever he asked other elephants to deliver wild fruit he had gathered to his blind mother, they always ate it themselves. So he left the herd with his mother and went to live in a cave where he could care for her full-time.
One day the Bodhisatta heard a man crying in the forest and went to help. He said he’d been lost for seven days, so the Bodhisatta told him to climb on his back, and he carried him out of the forest where he could find his way back to the city.
At that time, the king’s state elephant had died, and the king announced to his subjects that they should inform him if they knew of any elephant fit for a king. The forester told the king about the magnificent white elephant that had saved him, and said he could lead the king’s mahouts to capture it.
The king sent the forester with a large group of men, and they found the Bodhisatta feeding at a lake. Though he had the strength to defeat an entire army, the Bodhisatta chose to neither fight nor flee so as to not damage his virtue. He was seized and led down to the city where the king had decorated the streets and prepared a special stable. The Bodhisatta was served all manner of fine food, but he declared, “Without my mother, I will eat nothing.” The king was moved by this devotion and set the Bodhisatta free. He walked back home and continued to care for his mother.
In honor of the Bodhisatta, the king had a stone image of his likeness made for worship and created an annual elephant festival. The king also built a town near the Bodhisatta’s lake so he could provide him with food. And after his mother died, the Bodhisatta went to a monastery to live with its five hundred ascetics, and the king also supported them.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The parents of one of the Buddha’s disciples had been reluctant to let their son adopt a religious life, but he begged them and they agreed. After five years, he fully mastered dharma, so he went out to live alone and meditate in the forest to reach spiritual insight. But after twelve years of striving, he still had not achieved it. One day another disciple visited him at his hut and told him that his parents had fallen into ruin. With no children around to protect them, their servants and workers had stolen everything, and they were now homeless beggars, clothed in rags. The son began to cry, and realizing he had labored in vain for the past twelve years, he decided to leave the sangha and return home to care for his parents.
The depressed disciple went to listen to the Buddha preach one last time before returning home. The Buddha divined this disciple’s situation and made his morning talk about the virtues of parents. Listening to the sermon, the son realized that, though it would be difficult, he could remain a disciple and still support his parents, and he resolved to do so. He took up abode near their hut, and from then on he made two daily alms rounds: one for them and a second for himself. He usually got little food for himself, and some days he got none, so he grew pale and thin.
When some other disciples learned what he was doing, they told him that sharing alms with people who are not disciples was an offense, and they reported him to the Buddha. The accused disciple was summoned back to the monastery, where he admitted sharing the alms he collected with his parents. But, to the surprise of the other disciples, the Buddha praised the caring son instead of rebuking him. He then told this story to explain that caring for others was always a good thing, and that in the past he himself had once made a great sacrifice in support of his needy mother by not eating.
The king was an earlier birth of Ananda, one of the Buddha’s top disciples, and the elephant mother was an earlier birth of the Buddha’s birth mother.