The Bodhisatta was once an ascetic. Before renouncing the world, he was a wealthy merchant who gave alms generously. Eventually he understood the misery of desire and gave everything he owned, including his wife and young son, to his brother and headed off to live a simple religious life in the Himalayas. Before departing, he urged his brother to continue giving charity; but instead, the brother tore down the alms hall at the front of the house. So great was the brother’s greed that one day he drowned the Bodhisatta’s son in a river so that he wouldn’t need to give him half of the Bodhisatta’s estate.
Back in town, the brother told people the boy had gone missing while playing in the river, and he did not see what had happened. Everyone believed him. But the Bodhisatta divined the truth and wanted to expose his brother’s wickedness. He flew back to the town and sat down to visit with his brother. After hearing his brother lie to his face about his son’s death, the Bodhisatta rebuked him and compared him to a mayhaka bird, which sits in fig trees crying “Mine, mine!” when other birds eat the fruit. The Bodhisatta then taught a lesson on the sorrow that comes from greed and how generosity generates rewards both on earth and later in heaven. Hearing these words, the brother felt shame and began to give alms again.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The Bodhisatta’s brother was an earlier birth of a wealthy, miserly merchant who ate only rice-dust broth and sour gruel, wore coarse clothes, rode in a broken-down chariot, and was so stingy he went to hell after he died. He had no heirs, so all his wealth went to the king, whose men took seven days to bring it all to the palace.
After everything was moved, the king went to see the Buddha, who asked why he had not visited for so long. The king explained what had kept him occupied during the last week and asked the Buddha why such a selfish, undeserving man had gained such great wealth and why he couldn’t enjoy it. The Buddha told him it was karma from one of the merchant’s past lives in which he was also extremely greedy. He had never given anything to anyone, but one day he told his wife to fill the alms bowl of a private Buddha (those who reach enlightenment on their own and do not teach the path to others) with the best food possible. Thanks to this gift, he gained vast riches in his next earthly life. But the man immediately regretted his act of generosity since he got nothing in return for it in the short term, and this regret is why he couldn’t enjoy his wealth. Then the king asked the Buddha why the merchant had no children, and the Buddha told him this story to explain that it was because in a past life he had drowned his brother’s son.