This Jataka tale illustrates the perfection of character of renunciation (nekkhamma).
The Bodhisatta was once a crown prince. Before he was born, his father, a just and powerful king beloved by his subjects, was unhappy because none of his sixteen thousand wives had borne him a child. Even after the king commanded them to pray to the moon and other gods, none got pregnant. Later, on a holy day, his chief queen spoke an act of truth (a solemn declaration of one’s supreme virtue followed by a request for some miraculous result) to Indra, king of the gods, asking to let her have a son because she had only done good in her life. Indra’s throne became warm, and when he knew the cause, he decided to grant her wish.
The Bodhisatta had been a king in his previous life on earth, and then had suffered eighty thousand years in hell before rising to reside in Indra’s heaven. Knowing the Bodhisatta’s time in heaven was up, Indra asked him to be conceived in the queen’s womb, and he agreed. At the same time, Indra also sent five hundred other boys to be born to the wives of the king’s advisors in order to serve the Bodhisatta.
When the queen found she was pregnant, the king took every precaution for her safety, and he was overjoyed when she gave birth to a son who possessed all the auspicious marks of good fortune. He granted his queen a wish for anything she desired, which she held on to for use in the future. The king sent sixty-four nurses, full of sweet milk and free of faults, to care for his son. (Sitting on the hip of a nurse who is too tall will make a child’s neck become too long; and if the nurse is too short, one of the child’s shoulder bones will be compressed. If the nurse is too thin, the child’s thighs will ache; too stout and the child will become bow-legged. If the nurse’s skin is very dark, her body is too cold; if she is very white, her body is too hot. If a nurse’s breasts hang low, the child’s nose will be flattened.) The advisors’ five hundred noble children were all born on the same day as the Bodhisatta. Knowing they were divine intervention, the king also sent princely clothes and a nurse for each of them.
When the Bodhisatta, named Temiya, was one month old, he made his first public appearance. Sitting with his father on the throne, the Bodhisatta watched him sentence four thieves to torture and death. He was terrified by his father’s cruelty and, remembering he had previously suffered in hell after being a king, knew he must do something to escape the fate of replacing his father. While he pondered what to do, a goddess who lived in the umbrella that shaded him, and who had been his mother in a former life, told him if he acted disabled, deaf, and mute with no sign of intelligence, he would not be crowned king. The Bodhisatta followed her advice, and from then on stayed unresponsive at all times.
His parents and nannies knew that the Bodhisatta had no physical defects and were determined to break what they thought was his depression. They brought the five hundred young nobles to be around him, and they got fed when they cried for their milk. But the Bodhisatta, knowing that to die of thirst would be better than being king and going to hell, remained stoic and silent. The king consulted his chaplains and they told him to be patient; the Bodhisatta would eventually cry and seize a breast to drink. For the rest of the year, they delayed his feeding, sometimes going all day before relenting and giving him his milk without him ever crying for it.
And then each year for the rest of his childhood, they tried to shock the Bodhisatta back to normalcy through these tricks and tortures:
- Surrounding him with cakes and other delicious snacks so he could take any he wanted.
- Surrounding him with an assortment of fruit.
- Surrounding him with various toys.
- Surrounding him with special foods for children.
- Setting him in the middle of a house, covering it with palm leaves, and setting it on fire.
- Training an elephant to run wild around him and lift him up as if to smash him.
- Letting snakes crawl all over his body.
- Bringing in a troupe of mimes to entertain him.
- Sending a man with a sword charging toward him, threatening to cut off his head.
- Having conch-shell blowers make a constant loud noise.
- Having drummers make a constant loud noise.
- Lighting many lamps at night and lifting them simultaneously to create a sudden bright light.
- Covering him with molasses and laying him in a place infested with biting flies.
- Stopping his bathing until he was disgusting and covered with flies.
- Placing pans of fire under his bed until his skin blistered.
- Bringing women as beautiful as goddesses to entertain and seduce him; whoever broke him would be his chief queen.
But throughout all this, the Bodhisatta remembered the torments of hell, which were far worse than the suffering inflicted by his parents, and he never broke from his plan.
When the Bodhisatta reached age sixteen, the royal seers warned that to avoid grave misfortune to the king and queen, the Bodhisatta must die. Fearing their predictions, the king agreed to kill his son. When the queen learned of this, she asked for her wish that had been promised when the Bodhisatta was born: she begged her husband to make their son king. He refused but did agree to give their son the crown for seven days in the hope he would finally speak. But still the Bodhisatta ignored his mother’s daily pleading to stop his act.
The week passed, and in the early morning, at the king’s command, a charioteer took the resolute Bodhisatta from his wailing mother’s arms and drove him out of the city for the execution. As the charioteer dug a grave in the cemetery, the Bodhisatta, his fate finally changed, stood up and found himself so strong he was able to lift the chariot he had just ridden in as if it were a child’s toy. At that moment, Indra’s throne became warm, and he perceived that the Bodhisatta wanted to be beautifully adorned. So Indra wrapped him in ten thousand pieces of cloth and gave him heavenly ornaments just like his own.
Then the Bodhisatta revealed himself to the astonished charioteer and told his story. He said he was going to live as an ascetic and sent the charioteer back to the palace to get his parents so he could say goodbye. While the Bodhisatta waited, Indra built him a leaf hut and gave him bark-cloth robes and all the other requisites for life in the forest.
When the charioteer told the king and queen the news, they took three days to assemble a grand cavalcade of horses, elephants, and people, from generals to countryfolk and queens to prostitutes, to go and convince the Bodhisatta to return and take the throne. On the fourth day, the Bodhisatta finally greeted his father and mother. The king asked him to take the throne just until he had a son, and only then go off to be an ascetic. But the Bodhisatta refused, saying that something important like this should not be delayed, adding that he had no interest in worldly pleasures.
The king was so inspired by the Bodhisatta’s words that he gave away all his riches and joined his son in the forest. His sixteen thousand wives also became ascetics, and then eventually so did most of his court and the ordinary citizens of not only this but also two other kingdoms. They all lived in a massive monastery built by Indra and learned from the Bodhisatta’s sermons. When they died, they all rose to heaven.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
One time the Buddha heard some of his disciples discussing the magnificence of his Great Renunciation, which was the beginning of his path to enlightenment. But the Buddha said it wasn’t so wonderful because he had already fully attained the ten perfections of character in his past lives. Leaving his kingdom to renounce the world and become an ascetic in an earlier life, while his wisdom was less mature, was more impressive and he told them this story about how he did it.
The goddess in the umbrella and the charioteer were earlier births of Uppalavanna and Sariputta, two of the Buddha’s top disciples. The Bodhisatta’s father and mother were earlier births of the Buddha’s father and birth mother, and the king’s court were the Buddha’s present followers.