The Bodhisatta was once a teacher, renowned around the world. One of his students was extremely stupid: full of foolish notions, always saying inappropriate things, and unable to master any of the scriptures he was taught. But he was a good-hearted child deeply devoted to the Bodhisatta.
One day, after this student washed and perfumed the Bodhisatta’s hands, feet, and back, the Bodhisatta asked him to prop up the feet of his bed. Not finding anything in the room to prop it up with, the student used his leg and stayed there the whole night. When the Bodhisatta awoke the next morning and saw his student’s dedication, he vowed to redouble his efforts to educate him.
He decided the best way to teach this student was to ask him a question every day about something he had seen or done, and then tell him to make a comparison. When the student returned from gathering firewood and leaves, he told the Bodhisatta he had seen a snake. The Bodhisatta asked what it looked like and the student answered, “like the shaft of a plow.” The Bodhisatta was pleased with this answer and his hope was raised. The following two days the student reported that he ate sugarcane and saw an elephant. And when the Bodhisatta asked for comparisons, both answers were, “like the shaft of a plow.” Thinking perhaps the student was referring only specifically to the elephant’s trunk and that the sugarcane might have been oddly bent, the Bodhisatta said nothing. But when on the fourth day the student compared the molasses with curds and milk that he had eaten to the shaft of a plow, the Bodhisatta realized his student was stupid beyond hope.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The idiot student was an earlier birth of Laludayi, an elder disciple of the Buddha who was quite stupid and often said the wrong thing at the wrong time, such as giving a gloomy sermon at a festival and speaking of joy at funeral. When the Buddha heard other disciples talking about this problem, he told them this story so they knew that Laludayi had always been this inept.