Nimi Jataka (#541)

This Jataka tale illustrates the perfection of character of determination (adhitthana).

painting of Nimi Jataka

The Bodhisatta was once a king. He had previously reigned with wisdom and virtue for eighty-four thousand years as King Makhadeva, as told in the Makhadeva Jataka (#9). Before Makhadeva took the throne, he had also served as prince and viceroy, each for the same length of time. Throughout King Makhadeva’s life, his barber had standing orders to inform him if he spotted a grey hair. When the first grey strand appeared, the Bodhisatta became fixated on his death and decided to immediately abdicate and live out his final eighty-four thousand years as an ascetic in a mango park. That same day he passed the throne to his eldest son, gave a village to his barber, and then walked away from his worldly life. During this final phase of his life, he cultivated the four perfect virtues and was reborn in heaven after he died.

King Makhadeva watched with pride as his son, his grandson, and on and on through a total of eighty-four thousand less two generations followed this exact same path through life and death, always ruling righteously. But he now knew that he and his family had not quite done enough to be on the path to nirvana, so he decided to return to the human realm as the present king’s son to finish off the line. Upon his rebirth, the present king’s soothsayers recognized the signs and knew the reason the Bodhisatta had been born. Thus, the king named him Prince Nimi (“Hoop”), since the family’s cycle would finally be completed.

Nimi riding in the chariot through heaven

From childhood through his time on the throne, the Bodhisatta was uncompromisingly generous and righteous. He built five alms halls around the city to give his subjects great gifts, taught them about morals, and encouraged all to lead devout lives. So many people absorbed his lessons and were reborn in heaven the gods took notice and sang the Bodhisatta’s praise. Always striving for perfection, the Bodhisatta wondered whether leading a holy life or giving alms was the most fruitful action. As the Bodhisatta pondered this question, the throne of Indra, king of the gods, became warm, and in a flash of light he entered the Bodhisatta’s chamber to provide the answer: virtuous living is more fruitful by far, but great men do both.

When Indra returned home and told the other gods where he had been, they implored him to invite the Bodhisatta to visit heaven, and Indra agreed. On the night of a full moon, he sent his charioteer Matali to get the Bodhisatta. Pulled by one thousand thoroughbreds, the chariot shone magically in the sky, at first appearing to people on Earth as if it was a second moon, and made a grand entrance to the palace. The Bodhisatta accepted the invitation, telling his subjects he would return to them soon.

When the Bodhisatta got in the chariot, Matali asked him which road he wanted to travel, the road where the wicked dwell or the road where the righteous dwell. The Bodhisatta answered he would like to see both. So Matali first drove to Vetarani, the river of hell, covered with fire and filled with corrosive brine. The Bodhisatta was filled with dread by the torment of the souls cast into this river and he asked what sins they had committed. Matali explained they were people who had hurt the weak. Then Matali drove on to the next hell, where souls were being torn apart by dogs, vultures, crows, and ravens. Again the Bodhisatta, horrified by the sight, asked what had led to this fate and Matali said they had been stingy or rude to ascetics and holy men.

Wanting the Bodhisatta to see all the different hells, Matali continued on place to place, explaining at each the sin that led people to its particular torture.

  • People who torment good people are beaten with red-hot coals.
  • People who bribe witnesses to lie or refuse to pay off debts are tossed into a pit of fiery coals.
  • People who hurt ascetics and holy men are cast into a huge iron cauldron set in flames.
  • People who catch and kill birds have their necks wrung and are thrown in boiling water.
  • People who sell good grain mixed with chaff are scorched with heat to make them very thirsty and then given water that turns to chaff when they try to drink it.
  • People who steal have their bodies pierced with spikes, spears, and arrows.
  • Hunters, fishers, and butchers are cut and torn to little bits.
  • People who hurt their friends must eat dirt and dung from a foul-smelling lake.
  • People who murder their parents must drink blood from a foul-smelling lake.
  • Market sellers who cheat their customers hang from hooks in their mouths like fish.
  • Adulterous women are buried in the ground up to their waists and set afire.
  • Men who seduce and steal other men’s wives are seized by their legs and thrown headfirst into a pit of burning coals.
  • Heretics suffer the most terrible, intolerable pain of anyone destined to hell.

The gods in heaven began to wonder why Matali and the Bodhisatta were so slow to arrive. Indra divined the reason and sent a young, fast god to tell Matali to come quickly because he was using up the Bodhisatta’s life. When he received the message, Matali magically showed the Bodhisatta all the other hells simultaneously and then turned the chariot toward heaven.

Along the way Matali took the Bodhisatta to see eight glorious mansions made of gold, crystal, and gems surrounded by beautiful gardens filled with nymphs dancing and playing music. The Bodhisatta was filled with joy and asked what good deeds these gods had done in their previous lives to earn such a reward. Matali explained that they were regular people who treated guests as family, observed the holy days, and generously supported ascetics with clothes, food, drink, bedding, and other necessities.

Indra sent another message to Matali telling him to stop delaying. So Matali magically showed the Bodhisatta many more mansions earned by the righteous and then drove on past the seven hills surrounding Mount Meru and the Heaven of the Four Great Kings, finally arriving at the impressive Cittakuta Gate of Indra’s heaven. It was decorated with statues of Indra and guarded by tigers, and as he entered, the gods greeted the Bodhisatta with flowers and perfumes and took him to Sudhamma, the gods’ jeweled assembly hall. Indra offered to let the Bodhisatta stay and enjoy the celestial pleasures, but he refused, saying that in good time he would earn them the proper way, through his deeds.

The Bodhisatta stayed for a week, discussing with the gods how to live a moral life, and then Matali took him back to his kingdom. He told his subjects what he had seen and urged them to do good in this life so they would be reborn in heaven. When his barber found a grey hair, he followed the tradition he had begun and put his son on the throne to be the last of the line.

In the Lifetime of the Buddha

One evening, the Buddha and some disciples were walking in the same mango park where he, as both King Makhadeva and King Nimi, has lived as an ascetic after finding a gray hair. He wanted to tell his companions about his behavior in these past lives, so he smiled. Ananda, one of the Buddha’s top disciples, asked why he smiled and the Buddha told them this story.

The charioteer Matali was an earlier birth of Ananda; Indra was Anuruddha, another of the Buddha’s top disciples; and the other kings were the Buddha’s present followers.

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