The Bodhisatta was once a boy skilled in tracking footsteps. His mother was a goblin. As a chief queen in her previous life, she sinned with another man. To hide her guilt, she swore an oath to the king that if she really did it, she would be reborn as a goblin in her next life; and so it came to be.
She lived in a cave deep in the forest and ate people who traveled the road near her home. One day she captured a wealthy, handsome brahmin and fell in love, so instead of devouring him, she got married. The man had feelings for her too, and they lived together happily in the cave; him getting food, clothes, and the like from the travelers she killed. But not taking any chances of her husband escaping, the goblin sealed the mouth of the cave with a boulder every time she left.
Eventually they had a child, the Bodhisatta. He was an exceptionally strong, smart child. One day, while his mother was away, he opened the cave door because he did not want to sit in darkness. Because his mother loved her son so dearly, she allowed it. Later, the Bodhisatta asked his father why the two of them looked so different from their mother, and he explained that they were human and she was a goblin. Knowing this, the Bodhisatta felt they should live among other humans. And though his father said his mother would kill them if they tried to escape, the Bodhisatta was determined to go.
The next morning, when his mother was away, the Bodhisatta picked up his father and fled. But when she returned and found them gone, she gave chase and brought them back. Not giving up, the Bodhisatta figured that Vessavana, the goblin king, must have given his mother a limited range over which she was allowed to kill people. So sometime later, when his mother wouldn’t suspect anything, he asked her what land he would inherit in the future. She pointed out the mountains, rivers, and other landmarks—thirty leagues long by five leagues wide—demarking her realm. Using this information, the Bodhisatta worked out the ideal escape route, and a few days later, he put his father on his shoulders and ran as fast as possible toward the river.
When his mother returned home and saw them gone, she again gave chase, but she didn’t catch up to them until the Bodhisatta was standing in the middle of the river, out of her reach. She broke down in tears due to the love of her family and begged them to stay. Her husband chose to do so, but the Bodhisatta said he was not meant to live there and he would never return. His mother warned him that life with humans was difficult. And since he had never learned a craft, it would be hard for him to find work, so she gave the Bodhisatta a magical charm that allowed him to follow anyone’s footsteps, up to twelve years after they had walked there. And then, overwhelmed by sadness, her heart broke and she fell dead.
The Bodhisatta and his father performed a solemn cremation ceremony, then they walked in tears to the city. They went right to the palace and told the king of the Bodhisatta’s special skill. Impressed, the king hired him for one thousand coins a day. But after some time had passed and the Bodhisatta’s services had not been needed, the king and royal chaplain decided to test his claimed skills. That night they took the most valuable royal jewels and walked a long winding route before hiding them in one of the palace’s water tanks.
There was a great outcry the next morning when the “theft” was discovered, and the king, pretending to be shocked, summoned the Bodhisatta. He promised to get the jewels back and got right to work, announcing that there were two thieves. His perception led him down the terrace, around the palace three times, and then to a wall where he announced, “There are footsteps in the air, my Lord. Bring me a ladder.” They all climbed out of the palace grounds and followed the Bodhisatta to the Hall of Justice, then turned around back over the palace wall to the water tank. After circling it three times, the Bodhisatta pulled the jewels out of the water as if he had put them there himself.
The gathered crowd snapped their fingers and waved cloth in admiration, but the king wanted more and asked the Bodhisatta if he knew who the thieves were. The Bodhisatta said the thieves were among them right now, but he would not identify them. The arrogant king, however, did not believe Bodhisatta could do it, and he insisted: “I pay you one thousand coins daily. For me, catching the thieves is more important than recovering the treasure.”
The Bodhisatta told the king that he would not name names, but he would tell him a story: “If you are wise, you will understand what it means.”
- Once upon a time, the Bodhisatta began the tale, when a famous minstrel got drunk, he tied his lute around his neck and took his wife swimming in the river. As the minstrel should have predicted, water filled the lute and weighed him down, so he began to sink. His wife swam back to shore and could see that her husband was about to drown. She called out, asking him to quickly teach her one song so she could earn a living when he was gone. But he said he could not—water usually keeps people alive, but at that very moment, due to his foolishness, it was killing him.
After hearing the story, the king said, “I cannot understand cryptic messages like this. Just catch the thieves and bring them to me.” But the Bodhisatta was determined to protect the foolish king, so he told another story.
- A village potter got all his clay from a deep pit inside a cave. One time while he was inside digging, a large storm sprang up and the heavy rain caused a flood that collapsed the pit, so the clay that gave the potter his livelihood crushed his head.
Again the king said he did not want to interpret hidden meanings. “Catch them and hand them over to me,” he said. But to avoid publicly naming the king, the Bodhisatta told another story.
- A man’s house caught fire, and he ordered another man to run in and save his property. But he didn’t get out in time, so fire, which usually cooks food and keeps people warm, killed him.
The king did not understand and said, “Just bring me the thieves.” Instead, the Bodhisatta told another story.
- A man once ate so much food he could not digest it. So that which normally sustains life killed him.
As before, the king said, “If you are able, bring me the thieves.” Still hoping to make the king understand, he told another story.
- One time a strong wind, which usually provides comfortable relief from the heat, arose and broke a man’s limbs.
Again the king said, “Bring me the thieves.” But the Bodhisatta told him yet another story.
- A huge flock of birds lived in a tree. Two of its branches rubbed together, starting the tree on fire. So the chief bird told the others to flee. What had once been their refuge was now their torment.
The king said, “I don’t want anything else. Just bring me the thieves.” But the Bodhisatta persisted and told another story.
- His father dead, a dutiful only son cared for his mother. She found her son a wife, and she and her own mother moved into the house. At first the wife showed affection for her mother-in-law, but after having many children, the wife wanted her gone. So she turned her husband against his mother by speaking often of her faults, and convinced him to kill her. They schemed to carry her bed to the river, so she would not wake up, and throw her to the crocodiles. The two mothers slept in the same room, so to avoid taking the wrong bed in the dark, the wife tied a rope to her mother-in-law’s bed. But the husband switched the rope, and that night they killed his wife’s mother, not his.
In the morning, after the wife found that her mother was dead, she told her husband they needed to kill his mother next. So they built a funeral pyre in the cemetery and that night carried her bed there to burn her alive. But they forgot to bring fire, and as they walked home to get it, the old woman woke up and realized she was about to die. She put a corpse on her bed, which successfully tricked her son and daughter-in-law into believing they had killed her, and escaped to a nearby cave.
A thief stored his loot in this cave, and when he saw the old woman there, he thought she must be a goblin. The thief fetched a witch doctor to cast the goblin out, but when he came, the old woman insisted she was not a goblin and suggested that they share the thief’s loot. To prove she was human, she told the witch doctor to put his tongue on top of hers. When he did, she bit a piece off and spit it to the ground. The frightened witch doctor, now certain that she was a goblin, fled, leaving all the treasure for her alone.
The next day, the man’s mother returned home with the loot. The surprised daughter-in-law asked where she got these jewels, and she said that everyone who gets burned alive on a pyre in a cemetery gets some. Without telling her husband, the greedy wife went to the cemetery and set herself on fire. When the man asked where his wife was, his mother told him that a daughter-in-law is supposed to care for her mother-in-law, not try to kill her, and she got the fate she deserved.
Getting irritated with the delay, the king said, “I don’t understand the things you are telling me. Just bring me the thieves!” But remaining intent on shielding the king, the Bodhisatta told one last story.
- A man prayed for a son, and eventually he had one. He cherished his son as he grew up, but when the man grew too old to work, his son threw him out of the house, making him survive on alms.
This time the angry king said, “Whether this is fact or fiction, I don’t understand. If you can’t bring them to me, then you must be the thief.”
Exasperated at the king’s idiocy, the Bodhisatta finally gave up and announced in front of the assembled crowd that the king and the chaplain were the thieves who stole the jewels. “Protect yourselves,” he urged people. “Those who should provide safety are your curse.” The people were aghast that not only was the king the thief, but that he had tried to force the blame onto somebody else. They rose up with sticks and clubs and beat the king and chaplain to death. And they chose the Bodhisatta as their new king.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
A lay follower of the Buddha had a seven-year-old son who was skilled in tracking footsteps, and he liked to test him. One day this man took a long, winding route to the Buddha’s monastery, stopping at several homes and circling the city along the way. While he sat and listened to a sermon, his son showed up, and the Buddha heard about his ability. The Buddha said the boy’s skill really wasn’t very impressive; in the past he himself could follow footsteps even through the air. Then he told this story.
The Bodhisatta’s father was an earlier birth of Maha Kassapa, one of the Buddha’s top disciples.