The Bodhisatta was once a golden deer, king of a herd of eighty thousand others living in the Himalayas. He, along with his younger brother and sister, cared for his blind elderly parents. One time a hunter saw the Bodhisatta and later, on his deathbed, told his son about it in case the king ever asked about a golden deer.
One night the chief queen dreamt of a golden deer preaching to her from a golden seat, and the next day she told the king she wanted to have this in real life. She begged the king to make it happen, feigning illness and saying she would die if her wish was not fulfilled.
When the king’s courtiers and brahmins assured him that such creatures existed, he summoned the kingdom’s hunters and asked if any knew where to find a golden deer. Only the one informed by his deceased father answered and the king promised to reward him richly if he captured it: alive was preferred, but dead was acceptable if necessary.
The hunter searched and found the Bodhisatta and set a snare at a ford in the river where the herd came to drink. As he walked to the river, the noose snagged the Bodhisatta’s leg, but he remained quiet and calm so the rest of the herd could finish drinking. After some time had passed, he tried to jerk out of the noose, but it cut down to his bone. So he yelled the cry of capture and the terrified deer all fled.
When the Bodhisatta’s brother and sister did not see him in the stampede they knew something bad had happened and returned to the river to help him. He told them both to leave or else there would be nobody to look after their parents. But they refused to go, vowing to risk their lives to save him.
The hunter ran toward the trap with his spear in hand, but stopped when he saw the three deer standing together. When told that they were family, his heart grew soft. And when the brother explained that the hunter had not captured an ordinary deer, but a king of exceptional wisdom and virtue, and that killing him would result in five total deaths (the Bodhisatta, the brother and sister who would sacrifice their lives, and the parents left helpless after their children were gone), the hunter decided he was more afraid of being swallowed up by the earth into hell or struck by lightning than he was desirous of the king’s reward. The hunter tenderly removed the snare and washed away the blood. Through the power of the hunter’s love and the Bodhisatta’s virtue, the wound magically healed as though it was never there.
When the Bodhisatta heard why the hunter had captured him, he offered to go to the palace and preach for the queen. But the hunter warned him kings are cruel by nature and it was not worth the risk. So the Bodhisatta taught the hunter about the holy life and the five virtues so he could give a sermon in his place. He had the hunter rub his back to get some golden hairs as proof the message came from the Bodhisatta.
At the palace, the hunter placed the golden hairs in the king’s hand and told his tale from the forest, praising the three deer. At the king’s behest, the hunter took a seat on a golden throne and gave a glorious sermon urging the king to be righteous in all of his deeds so he would be reborn in heaven. The queen’s craving was fulfilled and the king was very pleased, so he offered the hunter gold, jewelry, cows, and two wives of equal rank and worth. The hunter, however, gave his reward to his wife and went off to the Himalayas and lived as an ascetic.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The Bodhisatta’s brother was an earlier birth of Ananda, one of the Buddha’s top disciples. When Devadatta, a disciple of the Buddha who became his nemesis, planned his third attempt to kill the Buddha, by releasing a drunk, fierce elephant into the street while the Buddha went for morning alms, people told the Buddha not to go to the city. But he still went as usual.
When they saw the elephant demolishing houses and crushing wagons, all eighty of the chief elders wanted to face the elephant themselves to protect the Buddha, but he forbid them from doing so. Ananda, however, had such strong affection for the Buddha that he didn’t listen and stood in front of the Buddha ready to sacrifice his life. After Ananda ignored two orders from the Buddha to leave, the Buddha used his supernatural powers to send Ananda behind him. As the elephant charged, he saw the Buddha’s glorious form and fell down in worship at his feet, never again harming a person.
Later, when the Buddha heard some of his disciples discussing Ananda’s willingness to sacrifice his life for him, he told them this story so they knew that Ananda had risked his life for him in the past too.
The king, the queen, and the Bodhisatta’s sister were earlier births of Sariputta, Khema, and Uppalavanna, three of the Buddha’s top disciples, and the hunter was an earlier birth of Channa, Prince Siddhartha’s charioteer who later became a disciple. The Bodhisatta’s blind parents were the king’s mother and father and the eighty thousand deer were the Buddha’s Sakya clan.