The Bodhisatta was once a parrot. His father was the flock’s king, and when he got old and could no longer fly far away, he passed the torch to the Bodhisatta. From this point on, the Bodhisatta brought back food for his parents every day.
A wealthy brahmin grew rice on one thousand acres near the forest where the parrots lived, and he hired a guard to watch over his land. When some parrots reported that the rice in the brahmin’s fields was ripe, the Bodhisatta led the flock there to eat. The guard ran about trying to shoo the birds away, but he could not. When the parrots returned home, the Bodhisatta carried away some rice for his parents in his beak. The parrots returned to these fields for several days in a row, and the guard worried they might eat up so much rice that the brahmin would not pay him. So he went to tell the brahmin exactly what was happening.
When the brahmin heard that the flock’s leader took rice back with him every day, he felt a fondness for this particular parrot and told the guard to snare him unharmed. The guard set the trap at the spot where the Bodhisatta landed each time, and it caught him immediately. But the Bodhisatta was so caring, he waited until the other parrots had eaten enough food before crying the call of capture. After enough time had passed, he yelled out, and was disappointed that every bird flew away: not one came to help him. Hearing the cry of the Bodhisatta and the whoosh of the fleeing flock, the guard came and saw he had succeeded. He tied up the Bodhisatta’s feet and took him to the brahmin.
The brahmin, thinking the Bodhisatta was being greedy or spiteful, asked why he took away more rice than he could eat. The Bodhisatta explained that he did not take it for any selfish reason, he used it to feed his parents and some other birds that needed help. The brahmin was deeply impressed that a bird could be more righteous than most humans, so he rubbed oil on the Bodhisatta’s feet, sat him on a seat of honor, fed him sweetened grains and sugar water, and offered to give him the rice fields. The Bodhisatta accepted just eight acres as a feeding ground for his flock, which the brahmin marked out with boundary stones. The Bodhisatta encouraged the brahmin to continue being generous, then returned home where everyone was astonished and happy that he had survived.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The parents of one of the Buddha’s disciples had been reluctant to let their son adopt a religious life, but he begged them and they agreed. After five years, he fully mastered dharma, so he went out to live alone and meditate in the forest to reach spiritual insight. But after twelve years of striving, he still had not achieved it. One day another disciple visited him at his hut and told him that his parents had fallen into ruin. With no children around to protect them, their servants and workers had stolen everything, and they were now homeless beggars, clothed in rags. The son began to cry, and realizing he had labored in vain for the past twelve years, he decided to leave the sangha and return home to care for his parents.
The depressed disciple went to listen to the Buddha preach one last time before returning home. The Buddha divined this disciple’s situation and made his morning talk about the virtues of parents. Listening to the sermon, the son realized that, though it would be difficult, he could remain a disciple and still support his parents, and he resolved to do so. He took up abode near their hut, and from then on he made two daily alms rounds: one for them and a second for himself. He usually got little food for himself, and some days he got none, so he grew pale and thin.
When some other disciples learned what he was doing, they told him that sharing alms with people who are not disciples was an offense, and they reported him to the Buddha. The accused disciple was summoned back to the monastery, where he admitted sharing the alms he collected with his parents. But, to the surprise of the other disciples, the Buddha praised the caring son instead of rebuking him. He then told this story to explain that caring for others was always a good thing, and that in the past he himself had collected food for his needy parents.
The brahmin was an earlier birth of Ananda, one of the Buddha’s top disciples, while the guard was an earlier birth of Channa, Prince Siddhartha’s charioteer, who later became a disciple. The Bodhisatta’s father and mother were earlier births of the Buddha’s father and birth mother, and the flock of parrots were earlier births of the Buddha’s present followers.