The Bodhisatta was once an ascetic. Before this, he was the son of the king’s chaplain and was close friends with the crown prince. When the prince told the Bodhisatta of his plan to assassinate his father and make himself king, the Bodhisatta warned him this was a terrible thing, certain to lead to rebirth in hell. But the prince’s servants supported the idea, and when the Bodhisatta knew he could not stop it, he ran off to the Himalayas and became an ascetic, living on roots and berries. After the prince murdered his father and took the throne, many other good-hearted people left the kingdom to live as ascetics with the Bodhisatta. In the beginning, the new king enjoyed being the sovereign, but was soon overcome with regret and lived life with no peace of mind, as if he was already in hell.
Fifty years passed, and the Bodhisatta decided it was time to pay the king a visit. Along with five hundred fellow ascetics, he flew through the air and landed in a park near the palace. The king was summoned, and after greeting the Bodhisatta with praise, he asked what was awaiting him after death. The Bodhisatta told him graphic stories of some tortures found in the various hells for those who take the wrong path in life. Evildoers are set on fire, forced to eat filth, have birds devour their tongues, breathe the stench of carrion, and eaten by enormous worms with iron mouths. And when the Bodhisatta finished discussing the horrors of hell, he opened the heavens to show the king where righteous people go between earthly rebirths, adding that it is never too late to start down the right path: every good deed earns merit. Hearing this, the king finally felt some peace of mind, and for the rest of his life he only did good.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The king of the past was an earlier birth of King Ajatasattu. He was a devoted supporter of Devadatta, a disciple of the Buddha who became his nemesis, and at Devadatta’s insistence, had murdered his own father because he supported the Buddha. When the earth opened up and swallowed Devadatta into the flames of hell, King Ajatasattu feared the same fate for himself, so he lived in constant terror. He thought that only the Buddha could resolve his problem, so he went to see him. He was greeted warmly, with no mention made of his evil acts. After listening to the Buddha preach about the value of living simply, King Ajatasattu repented and dedicated himself to following dharma. From then on, he was generous, righteous, associated only with good people, and his state of fear vanished.
Later, when the Buddha heard some of his disciples discussing how King Ajatasattu had found happiness again, he told them this story so they knew that he had also helped King Ajatasattu recover peace of mind after murdering his father in a past life.
The five hundred ascetics who followed the Bodhisatta were earlier births of the Buddha’s followers.