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 told him this was a terrible thing, certain to lead him to rebirth in hell. But the prince’s attendants 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 his friend the king a visit. So he and five hundred ascetics flew through the air and landed in a park near the palace. The king was summoned, and when he came he greeted the Bodhisatta with praise and then asked what was awaiting him after death. The Bodhisatta told him graphic stories of the many tortures found in the various hells awaiting those who take the wrong path in life. Among them, they are forced to eat filth, have birds devour their tongues, breathe the stench of carrion, be set on fire, and be 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 moral people live 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 had some peace of mind and did only good for the rest of his life.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The king of the past was an earlier birth of King Ajatasattu, who was a devoted supporter of Devadatta, a disciple of the Buddha who became his nemesis. At the insistence of Devadatta, Ajatasattu had murdered his own father because he was a supporter of the Buddha. When the earth opened up and swallowed Devadatta into the flames of hell, Ajatasattu feared the same fate for himself, so he lived in constant terror. He decided that only the Buddha could resolve his problem and 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, 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 Ajatasattu had found happiness again, he told them this story so they knew Ajatasattu had once before murdered his father and then recovered peace of mind with the help of the Buddha.
The five hundred ascetics who followed the Bodhisatta were earlier births of the Buddha’s followers.