Samudda-Vanija Jataka (#466)

temple painting of Samudda-Vanija Jataka

The Bodhisatta was once a carpenter. He lived in a village of one thousand carpenter families, who took deposits for beds, houses, and other things, and then didn’t make them. Because they kept the money, they were constantly harassed by their creditors, so they built a ship and sailed away in the middle of the night.

Eventually they reached an island out in the middle of the sea, where rice, sugarcane, coconut, and all manner of fruits grew wild. Fearful of demons, seven brave men armed themselves and explored the island before the others came ashore. As they walked, they heard a man singing and went to find him. This castaway, living on the island in pure bliss, went about naked with long hair and a beard, and when the carpenters first saw him, they feared he was a goblin and drew their bows. The castaway yelled out that he was a man, not a goblin, and begged them to spare his life.

The castaway told them the island was a perfect paradise and nobody needed to work for a living because everything they needed grew wild. Life here, he thought, was better than in India. The carpenters asked if there was anything to worry about, and the castaway told them there was only one danger: the demons who haunted the island hated seeing excrement, so after relieving themselves, everybody must always bury their waste.

The families all took up residence on the island and grew stout and sturdy. After a while, they began to distill liquor from sugarcane juice, and they sang, danced, and played games. In their drunken state, many people fouled the island by forgetting to bury their feces.

The demons were furious and decided to flood their island on the next full moon and kill all the humans living there. One compassionate demon did not want to see anybody die, so that evening he arose in the north sky in a blaze of light and warned the carpenters they must flee the island in the next two weeks. Rejecting his comrade’s righteousness and wanting the humans dead, another demon appeared in the south sky telling the carpenters that the god who had just spoken to them moments earlier was a liar and was trying to trick them into leaving. They had nothing to worry about, he assured them.

The carpenters had two leaders among them. Five hundred families followed the Bodhisatta, who was wise and good, while the other families stood behind a foolish and greedy man. After the second demon departed, the foolish leader stood up and declared there was nothing to fear and they should believe the demon from the south. Their home was a paradise, and they would not find a better one. The Bodhisatta, on the other hand, said they should not take any chances and should build a ship to be prepared, just in case the flood did come. His followers agreed and began construction, while the other five hundred families mocked them.

On the day of the full moon, the Bodhisatta’s followers stood in their ship with all their belongings packed aboard. As the moon rose in the sky, the water rose over the island; so the Bodhisatta set sail. Even as the water reached knee-deep, the followers of the fool remained convinced that the waves would not get any higher, but they did. Eventually the flood rolled over the island seven palm trees deep, and every remaining person died.

In the Lifetime of the Buddha

The greedy carpenter was an earlier birth of Devadatta, a disciple of the Buddha who became his nemesis. He left the Buddha’s sangha with many disciples to set up his own order and declared that he too was a Buddha. The real Buddha sent two of his top disciples, Sariputta and Moggallana, to preach to those wayward disciples; and while Devadatta was asleep, most of them returned to the Buddha’s fold.

The defections put Devadatta in great agony, including spitting up hot blood, and he remembered the Buddha’s virtue and that the Buddha had not once held any malice for him despite all the bad things he had done, including trying to kill him three times. He decided to go reconcile and asked his followers to carry him on a stretcher to the Buddha’s monastery. When the Buddha heard that Devadatta was coming to make peace, he predicted he would not arrive. At one point during his journey, Devadatta asked to be set down so he could bathe and drink to relieve his fever, and as soon as he stepped on the soil, the earth opened up and the flames of hell swallowed him and the five hundred families traveling with him.

One day the Buddha heard some of his disciples discussing how Devadatta and the five hundred families had been doomed. He told them this story so they knew that Devadatta’s greed for pleasures of the present and disregard for the future had also led him and his followers to ruin in the past.

The compassionate and cruel demons were earlier births, respectively, of Sariputta and Kokalika, a disciple of the Buddha who became one of Devadatta’s most devoted followers.

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