Sarabhanga Jataka (#522)

temple painting of Sarabhanga Jataka

The Bodhisatta was once an ascetic. His father was the royal chaplain, and on the day the Bodhisatta was born the sky foretold he would grow up to become the best archer in all of India. The prophesy came true, and when he came of age he was hired to serve the king, earning a salary of one thousand coins per day. The king’s advisors were offended and suggested the king should not pay him so much without having ever seen him shoot. So by beat of drum, the king summoned everyone in the city to come watch the Bodhisatta prove his skill.

The Bodhisatta put on a splendid coat of armor and a jeweled crown and had four renown archers (they were able to shoot as quick as lightning, split a hair, shoot at a sound rather than seeing the target, and hit a falling arrow) stationed at the corners of a pavilion. He stood in the center and told them to try their best to shoot and wound him, but the Bodhisatta dodged all their arrows and shot the four men, making them drop to the ground. He called this trick the arrow-defense and the crowd shouted and danced in applause and threw money and jewelry to him.

The delighted king wanted to see more, so the Bodhisatta put a plantain at each corner and shot all four with a single arrow, which he called the pierced-circle trick. Then he performed ten more tricks that nobody else in the world could do: the arrow-stick, arrow-rope, arrow-plait, arrow-terrace, arrow-pavilion, arrow-wall, arrow-stairs, arrow-tank, arrow-lotus, and arrow-shower. After these twelve displays of skill, the Bodhisatta gave nine demonstrations of strength: He shot arrows that pierced through a plank of fig-wood twenty centimeters thick; a plank of asana-wood ten centimeters thick; a copper plate five centimeters thick; an iron plate two and a half centimeters thick; a hundred boards joined together; a wagon full of straw, sand, and planks from the front; then again the same wagon from the back; two hundred meters of water; and four hundred meters of earth. At sunset he finished his exhibition by piercing a hair from two hundred meters. The king rewarded the Bodhisatta with one hundred thousand coins and promised to appoint him commander-in-chief, but because it was late, they would do the ceremony the next day.

That night the Bodhisatta pondered his life and decided that power, a family, and wealth would cause him too much temptation and lead him on a path to hell, so he snuck off to a forest and became an ascetic. When Indra, king of the gods, saw this he sent Vissakamma, heaven’s chief builder, to construct a monastery for the Bodhisatta and the multitude he knew would soon follow him. There the Bodhisatta lived on roots, berries, and other foods he gathered in the forest and soon developed the eight attainments and five faculties.

Eventually the king learned of the Bodhisatta’s whereabouts and went to visit him. The Bodhisatta floated in the air and preached to him and his entourage about dharma and the misery caused by sensual desires. After listening, they all renounced the world on the spot.

As time went on, word about the Bodhisatta spread and thousands more came to live the ascetic life alongside him. The monastery became overcrowded, so he sent six of his best students (a seventh stayed behind with him), each with a company of ascetics, out to settle in other places. One of these, Kisavaccha, settled in a king’s royal park outside the palace.

A formerly respected courtesan of the king in whose park Kisavaccha settled had just been fired, and she was very disappointed. Seeing Kisavaccha in the park, she assumed he was cursed with bad luck and thought she could use him to get rid of hers. So she spat a toothpick and a blob of phlegm into his matted hair and then went to bathe. Soon after, the king reconsidered and gave her back her job. She was convinced this was a result of her little ritual with the ascetic, and when the king later sacked his chaplain, she told him what to do to get his job back. He followed her advice exactly, and soon after was reinstated.

When there was a rebellion in the border region, the chaplain recommended the king get rid of any bad luck before the battle by spitting in Kisavaccha’s hair, and he took the entire army to do so. The commander-in-chief came to the park last, but he removed the toothpicks from Kisavaccha’s hair and helped him wash. He asked Kisavaccha what was going to happen to the king because of his bad behavior. Kisavaccha said that while he harbored no anger, the gods were furious about people disrespecting an ascetic and the entire kingdom would be destroyed in seven days. The commander-in-chief warned the king and then fled with his family. Kisavaccha also left, but as a result of the abuse he died soon after he returned to the Bodhisatta’s monastery. People came from far and wide for his funeral and flowers fell from heaven during the cremation.

The king didn’t believe the prediction of impending doom and went off to battle, successfully defeating the rebels. Then the gods made it rain, and a flood washed away all the dead bodies. The rain changed to flowers, and then to coins and golden jewelry and everyone was happy. Then the rain became all manner of blazing weapons and people were cut up piecemeal. The weapons were followed by burning embers, blazing mountain peaks, and fine sand, leaving the whole kingdom in utter destruction.

Three neighboring kings, when they heard about this, wanted to know where the annihilated king and others who had previously suffered a similar earthly fate for mistreating holy men (including the king who killed the Bodhisatta in the Khantivadi Jataka (#313)), were re-born. So they traveled to the Bodhisatta’s monastery to ask. At the same time, Indra, pondering seven questions, descended from heaven on the back of his thirty-three-headed elephant, Airavata, and joined the kings to get answers from the Bodhisatta.

The Bodhisatta confirmed the kings’ assumption that those who had sinned against holy men all went to hell. Then he answered many questions about patience, wisdom, and righteousness and the three kings overcame their craving for pleasure and were filled with bliss. Now endowed with supernatural powers, the kings flew back to their homes, as did a satisfied Indra.

In the Lifetime of the Buddha

Kisavaccha was an earlier birth of Moggallana, one of the Buddha’s top disciples. Moggallana had the power to visit heaven and hell, and when he did he told people on Earth he had seen disciples of the Buddha living in bliss in heaven and followers of other religious leaders suffering in hell. Because of this the heretics lost much support, so they paid a thug one thousand coins to kill Moggallana. Moggallana saw him coming and flew away to safety, but the thug came back day after day and Moggallana escaped each time. But on the seventh day, Moggallana’s powers vanished (A result of a time in a past life when he severely beat his elderly parents; he intended to kill them, but was overcome with guilt and stopped before they died.) and the thug crushed all his bones, leaving him for dead. With his last bit of strength, Moggallana flew to the see the Buddha and died with him. There was grief on Earth and in heaven at his death and flowers rained down during his cremation. The Bodhisatta hosted a sacred festival in Moggallana’s honor, attended by men and gods, that lasted seven days.

When the Buddha later heard some of his disciples discussing how Moggallana had received great honor after his death because he died in the presence of the Buddha, but Sariputta, a disciple of the Buddha equal to Moggallana, who had died two weeks earlier in the village where he had been born, did not, he told them this story so they knew he had also given Moggallana great honor after a death in the past, and it had also rained flowers during that cremation.

Five of the Bodhisatta’s other best students were earlier births of Sariputta, Maha Kassapa, Anuruddha, Maha Kaccana, and Ananda, five of the Buddha’s top disciples.

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