The Bodhisatta was once a king’s advisor. One day an old brahmin collecting alms got one thousand coins, and he stored them at a friend’s house. When he came back to get his money, his friend had already spent it, so instead, he gave the old brahmin his daughter as a wife. Being elderly, the old brahmin could not satisfy her sexually, so she started an affair with a young brahmin in town.
Disappointed with her life, the wife told her husband to hire a maid. He didn’t have the money for one, so she told him to go out begging. She packed him a meal and he went off for the day. He walked through various villages and towns and earned seven hundred coins, enough to buy two slaves. As the old brahmin set off for home, he stopped to eat, and while he went down to get a drink of water, a snake crawled into his bag. When he left, the brahmin threw his bag over his shoulder and continued down the road, not knowing the snake was there.
As the brahmin walked, he met a tree fairy who told him that if he went home that day his wife would die, and if he stayed out another night he would die: but the fairy did not explain how or why. He entered the city in tears over his fear of death.
It was a holy day and the Bodhisatta was giving a sermon. The old brahmin thought going to listen might take away his troubles. As the Bodhisatta preached, he saw the disturbed old brahmin standing in the back and asked him what was wrong. He told the Bodhisatta of the prophecy, and by thinking logically, the Bodhisatta deciphered it. He first pondered the many causes of death in the world—such as falling out of a tree, being struck by a weapon, ingesting poison, drowning, freezing, disease, being eaten by fish—and then he noticed the old brahmin’s sack and realized a snake must have crawled in unnoticed. If he stayed on the road this night, the old brahmin would open his bag to eat dinner and be bitten by the snake and die. If he returned home, his wife would get bitten when she put away his things. He announced his theory, and the old brahmin laid his bag on the ground and beat it with a stick. Just as predicted, a snake crawled out.
Waving cloth and snapping fingers, the crowd cheered wildly and threw jewels at the Bodhisatta, who told them that wisdom is the most important thing to have if you want to aim for nirvana. A snake charmer caught the snake and let it loose in the forest.
The old brahmin offered the Bodhisatta his seven hundred coins in gratitude, but he not only refused them, the Bodhisatta gave the old brahmin three hundred more. The Bodhisatta also asked the old brahmin about his wife, and when he answered that she was very young, the Bodhisatta said she was surely sinning with another man: if he took the money home, she would give it to her lover. Following the advice of the Bodhisatta, he hid his bag of coins at the root of a tree outside the village before going home.
When the brahmin returned home, the wife snuck her lover out of the house and asked her husband how much money he got that day and where it was. Foolishly, the old brahmin told her, and she told her lover, who went and took it.
The next day, finding his money missing, the old brahmin returned to the Bodhisatta and asked how he could get it back. Knowing the thief must be the wife’s lover, the Bodhisatta gave him money to host a special seven-day celebration. Both he and his wife were to each invite seven brahmins to their house for dinner, then each day invite one fewer from the same group until the last day when they each had just one guest. Whichever of the wife’s guests was there on the last day was her lover.
The old brahmin did as told and identified the lover-thief. He informed the Bodhisatta, who sent some of his men to bring the lover to meet him. In the presence of a royal advisor, the thief had no choice but to admit his guilt and return the money. The Bodhisatta banished the wicked brahmin from the city, punished the wife (she wasn’t banished because the old brahmin wanted to keep her), and gave the old brahmin a home in the city near him.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
One day some of the Buddha’s disciples were discussing his supreme wisdom. When the Buddha heard them talking about it, he told them this story so they knew that he’d also had perfect knowledge in the past.
The old brahmin and tree fairy were earlier births of Ananda and Sariputta, two of the Buddha’s top disciples. The people who gathered to listen to the Bodhisatta preach were earlier births of the Buddha’s followers.