The Bodhisatta was once an elephant. He was white all over and magnificently beautiful. A herd of eighty thousand elephants followed him as their leader, but when he found that some of them were sinners, he left to live alone.
One day a forester got lost, and the Bodhisatta heard him crying in despair for fear of death. He invited the man to his home and fed him fruit of every kind for several days. Then he took the man, riding on his back, to the road so he could return home.
When the forester got back to the city, the man asked some ivory workers if they would buy elephant tusks from him, and they said yes. So he took a saw and returned to the Bodhisatta’s home and moaned about not being able to earn enough money. The man asked to cut off some of his tusks to sell, and the ever-generous Bodhisatta agreed. The man later returned and claimed the money he got selling the tusks was only enough to pay off his old debts, and he begged for the rest of the tusks. Again, the Bodhisatta agreed. Seized by greed, the man returned a third time and again feigned poverty, saying he needed to dig out the stumps, and the Bodhisatta let him do it. But as the forester walked home this time, the earth split open and the flames of hell dragged him down. A tree fairy who saw everything happen commented for all forest creatures to hear that there is nothing in the world that can satisfy ungrateful beings.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The forester was an earlier birth of Devadatta, a disciple of the Buddha who became his nemesis. One day the Buddha overheard his disciples talking about how Devadatta was ungrateful for all that the Buddha had provided them. The Buddha told them this story to explain that even in the past, Devadatta had been an ingrate and lacked virtue.
The tree fairy was an earlier birth of Sariputta, one of the Buddha’s top disciples.