The Bodhisatta was once a king’s chaplain. He was thoroughly righteous and received more honor than anyone else in the king’s inner circle. The Bodhisatta wanted to know if this was because of his virtue or if it was only due to coming from a respected family. To test this, he stole some coins in full view of the king’s treasurer.
He was taken before the king, and after being sentenced to death he said he was not a thief and explained why he had taken the coins. And being given this punishment showed that the king’s honor really was earned from his virtue, not his lineage. Forgiven for his crime, the Bodhisatta left the palace and headed out to live as an ascetic in the Himalayas.
As he left the palace, the Bodhisatta saw a hawk seize a piece of meat from a butcher and fly off. Other birds surrounded him and attacked with their feet and beaks. Because of the pain, the bird dropped his meat. Another bird seized it, suffered a similar attack, and also dropped it. This continued, bird after bird, and whichever had the meat was attacked and whichever dropped it was left in peace. The Bodhisatta realized human desires are like the meat: life is best when we let them go.
The Bodhisatta spent that night at a home in a village. He heard one of the family’s slaves tell her lover what time to come meet her. After her master went to bed, she waited through the night at the front door for the man to come, but he never did. At daybreak she finally gave up and went to sleep. The Bodhisatta saw how hope brought sorrow, but when she was resigned to despair she felt peace.
The next day the Bodhisatta entered the forest and saw an ascetic sitting on the ground in meditation. He thought there was no greater happiness on Earth or in heaven than the bliss of meditation. He kept these three lessons in mind as he began his new life as an ascetic.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
One of the Buddha’s disciples had been a king’s chaplain before joining the brotherhood. He received more honor than anyone else in the king’s inner circle and wondered if it was because of his virtue or his lineage, so he did the exact same test of his privilege. Forgiven by the king, the man became a disciple of the Buddha and eventually reached arahantship.
When the Buddha heard some other disciples discussing this, the Buddha told them this story so they knew that he himself had once done the same test in the past.
The Buddha did not identify any earlier births other than his own.