The Bodhisatta was once a king. He was a righteous, wise, and generous ruler. He built six alms halls around the city and gave out goods worth six hundred thousand coins every day. But he felt this charity was not enough and vowed to give a part of himself to anybody who asked for it. “If he asks for my heart, I will cut open my chest with a spear and rip it out and give it to him dripping with blood clots. If he names my flesh, I will slice it off my body. If he wants my blood, I will pour it into his mouth or fill a bowl. If he needs his house cleaned, I will take off my robes and do a slave’s work. If he demands my eyes, I will tear them out like the pith of a palm tree.”
Indra, king of the gods, divined the Bodhisatta’s vow and wondered if he would really go through with it. To test him, Indra went to earth in the form of a blind old brahmin and stood at one of the alms halls. When the Bodhisatta arrived, Indra praised and flattered him, and then asked for one of his eyes. Thrilled that his heart’s desire would be filled that day, the Bodhisatta said he would give both eyes, not just one. Ignoring his advisors’ pleas to reconsider, he called for a doctor. The pain of the extraction was extreme and left the Bodhisatta’s clothes stained with blood, but he never hesitated. Indra put both eyes into his empty sockets and walked out of the city, returning to his heavenly home.
After a few days of blindness, the Bodhisatta put his advisors in charge of the kingdom and moved to the royal park to live as an ascetic. As he sat beside the lake, the Bodhisatta thought about the gift he had given, and Indra’s throne grew warm. He decided it was time to return to earth and restore the Bodhisatta’s sight. Indra told the Bodhisatta to make a wish, and he answered that, because he was blind, all he wanted was death. Indra told the Bodhisatta that because he had made such a great gift, he could speak an act of truth (a solemn declaration of one’s supreme virtue followed by a request for some miraculous result) and his eyes would be restored. The Bodhisatta spoke about his perfect generosity, and new eyes grew in his sockets.
Indra praised the Bodhisatta and returned to heaven, while the Bodhisatta and his entourage marched to the palace in a grand procession. For the rest of his life, the Bodhisatta urged his subjects to be generous and do good deeds; and because they followed his advice, they swelled the heavens when they died.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
One time King Pasenadi, a righteous ruler and devoted supporter of the Buddha, gave him alms and invited the city’s citizens to watch. The next day, the people arranged to give even more alms to the Buddha, and they invited the king to watch. Not wanting to be outdone, the king made another alms offering, and then again the people gave one larger than the last. Six times the people bested the king, but then Queen Mallika, his exceptionally wise chief queen, took charge of creating an almsgiving that the people could not surpass. She arranged for five hundred disciples to sit in a wooden pavilion with golden boats in the center. Five hundred elephants held white parasols over each disciple, and high-caste girls waved fans and spread fragrance. The king gave the Buddha everything in his alms hall plus four priceless objects: a white parasol on a jeweled stand, a couch, a stool, and a footstool.
The king expected a full sermon of thanks in return for his generosity, but the Buddha left without doing it. The king worried he had done something wrong and angered the Buddha, so he went to the monastery to ask about it. The Buddha told him that he had read the mind of one of the king’s advisors, who was greedy, and thought the almsgiving had been a terrible waste. If the Buddha had given appropriate thanks at that time, he said, the advisor’s head would have exploded; so his abrupt exit was done out of compassion. The king was pleased to hear this and gave the Buddha a fancy robe.
The day after King Pasenadi and Queen Mallika presented what became known as the incomparable gift,1The story of the incomparable giving is referenced in three Jatakas, but it is not told in any of them. I have added the details to make this Jataka’s story complete. The full story of the incomparable giving can be read here. the Buddha heard some of his disciples discussing the king’s extraordinary generosity and he told them this story so they knew that he himself had given even greater gifts in the past.
Indra and the doctor were earlier births of Anuruddha and Ananda, two of the Buddha’s top disciples, and the king’s subjects were the Buddha’s present followers.