The Bodhisatta was once an ascetic. He was born into a wealthy family, and when it came time to get married, he told his parents he was not interested. He would stay with them until they died, and then become an ascetic. His younger brother, Nanda, said he would do the same. This inspired his parents to give away all their wealth, and the four of them went off to the Himalayas and lived as ascetics.
They built leaf huts along a lotus-filled lake, and the sons cared for their parents, bringing them food and water, cleaning their rooms, washing their feet, and much more. They often had to walk far to gather fruit, so Nanda would keep extra from a day or two before to give his parents in the morning. But the Bodhisatta always brought them fruit picked fresh the same day. When the Bodhisatta found out his brother was being lazy, he worried this fruit would sicken his parents. He told his brother to wait for him to return from the forest, then they would deliver their food together; this way their parents would not be tempted to eat Nanda’s unripe or overripe fruit.
But Nanda paid no heed to his brother’s words, and his parents continued to eat the old fruit. So the Bodhisatta ordered his brother to leave. Nanda went to his hut and sat down in shame. Fixing his gaze on the mystic circle, he developed the eight attainments and five supernatural faculties. Then he left.
Nanda knew earning his brother’s forgiveness would be no small task, so he went to see King Manoja, the most powerful ruler in India, and said that by his magic powers, he could make the king ruler over all of India without shedding any blood, not even enough for a tiny fly to drink. The king accepted the offer, and he marched his army out that very day. When the road was sunny, Nanda brought shade; when it rained, he kept them dry. He stopped the winds, removed stumps and thorns, and smoothed the road as they walked.
At the first kingdom, they ordered the king to fight or surrender. The king chose to fight. Nanda sat cross-legged on an antelope skin floating in the air between the two armies, and when the battle began, he caught every arrow fired by both sides. Then Nanda told the rival king if he submitted himself to King Manoja’s authority, he could remain on his throne. The king agreed. Over the next seven years, seven months, and seven days, they forced submission of all one hundred one of India’s other kings in this way.
King Manoja’s victory celebration lasted a week. Then he wanted to reward Nanda and told him to take a palace or anything else he wanted and choose any kingdom to rule. But Nanda said the only thing he wanted was for King Manoja to go to the Himalayas along with the subservient kings and a host of wealthy nobles and help convince his brother to forgive him.
On that very day, the Bodhisatta finally wondered what had happened to his brother. Divining the answer, he knew that his brother was leading an entourage to come beg forgiveness. Because they had seen his brother’s great powers in person, the Bodhisatta knew they would all assume Nanda was his superior, and thus they would be destined for hell for failing to respect the Bodhisatta enough. To demonstrate his powers, he put a carrying pole with water buckets in the air four inches above his shoulder and flew fast down the mountain past the men walking up. King Manoja was impressed and stopped to talk to him. The Bodhisatta created a footpath to their home and flew back to await his guests.
In bedazzling splendor, as though he were Indra, king of the gods, King Manoja arrived with Nanda and the other kings to talk to the Bodhisatta. They chatted pleasantly for a while, then the king asked the Bodhisatta to listen to his brother’s plea. Nanda asked to be able to care for his parents once again and make merit so he could enter heaven. The Bodhisatta replied that he sent his brother away because, as the eldest son, he had the obligation to do what was best for his parents, just like a captain guarding his ship. King Manoja and all the others were so delighted by this wisdom they forsook Nanda and became obedient followers of the Bodhisatta.
Nanda apologized for his behavior. The Bodhisatta forgave him and welcomed him back home, and granted his mother’s request to smell and kiss Nanda’s forehead. The Bodhisatta praised their parents at length and implored Nanda to never again give them sour berries or take other shortcuts in their care. He also preached about virtue and generosity to the kings, and they all followed his advice, ruling righteously for the rest of their days.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The parents of one of the Buddha’s disciples had been reluctant to let their son adopt a religious life, but he begged them and they agreed. After five years, he fully mastered dharma, so he went out to live alone and meditate in the forest to reach spiritual insight. But after twelve years of striving, he still had not achieved it. One day another disciple visited him at his hut and told him that his parents had fallen into ruin. With no children around to protect them, their servants and workers had stolen everything, and they were now homeless beggars, clothed in rags. The son began to cry, and realizing he had labored in vain for the past twelve years, he decided to leave the sangha and return home to care for his parents.
The depressed disciple went to listen to the Buddha preach one last time before returning home. The Buddha divined this disciple’s situation and made his morning talk about the virtues of parents. Listening to the sermon, the son realized that, though it would be difficult, he could remain a disciple and still support his parents, and he resolved to do so. He took up abode near their hut, and from then on he made two daily alms rounds: one for them and a second for himself. He usually got little food for himself, and some days he got none, so he grew pale and thin.
When some other disciples learned what he was doing, they told him that sharing alms with people who are not disciples was an offense, and they reported him to the Buddha. The accused disciple was summoned back to the monastery, where he admitted sharing the alms he collected with his parents. But, to the surprise of the other disciples, the Buddha praised the caring son instead of rebuking him. He then told this story to explain that caring for others was always a good thing, and that in the past he himself had once turned down sovereignty over all of India so he could support his parents.
The Bodhisatta’s father and mother were earlier births of the Buddha’s father and birth mother. Nanda and King Manoja were earlier births of Ananda and Sariputta, two of the Buddha’s top disciples. The one hundred one kings were earlier births of the Buddha’s eighty chief elders plus twenty-one others, and King Manoja’s soldiers were earlier births of the Buddha’s present followers.