The Bodhisatta was once a king. He, a prince born to the chief queen, and the son of the royal chaplain were born on the same day. The two boys grew up in the palace together as very close friends and were sent to Taxila for their education. When their studies were finished, they wandered through the land to get new experiences and arrived in a city a week after its king had died without an heir. They set up camp in the royal park and the next morning walked the streets seeking alms. At one house the Bodhisatta was given a seat covered with a white cloth, while a red woolen rug was spread over his friend’s seat. The friend recognized this as an omen that the Bodhisatta would soon be made king of this city and he himself would be offered the position of commander-in-chief.
The pair returned to the park and relaxed, the Bodhisatta taking a nap. At that time, the royal chariot was sent out of the palace without a driver: a foolproof method to find someone with sufficient merit to be a great king. When the chariot and the throng of people walking behind it approached the park, the Bodhisatta’s friend, who wanted to be an ascetic rather than a ruler, hid out of sight. The royal chaplain had the musicians play loudly to wake the Bodhisatta, then he lowered himself and offered the Bodhisatta the throne. The Bodhisatta accepted the kingship, and after the coronation, done right there in the park, he completely forgot about his friend.
After the Bodhisatta left, his friend sat down and watched a leaf fall from a tree. He realized that his body would someday decay just like the leaf, and this opened up his insight into the impermanence of all things and he became a private Buddha (those who reach enlightenment on their own and do not teach the path to others). His clothes and belongings magically transformed into those of an ascetic, and feeling joy that he would have no more rebirth, he set off to live in the Himalayas.
Forty years later, the Bodhisatta remembered his friend and wondered where he was. He offered a reward, told in the form of a song—”A thousand coins for one who sees my friend so dear. A hundred if they give me any news that they hear.”—for any help finding him, but nobody knew. One of the king’s dancing girls sang the song and soon the rest of the harem did too. Then it spread across the kingdom and both city dwellers and country folk constantly sang the king’s song.
A decade later, the friend divined that the Bodhisatta wanted to see him. He decided to go convince his old friend to become an ascetic by preaching to him about the evil of desire and the blessing of renunciation. He flew to the city and sat down in the royal park where he heard a young boy singing the king’s song non-stop. He taught the boy a response refrain to the song and told him to go sing it for the king and get his reward.
The boy took a bath, put on his best clothes, and went to the palace, but he wouldn’t just sing the song for the king. He told the king to announce his song by beat of a drum throughout the city and let everyone come hear it. The king agreed. When the crowd had gathered, the king sang his song, “A thousand coins for one who sees my friend so dear. A hundred if they give me any news that they hear,” and the boy replied with, “Give me the thousand coins because at last, I have seen with my own eyes your dear friend from the past.”
The king was thrilled and rushed to the royal park, sitting down to talk with his old friend. He told the king eight blessings of the ascetic life, from freedom to safety. He was going to explain more, but the king cut him off, saying he was too attached to worldly pleasures to give them up. His friend replied that the king was on a path to hell and explained with a parable. A foolish crow saw an elephant carcass floating down the Ganges River and thought it was a perfect home, so he rode on it, eating and drinking as much as he wanted. But eventually the carcass floated into the sea and there was no land in sight so the crow was trapped and eaten by a sea creature. His story finished, the ascetic friend rose into the sky and returned to his mountain home.
The parable had convinced the king. He quickly handed over the throne to his eldest son and lived out his days as an ascetic.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
One time the Buddha heard some of his disciples discussing the magnificence of his Great Renunciation, which was the beginning of his path to enlightenment. He told them this story as an example of a similar renunciation in his past.
The Bodhisatta’s son was an earlier birth of the Buddha’s son.