The Bodhisatta was once a sailor. He was a master of the seas, and no ship that he helmed had ever come to harm. But over time, the exposure to saltwater robbed him of his vision, and he had to retire. He asked the king for work and was appointed as a royal appraiser.
One day an elephant was brought to the palace. The Bodhisatta passed his hand over its body and declared that it was not worthy of being a state elephant because its mother had given birth while standing up, and when the baby dropped to the ground its hind feet were damaged. The people who had brought the elephant admitted this was true, and the pleased king gave the Bodhisatta eight coins. Later, the Bodhisatta rejected a chariot because it was made from a hollow tree; a precious rug because a rat had bitten a hole in it; and a horse because its mother died on the day it was born, and without her milk it did not grow properly. In all cases, the king gave the Bodhisatta eight coins. Annoyed by the king’s stinginess, the Bodhisatta quit his job.
When some merchants arranged a ship for a trade voyage, they asked the Bodhisatta to captain it because even though he was blind, there was no one wiser and more skillful at sea. He refused at first, but after the men persisted, the Bodhisatta agreed to go.
They sailed uneventfully for a week, then unseasonable winds arose and blew the ship astray over rough seas. They arrived at a primeval sea where fish with bodies like men and sharp razor-like snouts dove in and out of the water. The Bodhisatta did not tell them the sea was full of diamonds because if they knew they would overload and sink the ship through their greed. But he lowered a net as though he were fishing and brought in a haul of diamonds, throwing wares with little value overboard to make space.
Sailing on, they arrived at a sea that radiated like a blazing bonfire and was full of gold. Next, they came to a sea that gleamed like milk and had an abundance of silver. Then a sea like a stretch of green kusha grass with many emeralds, and another like a bamboo grove rich with coral. The merchants asked about all these enchanted seas, but for safety’s sake, the Bodhisatta never mentioned any of their riches. He did, though, secretly haul in a load from each and stored them on board.
After voyaging for four months, they reached a sea like a saucer, where the water got sucked away to the sides, causing a loud roar and steep precipices all around them. The Bodhisatta told the terrified merchants there was no return from this sea; any ship entering it would sink, and they cried out like those burning in the depths of hell. The Bodhisatta knew he could only save the ship and all seven hundred lives on board by declaring an act of truth (a solemn declaration of one’s supreme virtue followed by a request for some miraculous result), so he ordered the merchants to quickly bathe him in scented water, prepare a full bowl, and dress him in new clothes. When this was done, the Bodhisatta stood at the front of the ship and declared his great virtue—never having taken the life of any living creature—and asked that the ship return to safety if his vow was true. Magically, the ship sailed back to their homeport in a single day.
Once they were back, the Bodhisatta shared the riches he had collected with all the men so they never needed to travel the seas again, and he preached to them about living a good life.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
One time when the Buddha heard some of his disciples praising his perfect wisdom, he told them this story so they knew that even in the past, when he had less-developed knowledge, he was still exceptionally wise.
The merchants were earlier births of the Buddha’s present followers.