The Bodhisatta was once a monkey. He lived in the Himalayas and was the leader of a troop of eighty thousand. The residents of a nearby village sometimes lived there and sometimes traveled away. In this village was a massive Malabar ebony tree, and if the people were gone during fruiting season the monkeys went to eat its fruit.
One day a scout monkey brought word that the tree’s branches were bending from the weight of the fruit, but the people were there. The Bodhisatta said they could not go because humans are dangerous, but the other monkeys wanted the fruit very badly and suggested they go eat at midnight when everybody was sleeping. The Bodhisatta agreed with this plan, so that night the whole troop crept silently into the village and feasted.
That night a man woke up and stepped outside his house, and when he saw the monkeys he shouted out an alarm. The other villagers, all armed with bows and arrows, swords, sticks, rocks, and other weapons, rushed out and surrounded the tree. The monkeys were terrified, but the Bodhisatta promised them everything would be okay and told them to keep on eating. Had the Bodhisatta not spoken these reassuring words, the monkeys would have died of heart attacks right then and there.
The Bodhisatta’s nephew had not woken up when the other monkeys went to the tree and so was not with them. But when he later awoke and saw that the others were gone, he followed after them and saw their situation. Determined to save them, he found an old woman sleeping outdoors next to a fire. He grabbed a burning log and set some houses ablaze. When the people rushed to put out the fires, the monkeys escaped, each taking a fruit to give the nephew.
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 to let them know he also had perfect wisdom in the past.
The monkeys were earlier births of the Buddha’s followers. The nephew specifically was Mahanama, the Buddha’s cousin and one of his leading lay followers.