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 traveled away, leaving the village empty. There was a massive Malabar ebony tree in this village, and if the people were gone during the fruiting season, the monkeys went there to eat.
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 eating at midnight when everybody was sleeping. The Bodhisatta agreed to this plan, so that night the whole troop crept silently into the village and feasted.
During the night a man woke up and stepped outside his house, and when he saw the monkeys he shouted 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 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 he arrived in the village while they were in 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 to 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 so they knew that he was also very wise in the past.
The nephew was an earlier birth of Mahanama, the Buddha’s cousin and one of his leading lay followers. The other monkeys were earlier births of some other followers of the Buddha.