The Bodhisatta was once a leader of a herd of deer. One day his sister arranged for him to teach her son tricks to avoid and escape hunters. They made an appointment and his nephew came right on time and was diligent about his lessons. Soon after, as he roamed the forest, the young deer got caught in a snare. When his mother heard about it from the other deer, she was anxious, but the Bodhisatta told her she should not worry because her son had studied well.
The young deer lay on his side with his legs stretched out, lolled out his tongue, turned up his eyes, and breathed softly through his nostrils, playing dead so convincingly that flies swarmed around him and crows perched in nearby trees. When the hunter arrived, he saw what he thought was a dead deer starting to rot, so he released the trap and went to gather wood for a fire to smoke the meat. The young deer rose up and ran back to his mother.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The young deer was an earlier birth of Rahula, the Buddha’s son, who became a novice and never sought special attention because of his lineage. After listening to the Buddha preach, many monks and novices would just fall asleep on the floor of the sermon hall instead of going off to their quarters. The Buddha disapproved and made it an offence for novices to sleep in the same room as monks.
The next night the monks, out of fear of breaking the new rule, would not set up a bed for Rahula as they had always done previously, leaving him to go off and find a place to sleep on his own. Rahula was so diligent in following rules that rather than risk sleeping somewhere a monk might come into later in the night, he slept in the Buddha’s outhouse. The incident prompted the Buddha to change his mind and allow novices to stay for up to two days in a monk’s quarters when necessary.
When the Buddha later heard some disciples discussing Rahula’s excellent behavior, he told them this story to let them know that Rahula had been as thoroughly dedicated to following rules in the past as he was now.
The young deer’s mother was an earlier birth of Uppalavanna, one of the Buddha’s top female disciples.