The Bodhisatta was once a king. A wealthy merchant’s daughter was as beautiful as a heavenly nymph, and any man who saw her could not contain himself. Her angelic beauty was not a random stroke of luck. In a previous life she was a poor girl who wanted a scarlet robe like beautiful noble women wore, so she went to work for a wealthy family to earn one. She served them well and one day the family gave her the gorgeous robe she desired. She went down to the river to bathe before trying it on. While there, a holy man walked by, covering himself with just a tree branch because his clothes had been stolen. Wanting to help him, she tore her new robe and gave him half. And he looked so splendid in it that she gave him the other half too. She then prayed that in some future birth she would be the loveliest woman in all the land and everyone who saw her would be unable to control themselves.
When her father informed the Bodhisatta about this woman, he sent fortune-tellers to read her lines. But the moment they saw her face they lost their self-control and did such things as putting food on their heads instead of in their mouths. The daughter, disgusted by their behavior, had them thrown out of the house by the scruff of their necks. Outraged over this, the fortune-tellers told the Bodhisatta she was a witch and not a suitable wife for him. Upon hearing that the king had rejected her, she bore a grudge and vowed to get back at him some day. Later her father gave her for marriage to the commander-in-chief, a childhood friend of the Bodhisatta.
One day during a large festival, the Bodhisatta made a circuit of the city in full pageantry. The commander-in-chief told his wife the king would pass their house and she must not show herself so he would not lose control of his thoughts. When the Bodhisatta arrived, she went to an open window and threw flowers over him from above. He looked up and saw her and became maddened with passion. The Bodhisatta asked his charioteer whether she was married or not, and when he told the Bodhisatta who she was, he cancelled the rest of the procession and returned to the palace, obsessed and depressed, muttering to himself about this woman. The commander-in-chief scolded his wife for disobeying him and set out to save the Bodhisatta, knowing he could die from such passion.
The commander-in-chief made a clever plan with one of his servants and sent him to go hide in a hollow tree that was a sacred shrine. The next day the commander-in-chief, publicly for all to hear, asked the tree’s spirit what was ailing the Bodhisatta and how to save him. His servant answered, as the commander-in-chief had ordered him to, that “Your king is not sick, rather he is infatuated with your wife. If you want him to live, you must let him have her.”
The commander-in-chief set off for the palace and met with the Bodhisatta, reporting what the “spirit” had just told him to do. He insisted the Bodhisatta take his wife for as long as needed to satisfy his urges, promising not to tell anyone else about their arrangement. The Bodhisatta felt great shame that the gods knew about his behavior. He thanked his friend for his kindness, but said no matter what he might gain, he was a righteous man and would never do something that would cause another person to suffer. The two discussed the matter further and after hearing his commander-in-chief preach that heaven was the reward for a righteous path, his infatuation vanished.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
One of the Buddha’s disciples, while out on a morning alms round, saw a woman so beautiful he fell in love at first sight. After returning to the monastery, he became depressed and ill and could no longer concentrate on his studies or meditation. The Buddha told him this story to let him know lust arose in his own heart in the past, but the condition vanished before he did anything improper, so the disciple should persevere.
The commander-in-chief, charioteer, and wife were earlier births of Sariputta, Ananda, and Uppalavanna, three of the Buddha’s top disciples, and the king’s courtiers were the rest of the Buddha’s disciples.