Upahana Jataka (#231)

temple painting of Upahana Jataka

The Bodhisatta was once a mahout. He taught a young villager how to work with elephants, holding back none of his knowledge, which is how all Bodhisattas teach. When he finished his studies, the student wanted to work for the king, so the Bodhisatta went to the palace to get him hired. The king said he would pay the student half the rate the Bodhisatta earned. The student answered that he would only take the job if he earned the same as the Bodhisatta because he had learned all his knowledge. So the king said that if the student could demonstrate equal skill he would get equal pay, and an elephant-handling exhibition was set for the next day.

A large crowd had gathered at the palace to see the master and the student show their skills. The student did well, but the Bodhisatta had spent the previous night teaching his elephant new commands so that all actions were reversed from the words. The elephant lay down when it heard “Stand!” and picked something up when it heard “Drop it!” When it heard “Go on!” it backed up, when it heard “Back!” it walked forward, and so on.

The crowd was impressed by the Bodhisatta and angry with the student for disrespecting his master by claiming to be equal, so they pelted him to death with sticks and clods of dirt. After this, the Bodhisatta addressed the king, telling him that most men benefit from learning, but for this boy it brought destruction. For him, knowledge was like an ill-made shoe that caused pain because it did not fit. When the Bodhisatta was done with his sermon, the king heaped honors upon him.

In the Lifetime of the Buddha

The student was an earlier birth of Devadatta, a disciple of the Buddha who became his nemesis. One day some of the Buddha’s disciples were discussing how Devadatta had repudiated the Buddha, and he told them this story so they knew that Devadatta had been ungrateful and done the same to him in the past.

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