The Bodhisatta was once a farmer. His whole household (the Bodhisatta and his wife, their son and daughter, a daughter-in-law, and a female slave) lived happily together and they all followed the Bodhisatta’s lessons on giving alms, observing holy days, following moral law, and remembering that all things are impermanent.
One day while out plowing a field, the son gathered some rubbish and set it on fire. The smoke irritated the eyes of a snake living nearby so it raged out of its hole and bit him. A moment later, the son was dead. The Bodhisatta placed his body under a tree, covered it with a cloak, and without shedding a tear went back to plowing. When a neighbor passed by, the Bodhisatta asked him to send a message to his house that his slave only needed to bring one lunch to the field instead of two and that all four of the women should dress nicely and come with perfumes and flowers. Upon getting the message, his wife understood that her son was dead. With perfect self-control the women did as they had been told.
After the Bodhisatta finished eating his lunch, they stacked a funeral pyre, offered the perfumes and flowers to the gods, and burned the body without any sorrow. Their virtue was so pure that the throne of Indra, king of the gods, became warm. And when he looked down and saw the reason why, he was very pleased. He decided to go praise these virtuous people. Taking human form next to the funeral pyre, he asked the Bodhisatta what he was doing. When he answered that they were burning a man, Indra feigned doubt, saying that by the looks on their faces it appeared to be just some animal in the fire. Then he must be an enemy, Indra said. When the Bodhisatta replied that it was his son and he loved him very much, Indra asked why he didn’t cry and the Bodhisatta explained that not only is death inevitable, but the dead cannot perceive any mourning. Indra then asked the others about their lack of emotion and they all gave similar answers.
Delighted by their righteousness and understanding of the true nature of the world, Indra revealed himself and said they should never need to do physical labor again. He filled their home with the seven treasures and cautioned them not to stray from their virtuous path.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
One day the Buddha divined that a certain landowner, who was depressed over the death of his son, was ready for a spiritual breakthrough. So the Buddha went to the man’s house and taught him that all things are impermanent – all beings die and all things are destroyed – so there was no point in grieving. Then the Buddha said that he himself had once lost a son but did not grieve and told him this story. The man did have a breakthrough.
The Bodhisatta’s wife, daughter, and slave were earlier births of Khema and Uppalavanna, two of the Buddha’s top female disciples, and Khujjuttara, a top female lay supporter, and his son was an earlier birth of the Buddha’s son.