The Bodhisatta was once a merchant, and he led large oxcart caravans to trade with distant lands. On one trip he had to pass through a perilous desert so extreme that travel was only possible at night and all necessities needed to be brought along from home. There was no track; the “desert pilot” needed to navigate by the stars like boat captains do.
On the final night of the journey, with the end of the desert up ahead, the Bodhisatta ordered the water and firewood discarded to lighten the load and speed their travel. But during the night the pilot fell deep asleep and the oxen went off course. When morning arrived, the caravan was back where it had been the day before. The men set up camp in despair due to the lack of water.
The Bodhisatta, fearing they would all perish, walked around looking for water and found a clump of kusha grass. Assuming it could only grow if there was water underneath, he directed his men to dig a hole. After thirty meters they struck rock, and the men lost hope. But the Bodhisatta climbed down and placed his ear on the rock and heard water running beneath it.
The only person other than the Bodhisatta who had not given up was a young serving boy. The Bodhisatta ordered him to go down and break the rock with a sledgehammer, telling him that if he lacked courage and refused, they would all die. The boy did as he was told and his blow broke the rock that had dammed the spring’s rise. Water shot up out of the hole as high as a palm tree. Everybody drank and bathed, and then using spare axels and other gear they cooked rice. That night they completed their journey, and after making a great profit they returned home safely.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The boy who broke the rock was an earlier birth of a disciple of the Buddha who was unable to attain insight after intense meditation study in the wilderness. When he decided to give up, the Buddha told him this story of his past life to motivate him to continue trying.
The other men in the caravan were earlier births of the Buddha’s present followers.