The Bodhisatta was once a snakebite doctor. When a man was bit by a snake, the Bodhisatta asked his patient whether he wanted the venom treated with medicine and charms or if he wanted the snake to suck it out of the wound. He chose the latter. The snake was captured and admitted biting the man, but refused to extract the venom. So the Bodhisatta built a fire and told the snake that if he did not take back the venom, he would be thrown in and killed. The snake said he would never do so, preferring to die strong than save his life by being weak, and he crawled toward the fire. The Bodhisatta blocked the path and ordered the snake to never harm anyone again. He then set the snake free and cured the patient in the usual way.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
The headstrong snake was an earlier birth of Sariputta, one of the Buddha’s top disciples. One time some lay visitors had brought meal-cakes to the monastery for the disciples and left some extras for those who were not there at the time. A portion was set aside for a young disciple who lived with Sariputta, but as noon (after which time disciples cannot eat solid food) approached and he had still not returned, these leftover cakes were given to Sariputta. Right after he ate them, the young disciple returned. Feeling bad about eating the disciple’s food, Sariputta vowed to never eat meal-cakes again.
When the Buddha heard some of his disciples talking about this, he told them this story so they knew that Sariputta never broke a vow, even in the past when his life was at stake.