Visayha Jataka (#340)

temple painting of Visayha Jataka

The Bodhisatta was once a wealthy merchant. He was so righteous and generous that he gave alms to six hundred thousand people every day, and the food he donated was the same quality that he himself ate. His generosity became legendary across India, and eventually it warmed the throne of Indra, king of the gods. Indra worried that when the Bodhisatta died he would dethrone him and take over his job. So he decided to end the Bodhisatta’s generosity by making everything he owned—from food to money to slaves—disappear. The house now empty, the Bodhisatta and his wife no longer had anything other than the clothes they were wearing.

Desperate to give something to the poor, they saw a grass cutter throw down his equipment and run away, so the Bodhisatta picked it up and went to work in a field. He cut two bundles of grass and sold them at the city gate for two small coins, keeping one to buy food and giving the other away to some beggars. But upon seeing more beggars, he gave away the second coin, and he and his wife didn’t eat that day. He did the same thing again for the next five days, and on the seventh day the Bodhisatta was so weak from not eating that he passed out.

When Indra saw the Bodhisatta fall down, he came to talk. Standing in the air, he told the Bodhisatta he was the one who took away his possessions, and he wanted him to stop giving alms. The Bodhisatta answered that Indra was guilty of a great offense and vowed to never stop giving for as long as he lived. Indra asked the Bodhisatta to explain his desire to be generous, and the Bodhisatta said he was not seeking any earthly or celestial reward, only insight and happiness. Indra was pleased by this answer and restored the Bodhisatta’s former prosperity and then some, telling him and his wife to henceforth double their daily charity.

In the Lifetime of the Buddha

Anathapindika, a wealthy supporter of the Buddha known for his extreme generosity, had a fairy living over the fourth gateway of his massive palace. The fairy was not a follower of the Buddha and was greatly annoyed that she and her children had to come down to the ground floor to pay respect every time he and his elder disciples visited Anathapindika. She tried unsuccessfully to get Anathapindika’s business manager and his eldest son to stop him hosting these people because of all the money he wasted.

Even after Anathapindika fell into poverty from neglecting his business in order to focus fully on helping people, he continued to give what he could to the Buddha’s sangha. The fairy now saw a chance to change his mind, and she appeared before him in visible form, imploring him to stop donating to the Buddha and instead think of his future and his family. Anathapindika, whose faith in the Buddha never wavered, was so incensed by her words that he kicked her and her children out of the palace.

Now homeless, the fairy asked several gods to convince Anathapindika to let her return. But when they heard the wicked words she had spoken, all refused. Indra, however, did propose a way she could earn his forgiveness. Anathapindika had not sought recovery of many of the loans he had made and had also lost some buried treasure chests. Indra suggested the fairy tell Anathapindika’s delinquent borrowers that while he had not sought payment of debts when he was wealthy, now that he was poor it was time to pay up. And she should take some young goblins with her to scare these people into action. She should also use her supernatural powers to find the missing money.

The fairy did as Indra advised and placed a fortune in his treasury; then she went to seek forgiveness. She explained that she had been stained by passion and blinded by ignorance, but she now recognized the Buddha’s infinite virtue and had sought atonement by recovering his money. Anathapindika welcomed her conversion, but he wanted her to request his pardon in the presence of the Buddha. So the next day they went to his monastery and she confessed what she had done. The Buddha preached that to bad people sin looks good before it ripens, and to virtuous people goodness feels like sin before it ripens. The fairy then fell to the Buddha’s feet in tears to apologize and ask forgiveness, which both the Buddha and Anathapindika granted.

Anathapindika then began to speak highly of himself since the fairy had not swayed him to stop supporting the Buddha. But the Buddha corrected him, explaining that his dedication was no great accomplishment because he was living in the lifetime of a perfect Buddha. Then the Buddha told this story as an example of how he himself had once been so dedicated to giving alms that he ignored Indra’s advice to stop doing it.

The Bodhisatta’s wife was an earlier birth of the Buddha’s wife.

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