Jataka 109

Kuṇḍakapūva Jātaka

The Rice Cakes

as told by Eric Van Horn

originally translated by Robert Chalmers, B.A., of Oriel College, Oxford University

originally edited by Professor Edward Byles Cowell, Cambridge University

This is a lovely story about humility and generosity. It is reminiscent of the story in the Bible about the Widow’s Offering [Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4].

An interesting feature of this story is how the tree sprite – the Bodhisatta – instructs the poor man to take the buried treasure to the King rather than keeping it for himself. In this way he reaps even greater benefits by gaining the position of Lord Treasurer.

As fares his benefactor.” This story was told by the Master when at Sāvatthi. It is about a very poor man.

Now at Sāvatthi, the Saṇgha, with the Buddha at its head, used to be entertained now by a single family, then by three or four families together. Or a body of people or a whole street would get together, or sometimes the whole city entertained them. But on the occasion now in question it was a street that was showing its hospitality. And the inhabitants had gathered to provide rice porridge followed by cakes.

Now on that street there lived a very poor man. He was a hired laborer. He did not see how he could give the porridge, but he resolved to give cakes. He scraped out the red powder from empty rice husks and kneaded it with water into a round cake. He wrapped this cake in a leaf of swallow wort (a shrub whose leaves were used in baking) and baked it in the embers.

When it was done, he made up his mind that only the Buddha should have it. Accordingly, he placed himself near the Master. No sooner had the word been given to offer cakes, then he stepped forward quicker than anyone else and put his cake in the Master’s alms bowl. The Master declined all other cakes offered to him and ate the poor man’s cake. Immediately the whole city talked of nothing but how the All-Enlightened One had only eaten the poor man’s cake. And from porters to nobles and the King himself, everyone flocked to the spot, saluted the Master, and crowded around the poor man. They offered him food or two to five hundred pieces of money if he would dedicate the merit of his act to them.

Thinking he had better ask the Master first, he went to him and stated his case. “Take what they offer,” the Master said, “and offer your merit to all living creatures.” So the man set to work to collect the offerings. Some gave twice as much as others, some four times as much, others eight times as much, and so on, until nine million rupees worth of gold were collected.

Returning thanks for the hospitality, the Master went back to the monastery and after instructing the monks and giving his blessed teaching to them, he retired to his perfumed chamber.

In the evening the King sent for the poor man and made him Lord Treasurer.

Assembling in the Dharma Hall the monks spoke together of how the Master, accepting the poor man’s cake, had eaten it as though it were ambrosia, and how the poor man had been enriched and made Lord Treasurer to his great good fortune. And when the Master entered the Dharma Hall and heard what they were talking of, he said, “Monks, this is not the first time that I have accepted that poor man’s cake. I did the same when I was a tree sprite, and then too it was the means by which he was made Lord Treasurer.” So saying he told this story of the past.

Once upon a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta was a tree sprite living in a castor oil plant. The villagers of those days were superstitious about gods. A festival came around, and the villagers offered sacrifices to their respective tree sprites. Seeing this, a poor man paid homage to the castor oil tree. All the others had offered garlands, fragrances, perfumes, and cakes. But the poor man only had a rice cake and water in a cocoanut shell for his tree. Standing before it, he thought to himself, “Tree sprites are used to heavenly food, and my tree sprite will not eat this poor rice cake. Why then should I waste it? I will eat it myself.” He turned to go away when the Bodhisatta exclaimed from the fork of his tree, “My good man, if you were a great lord you would bring me dainty wheat breads. But as you are a poor man, what shall I eat if not that cake? Do not rob me of that.” And he uttered this stanza:

As his benefactor fares, so a sprite must fare.

Bring me the cake, and do not rob me of my share.

Then the man turned around and, seeing the Bodhisatta, gave up his humble offering. The Bodhisatta fed on the cake and said, “Why do you honor me?”

Figure: The Poor Man Makes a Kind Offering

Figure: The Poor Man Makes a Kind Offering

“I am a poor man, my lord, and I honor you so that I might be relieved of my poverty.”

“Have no more fear for that. You have sacrificed to one who is grateful and mindful of kindness. Behind this tree there are pots of buried treasure. Go tell the King and take the treasure away in wagons to the King’s courtyard. Pile it in a heap there and the King will be so pleased with you that he will make you Lord Treasurer.” So saying, the Bodhisatta vanished from sight.

The man did as he was told, and the King made him Lord Treasurer. Thus did the poor man, by aid of the Bodhisatta, come to great fortune. And when he died, he passed away to fare according to his karma.

His lesson ended, the Master identified the birth by saying, “The poor man of today was also the poor man of those times, and I was the tree sprite who lived in the castor oil tree.”