From the Nidana-Katha, as recounted in Buddhist Birth-Stories (Jataka Tales) translated and compiled by Mr. and Mrs. T. W. Rhys-Davids (Routledge & Sons Ltd, London). It is one of the most beautiful stories I know. I’d be interested to see if it sounds to you rather like any other tales you know:
Now the Bodisat had seen that night five dreams, and on considering their purport he had drawn the conclusion: “Verily this day I shall become a Buddha. And at the end of the night he washed and dressed himself, and waiting till the time should come to go round for his food, he went early, and sat at the foot of that tree, lighting it all up with his glory.
And Punna the slave girl of Sujata, coming there, saw the Bodisat sitting at the foot of the tree and lighting up all the region of the East; and she saw the whole tree in colour like gold from the rays issuing from his body. And she thought: “Today our deva, descending from the tree, is seated to receive our offering in his own hand.” And excited with joy, she returned quickly, and announced this to Sujata. Sujata, delighted at the news, gave her all the ornaments befitting a daughter, saying: “Today, from this time forth, be thou to me in the place of an elder daughter!”
And since, on the day of attaining Buddhahood, it is proper to receive a golden vessel worth a hundred thousand, she conceived the idea: “We will put the milk-rice into a vessel of gold.” And sending for a vessel of gold worth a hundred thousand, she poured out the well-cooked food to put it therein. All the rice-milk flowed into the vessel, like water from a lotus leaf, and filled the vessel full. Taking it she covered it with a golden platter, and wrapped it in a cloth. And adorning herself in all her splendour, she put the vessel on her head, and went with great dignity to the Nigrodha-tree. Seeing the Bodisat, she was filled with exceeding joy, taking him for the tree-deva; and advanced bowing from the spot whence she saw him. Taking the vessel from her head, she uncovered it; and fetching sweet-scented water in a golden vase, she approached the Bodisat, and stood by.
The earthenware pot given to him by the deva Ghatikara, which had never till then left him, disappeared at that moment. Not seeing his pot, the Bodisat stretched out his right hand, and took the water. Sujata placed the vessel, with the milk-rice in it, in the hand of the great man. The great man looked at her. Pointing to the food, she said: “O sir! Accept what I have offered thee, and depart whithersoever seemeth to thee good.” And adding: “May there arise to thee as much joy as has come to me!” she went away, valuing her golden vessel, worth a hundred thousand, no more than a dried leaf.
But the Bodisat rising from his seat, and leaving the tree on the right hand, took the vessel and went to the bank of the Neranjara river, down into which on the day of their complete Enlightenment so many thousands Bodisats had gone. The name of that bathing place is the Supatitthita ferry. Putting the vessel on the bank, he descended into the river and bathed.
And having dressed himself again in the manner of the Arahants worn by so many thousand Buddhas, he sat down with his face to the East: and dividing the rice into forty-nine balls of the size of so many single-seeded palmyra fruits, he ate all that sweet milk-rice without any water. Now that was the only food he had for forty-nine days, during the seven times seven days he spent, after he became a Buddha, at the foot of the Tree of Enlightenment. During all that time he had no other food; he did not bathe; nor wash his teeth; nor feel the cravings of nature. He lived on Jhana-joy, on Path-joy, on Fruition-joy.
But when he had finished eating that milk-rice, he took the golden vessel, and said: “If I shall be able today to become a Buddha, let this pot go up the stream: if not, let it go down the stream!” and he threw it into the water. And it went, in spite of the stream, eighty cubits up the river in the middle of the stream, all the way as quickly as a fleet horse. And diving into a whirlpool it went to the palace of Kala Nagaraja (the Black Snake King); and striking against the bowls from which the three previous Buddhas had eaten, it made them sound “killi-killi!” and stopped as the lowest of them. Kala, the snake king, hearing the noise, exclaimed: “Yesterday a Buddha arose, now today another has arisen;” and he stood praising him in many hundred stanzas.
But the Bodisat spent the heat of the day in a grove of sal-trees in full bloom on the bank of the river. And in the evening, when the flowers droop from their stems, he proceeded, like a lion when it is roused, towards the Tree of Enlightenment, along a path five or six hundred yards wide, decked by devas. The Snakes, and Genii, and Winged Creatures, and other superhuman beings, offered him sweet-smelling flowers from heaven, and sang heavenly songs. The ten thousand world-systems became filled with perfumes and garlands and shouts of approval.
At that time there came from the opposite direction a grass-cutter named Sotthiya, carrying grass; and recognizing the great man, he gave him eight bundles of grass. The Bodisat took the grass : and ascending the rising ground round the Bo-tree, he stood at the South of it, looking towards the North. At that moment the Southern horizon seemed to descend below the level of the lowest hell, and the Northern horizon mounting up seemed to reach above the highest heaven.
The Bodisat, saying : “This cannot, methinks, be the right place for attaining Buddhahood,” turned round it, keeping it on the right hand, and went to the Western side, and stood facing the East. Then the Western horizon seemed to descend below the lowest hell, and the Eastern horizon to ascend above the highest heaven; and to him, where he was standing, the earth seemed to bend up and down like a great cart wheel lying on its axis when its circumference is trodden on.
The Bodisat, saying : “This cannot, I think, be the right place for attaining Buddhahood,” turned round it, keeping it on the right hand; and went to the Northern side, and stood facing the South. Then the Northern horizon seemed to descend beneath the deepest hell, and the Southern horizon to ascend above the highest heaven.
The Bodisat, saying: “This cannot, I think, be the right place for attaining Buddhahood,” turned round it, keeping it on the right hand; and went to the Western side, and stood facing towards the East. Now in the East is the place where all the Buddhas have sat cross-legged; and that place neither trembles nor shakes.
The great being, perceiving : “This is the steadfast spot chosen by all the Buddhas, the spot for the throwing down of the cage of sin,” took hold of the grass by one end, and scattered it there. And immediately there was a seat fourteen cubits long. For those blades of grass arranged themselves in such a form as would be beyond the power of even the ablest painter or carver to design.
The Bodisat turning his back upon the trunk of the Bo-tree, and with his face towards the East, made the firm resolve: “May skin, indeed, and sinews, and bones wilt away, may flesh and blood in my body dry up, but till I attain to complete enlightenment this seat I will not leave!” And he sat himself down in a cross-legged position, firm and immovable, as if welded with a hundred thunderbolts.
At that time the deva Mara, thinking: “Prince Siddhartha wants to free himself from my dominion. I will not let him go free yet!” went to the hosts of his Maras, and told the news. And sounding the drum called Mara-Cry, he led forth the hosts of Mara.
That army of Mara stretched twelve leagues before him, twelve leagues to the right and left of him, behind him it reaches to the rocky limits of the world, above him it is nine leagues in height; and the sound of its war-cry is heard, twelve leagues away, even as the sound of an earthquake.
Then Mara deva mounted his elephant, two hundred and fifty leagues high, named “Girded with Mountains.” And he created for himself a thousand arms, and seized all kinds of weapons. And of the remainder, too, of the company of Mara, no two took the same weapon; but, assuming various colors and various forms, they went on to overwhelm the great being.
But the devas of the ten thousand world-systems continued speaking the praises of the great being. Sakka, the deva-king, stood there blowing his trumpet Vijayuttara. Now that trumpet is a hundred and twenty cubits long, and can itself cause the wind to enter, and thus itself give forth a sound which will resound for four months, when it becomes still. The Great Black One, the king of the Nagas, stood there uttering his praises for many hundred stanzas. The Maha Brahma stood there, holding over him the white canopy of state. But as the army approached and surrounded the seat under the Bo-tree, not one of the hosts of Mara was able to stay, and they fled each one from the spot where the army met them. The Black One, king of the Nagas, dived into the earth, and went to Manjerika, the palace of the Nagas, five hundred leagues in length, and lay down, covering his face with his hands. Maha Brahma, putting the white canopy of state on to the summit of the rocks at the end of the earth, went to the world of Brahma. Not a single deity was able to keep his place. The great man sat there alone.
But Mara said to his company: “Sirs! there is no other man like Siddhartha, the sun of Suddhodana. We cannot give him battle face to face. Let us attack him from behind!” The great man looked round on three sides, and saw that all the devas had fled, and their place was empty. Then beholding the hosts of Mara coming thick upon him from the North, he thought: “Against me this alone this mighty host is putting forth all its energy and strength. No father is here, nor mother, nor brother, nor any other relative to help me. But those Ten Perfections have long been to me as retainers fed from my store. So, making the perfections like a shield, I must strike this host with the sword of perfection, and thus overwhelm it!” And so he sat meditating on the Ten Perfections.
Then Mara deva, saying: “Thus I will drive away Siddhartha,” caused a whirlwind to blow. And immediately such winds gathered together from the four corners of the earth as could have torn down the peaks of mountains half a league, two leagues, three leagues high—could have rooted up the shrubs and trees of the forest—and could have made of the towns and villages around one heap of ruins. But through the glow of the merit of the great man, they reached him with their power gone, and even the hem of his robe they were unable to shake.
Then saying: “I will overwhelm him with water and so slay him,” he caused a mighty rain to fall. And the clouds gathered, overspreading one another by hundreds and thousands, and poured forth rain; and by the violence of the torrents the earth was saturated; and a great flood, overtopping the trees of the forest, approached the Bodisat. But it was not able to wet on his robe even the space where a dew-drop might fall.
Then he caused a storm of rocks to fall. And mighty, mighty mountain peaks came through the air, spitting forth fire and smoke. But as they reached the Bodisat, they changed into divine garlands.
Then he raised a storm of deadly weapons. And they came—one-edged and two-edged swords, and spears, and arrows—smoking and flaming through the sky. But as they reached the Bodisat, they became divine flowers.
Then he raised a storm of charcoal. But the embers, though they came through the sky like red kimsuka flowers, were scattered at the future Buddha as divine flowers.
Then he raised a storm of embers; and the embers came through the air exceeding hot, and in colour like fire; but they fell at the feet of the future Buddha as sandalwood powder.
Then he raised a storm of sand; and the sand, exceeding fine, came smoking and flaming through the sky; but it fell at the feet of the future Buddha as divine flowers.
Then he raised a storm of mud. And the mud came smoking and flaming through the air; but it fell at the feet of the future Buddha as a divine unguent.
Then saying: “By this I will terrify Siddhartha, and drive him away!” he brought on a thick darkness. And the darkness became fourfold; but when it reached the future Buddha, it disappeared as darkness does before the brightness of the sun.
Thus was Mara unable by these nine—the wind, and the rain, and the rocks, and the weapons, and the charcoal, and the embers, and the sand, and the mud, and the darkness—to drive away the future Buddha. So he called on his host and said, “Say, why stand you still? Seize, or slay, or drive away this prince!” And he himself mounted the Mountain-girded, and seated on his back, he approached the future Buddha, and cried out: “Get up, Siddhartha, from that seat! It does not belong to thee! It belongs to me!”
The great being listened to his words, and said: “Mara! it is not by you that the Ten Perfections have been perfected, neither the lesser perfections, nor the higher perfections. It is not you who have sacrificed yourself in the five great acts of renunciation, who have perfected the way of knowledge nor the way of good for the world nor the way of understanding. This seat does not belong to thee, it is to me that it belongs.”
Then the enraged Mara, unable to endure the vehemence of his anger, cast at the great man that Sceptre-javelin of his, the barb of which was in shape as a wheel. But it became a wreath of flowers, and remained as a canopy over him, whose mind was bent upon the Ten Perfections.
Now at other times, when that Wicked One throws his Sceptre-javelin, it cleaves asunder a pillar of solid rock as if it were a shoot of bamboo. When, however, it was turned into a wreath-canopy, the entire company of Mara shouted, “Now he will rise from his seat and flee!” and they hurled at him huge masses of rock. But these too fell on the ground as garlands at the feet of him whose mind was bent upon the Ten Perfections.
And the devas stood on the edge of the rocks that encircle the world; and stretching forward in amazement, they looked on, saying: “Lost! lost is the life of Siddhartha the Prince, supremely beautiful! What shall he do?”
Then the great man said, “To me belongs the seat on which sit the Buddhas-to-be when they have fulfilled perfection on the day of their Enlightenment.”
And he said to Mara, standing there before him: “Mara, who is witness that thou hast given alms?”
And Mara stretched forth his hands to the host of his followers, and said: “So many are my witnesses.”
And that moment there arose a shout as the sound of an earthquake from the company of Mara, saying: “I am his witness! I am his witness!”
Then the Tempter addressed the great man, and said: “Siddhartha! who is witness that thou hast given alms?”
And the great man answered: “Thou hast living witnesses that thou hast given alms : and I have in this place no living witnesses at all. But not counting the alms I have given in other births, let this great and solid earth, unconscious though it be, be witness of the seven hundredfold great alms I gave when I was born as Vessantara!”
And withdrawing his right hand from beneath his robe, he stretched it forth towards the earth and said: “Art thou, or art thou not witness of the seven hundredfold great gift I gave in my birth as Vessantara?”
And the great Earth uttered a voice, saying: “I am witness to thee of that!” overwhelming as it were the hosts of Mara as with the shout of hundreds of thousands of foes.
Then the mighty elephant “Mount-girded” as he realized what the generosity of Vessantara had been, said: “The great gift, the uttermost gift was given by thee, Siddhartha!” And he fell down on his knees before the great man. And the company of Mara fled this way and that way, so that not even two were left together : throwing off their clothes and their turbans, they fled, each one straight on before him.
But the company of devas, when they saw that the hosts of Mara had fled, cried out: “Mara is overcome! Siddhartha the Prince has prevailed! Come, let us honor the victor!” And the Nagas, and the Winged Creatures, and the Devas, and the Brahmas, each urging his comrades on, went up to the great man at the Bo-tree’s foot, and as they came, the other devas, too, in the ten thousand world-systems, offered garlands and perfumes and uttered his praises aloud.
It was while the sun was still above the horizon, that the great man thus put to flight the great hosts of Mara. Then, whilst the Bo-tree paid him homage, as it were, by its shoots like sprigs of red coral falling over his robe, he acquired in the first watch of the night the knowledge of the past, in the middle watch the clairvoyant eye, and in the third watch the knowledge of the chain of causation.
Now on his thus revolving this way and that way, and tracing backwards and forwards, and thoroughly realizing the twelvefold chain of causation, the ten thousand world-systems quaked twelve times even to their ocean boundaries. And again, when the great man, making the ten thousand world-systems to shout for joy, attained at break of day to complete Enlightenment, the whole ten thousand world-systems became glorious as on a festive day. The streamers of the flags and banners raised on the edge of the rocky boundary to the East of the world reached to the very West; and so those on the West and North, and South, reached to the East and South, and North; while in like manner those flags and banners on the surface of the earth reached to the Brahma-world, and those flags and banners in that world swept down upon the earth. Throughout the universe flowering trees put forth their blossoms, and fruit-bearing trees were loaded with clusters of fruit; the trunks and branches of trees, and even the creepers, were covered with bloom; lotus wreaths hung from the sky; and lilies by sevens sprang, one above another, even from the very rocks. The ten thousand world-systems as they revolved seemed like a mass of loosened wreaths, or like a nosegay tastefully arranged : and the world-voids between them, the hells whose darkness the rays of seven suns had never been able to disperse, became filled with light. The sea became sweet water down to its profoundest depths; and the rivers were stayed in their course. The blind from birth received sight; the deaf from birth heard sound; the lame from birth could use their feet; and chains and bonds were loosed, and fell away.
It was thus in surpassing glory and honour, and with many wonders happening around, that he attained all-knowledge, and gave vent to his emotion in the hymn of triumph uttered by all the Buddhas.
This wonderful story of human resolve and endurance teaches, with great extravagance, a relatively simple moral which was famously expressed by Mahatma Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” It is only through inner knowledge and steadfastness that we can ever hope to make a difference in this place.