He then was born as crown prince. His father was a very powerful monarch because his army was invincible. In particular, the king had a special weapon: he had a young elephant which could crush any army it faced. Needless to say, the elephant was the king father’s national treasure and therefore pampered accordingly.
It would seem that the crown had it made because the elephant was till in its early youth and would probably outlive the young prince should he succeed his father to the throne.
Strangely though, the crown prince was only interested in charity work. He could give away anything that was asked of him. His reputation for generosity spread far and wide.
There was an evil rival to the father king, a king of another powerful country. The rival monarch had designs and devised a scheme to harm his opponent.
He went to the crown prince and asked to see him. At the audience, the evil monarch asked the crown prince for his father’s elephant. After hesitating for a while because the elephant was really not his to give away, the crown prince relented and stole into the elephant’s table and stealthily gave it to the evil king who rapidly led it away.
When the king father discovered that his favorite elephant was missing, the crown prince quickly confessed to his father who said: “I don’t mind that you deplete my coffers through your acts of charity. But giving away our elephant national treasure is just unthinkable! You are hereby banished in shame from my kingdom.”
The sad prince went home and informed his family. He told his wife and two young sons: “my father only banished me for my offense. You can still remain here since you are innocent.”
His devoted wife and loving sons would not hear of it and insisted on accompanying him wherever he went. So, they loaded their meager possessions onto a cart that the crown prince pulled while his wife and two sons pushed from behind and left the kingdom.
Along the way, they were ridiculed and mocked at by the general population for the prince’s betrayal. Yet they stuck together.
Then they met a slave merchant who took a liking to the two young princes. He shamelessly asked the crown prince for the two sons saying that he could fetch a good price for them.
Before the crown prince had the chance to say anything, his wife immediately interjected: “Over my dead body!” The ex-crown prince thus did not dare say anything.
He then asked his wife to go fetch some water down the river. While she went down the slope, the ex-crown prince quickly handed his two sons to the slave trader who immediately left with them.
When the wife came back and discovered that her two sons were given away, she was totally distraught but stuck with her husband.
As they continued on, they met a man who was drawn to the prince’s wife and asked the ex-crown prince for her.
At this point, she was the only person left who was totally devoted to him. And yet, he consented to give her away as well.
And that was how Shakyamuni Buddha practiced giving in a prior lifetime.
When I told this story last week, one Caucasian student was quite upset. As we discussed it for an hour and a half, he was adamant and insisted that the prince was all wrong. He felt that the crown prince must have felt on his head and become insane.
First of all, how many crown princes would give away the elephant? That would hurt his own father, put the country in jeopardy and without a doubt ruin his own future.
Furthermore, to give away his children and wife is a clear violation of their human rights!
It should be no surprise to you that in many Buddhist circles, there was bitter debates about this story. One camp thought that the crown prince was wrong. The opposing camp in contrast felt that it was a former life of the Buddha, he could have not been wrong. Neither could convince their opponent of their own arguments.
I submit to you all that you are all wrong!
It’s not about knowledge, reason or logic.
That was true giving. When the ex-crown prince finally gave away his lovely and devoted wife, he attained the ultimate giving: when all three components of giving are empty. The giver (the crown prince), the gift (his wife) and receiver (the man who coveted her) are all empty.
At that point, the ex-crown prince became enlightened.
The story is not meant for intellectual discussion. It’s meant to teach us about doing. If we can do it, we too can become enlightened.