The Buddha told this story at Jetavana Monastery about a pious lay follower. One evening, when this faithful disciple came to the bank of the Aciravati River on his way to Jetavana to hear the Buddha, there was no boat at the landing stage. The ferrymen had pulled their boats onto the far shore and had gone themselves to hear the Buddha. The disciple’s mind was so full of delightful thoughts of the Buddha, however, that even though he walked into the river, his feet did not sink below the surface and he walked across the water as if he were on dry land. When, however, he noticed the waves on reaching the middle of the river, his ecstasy subsided and his feet began to sink. But as soon as he again focused his mind on the qualities of the Buddha, his feet rose and he was able to continue walking joyously over the water. When he arrived at Jetavana, he paid his respects to the Master and took a seat on one side.
“Good layman,” the Buddha said, addressing the disciple, “I hope you had no mishap on your way.”
“Venerable sir,” the disciple replied, “while coming here, I was so absorbed in thoughts of the Buddha that, when I came to the river, I was able to walk across it as though it were solid.”
“My friend,” the Blessed One said, “you’re not the only one who has been protected in this way. In olden days pious laymen were shipwrecked in mid-ocean and saved themselves by remembering the virtues of the Buddha.” At the man’s request, the Buddha told this story of the past.
Long, long ago, at the time of the Buddha Kassapa, a lay disciple who had already entered the path booked passage on a ship along with one of his friends, a rich barber. The barber’s wife asked this disciple to look after her husband. A week after the ship left the port, it sank in mid-ocean. The two friends saved themselves by clinging to a plank and were at last cast up on a deserted island. Famished, the barber killed some birds, cooked them, and offered a share of his meal to the follower of the Buddha.
“No, thank you,” he answered, “I am fine.” Then he thought to himself, “In this isolated place, there is no help for us except the Triple Gem.” As he sat meditating on the Triple Gem, a naga king who had been born on that island transformed himself into a beautiful ship filled with the seven precious things. The three masts were made of sapphire, the planks and anchor of gold, and the ropes of silver.
The helmsman, who was a spirit of the sea, stood on the deck and cried, “Any passengers for India?”
“Yes,” the lay disciple answered, “that’s where we are bound.”
“Then come on board,” the sea spirit said.
The layman climbed aboard the beautiful ship and turned to call his friend the barber.
“You may come,” the sea spirit said, “but he may not.”
“Why not?” the disciple asked.
“He is not a follower of the holy life,” answered the sea spirit. “I brought this ship for you, but not for him.”
“In that case,” the layman announced, “all the gifts I have given, all the virtues I have practiced, all the powers I have developed — I give the fruit of all of them to him!”
“Thank you, Master!” cried the barber.
“Very well,” said the sea spirit, “now I can take you both aboard.”
The ship carried the two men over the sea and up the Ganges River. After depositing them safely at their home in Baranasi, the sea spirit used his magic power to create enormous wealth for both of them. Then, poising himself in mid-air, he instructed the men and their friends, “Keep company with the wise and good,” he said. “If this barber had not been in company with this pious layman, he would have perished in the middle of the ocean.” Finally, the sea spirit returned to his own abode, taking the naga king with him.
Having finished this discourse, the Buddha identified the Birth and taught the Dhamma, after which the pious layman entered on the fruit of the second path. “On that occasion,” the Buddha said, “the disciple attained arahantship. Sariputta was the naga king, and I myself was the spirit of the sea.”