This story was told by the Buddha while at Jetavana Monastery, about a tremendously rich royal treasurer, who lived in a town called Sakkara near the city of Rajagaha. He had been so tightfisted that he never gave away even the tiniest drop of oil you could pick up with a blade of grass. Worse than that, he wouldn’t even use that minuscule amount for his own satisfaction. His vast wealth was actually of no use to him, to his family, or to the deserving people of the land.
Moggallana, however, led this miser and his wife to Jetavana, where they served a great meal of cakes to the Buddha and five hundred bhikkhus. After hearing words of thanks from the Buddha, the royal treasurer and his wife attained stream-entry.
That evening the bhikkhus gathered together in the Hall of Truth. “How great is the power of the Venerable Moggallana!” they said. “In a moment he converted the miser to charity, brought him to Jetavana, and made possible his attainment. How remarkable is the elder!” While they were talking, the Buddha entered and asked the subject of their discussion.
When they told him, the Buddha replied, “This is not the first time, bhikkhus, that Moggallana has converted this miserly treasurer. In previous days too the elder taught him how deeds and their effects are linked together.” Then the Buddha told this story of the past.
Long, long ago, when Brahmadatta was reigning in Baranasi, there was a treasurer named Illisa who was worth eighty crores of wealth. This man had all the defects possible in a person. He was lame and hunchbacked, and he had a squint. He was a confirmed miser, never giving away any of his fortune to others, yet never enjoying it himself. Interestingly enough, however, for seven generations back his ancestors had been bountiful, giving freely of their best. When this treasurer inherited the family riches, he broke that tradition and began hoarding his wealth.
One day, as he was returning from an audience with the king, he saw a weary peasant sitting on a bench and drinking a mug of cheap liquor with great gusto. The sight made the treasurer thirsty for a drink of liquor himself, but he thought, “If I drink, others will want to drink with me. That would mean a ruinous expense!” The more he tried to suppress his thirst, the stronger the craving grew.
The effort to overcome his thirst made him as yellow as old cotton. He became thinner and thinner until the veins stood out on his emaciated frame. After a few days, still unable to forget about the liquor, he went into his room and lay down, hugging his bed. His wife came in, rubbed his back, and asked, “Husband, what is wrong?”
“Nothing,” he said.
“Perhaps the king is angry with you,” she suggested.
“No, he is not.”
“Have your children or servants done anything to annoy you?” she queried.
“Not at all.”
“Well, then, do you have a craving for something?”
Because of his preposterous fear that he might waste his fortune, he still would not say a word.
“Speak, husband,” she pleaded. “Tell me what you have a craving for.”
“Well,” he said slowly, “I do have a craving for one thing.”
“What is that, my husband?”
“I want a drink of liquor,” he whispered.
“Why didn’t you say so before?” she exclaimed with relief. “I’ll brew enough liquor to serve the whole town.”
“No!” he cried. “Don’t bother about other people. Let them earn their own drink!”
“Well then, I’ll make just enough for our street.”
“How rich you are!”
“Then, just for our household.”
“All right, only us and our children.”
“Why fuss about them?”
“Very well, let it be just enough for the two of us.
“Do you need any?”
“Of course not. I’ll brew a little liquor only for you.”
“Wait! If you brew any liquor in the house, many people will see you. In fact, it’s out of the question to drink any here at all.” Producing one single penny, he sent a slave to buy a jar of liquor from the tavern.
When the slave returned, Illisa ordered him to carry the liquor out of town to a remote thicket near the river. “Now leave me alone!” Illisa commanded. After the slave had walked some distance away, the treasurer crawled into the thicket, filled his cup, and began drinking.
At that moment, the treasurer’s own father, who had been reborn as Sakka, king of the devas, happened to be wondering whether the tradition of generosity was still kept up in his house and became aware of his son’s outrageous behavior. He realized that his son had not only broken with the customary magnanimity of his family, but that he had also burned down the alms houses and beaten the poor to drive them away from his gate. Sakka saw that his son, unwilling to share even a drop of cheap liquor with anyone else, was sitting in a thicket drinking by himself.
When he saw this, Sakka cried, “I must make my son see that deeds always have their consequences. I will make him charitable and worthy of rebirth in the realm of the devas.”
Instantly, Sakka disguised himself as his son, complete with his limp, hunchback, and squint, and entered the city of Baranasi. He went directly to the palace gate and asked to be announced to the king.
“Let him approach,” said the king.
Sakka entered the king’s chamber and paid his respects.
“What brings you here at this unusual hour, my lord high treasurer?” asked the king.
“I have come, sire, because I would like to add my eighty crores of wealth to your royal treasury.”
“No, my lord high treasurer,” answered the king. “I have ample treasure. I have no need of yours.”
“Sire, if you will not take it, I will give it all away to others.”
“By all means, treasurer, do as you wish.”
“So be it, sire,” Sakka said. Then, bowing again to the king, he went to the treasurer’s house. None of the servants could tell that he was not their real master. He sent for the porter and ordered, “If anybody resembling me should appear and claim to be master of this house, that person should be severely beaten and thrown out.” Then he went upstairs, sat down on a brocaded couch, and sent for Illisa’s wife. When she arrived, he smiled and said, “My dear, let us be bountiful.”
When his wife, his children, and all the servants heard this, they thought, “We have never seen the treasurer in this frame of mind! He must have drunk a lot to have become so good-natured and generous.”
His wife answered, “Be as charitable as you please, my husband.”
“Send for the town crier,” Sakka ordered. “I want him to announce to all the citizens of the city that anybody who wants gold, silver, diamonds, pearls, or other gems should come to the house of Illisa the treasurer.”
His wife obeyed him, and a large crowd of people carrying baskets and sacks soon gathered. Sakka instructed the servants to open the doors to the store rooms and announced to the people, “These are my gifts to you! Take what you like! Good luck to you!”
Townspeople filled their bags and carried away all the treasure they could manage. One farmer yoked two of Illisa’s oxen to a beautiful cart, filled it with valuable things, and drove out of the city. As he rode along, humming a tune in praise of the treasurer, he happened to pass near the thicket where Illisa was hiding. “May you live to be a hundred, my good lord Illisa!” sang the farmer. “What you have done for me this day will enable me to live without ever toiling again. Who owned these oxen? You did! Who gave me this cart? You did! Who gave me the wealth in the cart? Again it was you! Neither my father nor my mother gave me any of this. No, it came solely from you, my lord.”
These words chilled the treasurer to the bone. “Why is this fellow mentioning my name?” he wondered to himself. “Has the king been giving away my wealth?” He peeped out of the thicket and immediately recognized his own cart and oxen.
Scrambling out of the bushes as fast as he could, he grabbed the oxen by their nose rings and cried, “Stop! These oxen belong to me!”
The farmer leaped from the cart and began beating the intruder. “You rascal!” he shouted. “This is none of your business. Illisa the treasurer is giving his wealth away to all the city.” He knocked the treasurer down, climbed back on the cart, and started to drive away.
Shaking with anger, Illisa picked himself up, hurried after the cart, and seized hold of the oxen again. Once more the farmer jumped down, grabbed Illisa by the hair, and beat him severely. Then he got back on the cart and rumbled off.
Thoroughly sobered up by this rough handling, Illisa hurried home. When he arrived, he saw the people carrying away his treasure. “What are you doing? he shouted. “How dare you do this?” He seized first one man then another, but every man he grabbed knocked him down.
Bruised and bleeding, he tried to go into his own house, claiming that he was Illisa, but the porters stopped him. “You villain!” they cried. “Where do you think you are going?” Following orders, they beat him with bamboo staves, took him by the neck, and threw him down the steps.
“Only the king can help me now,” groaned Illisa, and he dragged himself to the palace.
“Sire!” he cried. “Why, oh why, have you plundered me like this?”
“I haven’t plundered you, my lord high treasurer,” said the king. “You yourself first offered me your wealth. Then you yourself offered your property to the citizens of the town.”
“Sire, I never did such a thing! Your majesty knows how careful I am about money. You know I would never give away so much as the tiniest drop of oil. May it please your majesty to send for the person who has squandered my riches. Please interrogate him about this matter.”
The king ordered his guards to bring Illisa, and they returned with Sakka. The two treasurers were so exactly alike that neither the king nor anyone else in the court could tell which was the real treasurer. “Sire!” pleaded Illisa. “I am the treasurer! This is an imposter!”
“My dear sir,” replied the king. “I really can’t say which of you is the real Illisa. Is there anybody who can distinguish for certain between the two of you?”
“Yes, sire,” answered Illisa, “my wife can.”
The king sent for Illisa’s wife and asked her which of the two was her husband. She smiled at Sakka and went to stand beside him. When Illisa’s children and servants were brought and asked the same question, they all answered that Sakka was the real treasurer.
Suddenly, Illisa remembered that he had a wart on the top of his head, hidden under his hair, known only to his barber. As a last resort, he asked that his barber be called. The barber came and was asked if he could distinguish the real Illisa from the false.
“Of course, I can tell, sire,” he said, “if I may examine their heads.”
“By all means, look at both their heads,” ordered the king.
The barber examined Illisa’s head and found the wart. As he started to examine Sakka’s head, the king of the devas quickly caused a wart to appear on his own head, so that the barber exclaimed, “Your Majesty, both squint, both limp, and both are hunchbacks, too! Both have warts in exactly the same place on their heads! Even I cannot tell which is the real Illisa!”
When Illisa heard this, he realized that his last hope was gone, and he began to quake at the loss of his beloved riches. Overpowered by his emotions, he collapsed senseless on the floor. At this, Sakka resumed his divine form and rose into the air. “O king, I am not Illisa,” he announced. “I am Sakka!”
The king’s courtiers quickly splashed water on Illisa’s face to revive him. As soon as he had recovered his wits, the treasurer staggered to his feet and bowed before Sakka.
“Illisa!” Sakka shouted. “That wealth was mine, not yours. I was your father. In my lifetime I was bountiful towards the poor and rejoiced in doing good. Because of my charity, I was reborn in this great grandeur. But you, foolish man, are not walking in my footsteps. You have become a terrible miser. In order to hoard my riches, you burned my alms houses to the ground and drove away the poor. You are getting no enjoyment from your wealth; nor is it benefiting any other human being. Your treasury is like a pool haunted by demons, from which no one may satisfy his thirst.
“If you rebuild my alms houses, however, and show charity to the poor, you will gain great merit. If you do not, I will take away everything you have, and I will split your head with my thunderbolt.”
When Illisa heard this threat, he shook with fear and cried out, “From now on I will be bountiful! I swear it!”
Accepting this promise, Sakka established his son in the precepts, preached the Dhamma to him, and returned to the realm of the devas.
True to his word, Illisa became diligent in charity and performed many good works. He even attained rebirth in heaven.
“You see, bhikkhus,” the Buddha said, “this is not the first time that Moggallana has converted this miserly treasurer. At that time, the treasurer was Illisa; Moggallana was Sakka, king of the devas; Ananda was the king; and I myself was the barber.”