So that a disheartened bhikkhu would have no regrets in the future, the Buddha told him this story at Savatthi to encourage him to persevere. “If you give up your practice in this sublime teaching which leads to Nibbana,” the Buddha told him, “you will suffer long, like the trader of Seriva who lost a golden bowl worth a hundred thousand pieces.”
When asked to explain, the Buddha told this story of the distant past.
Five long aeons ago, the Bodhisatta was an honest trader selling fancy goods in the kingdom of Seriva. Sometimes he traveled with another trader from the same kingdom, a greedy fellow, who handled the same wares. One day the two of them crossed the Telavaha river to do business in the bustling city of Andhapura. As usual, to avoid competing with each other, they divided the city between them and began selling their goods from door to door.
In that city there was a ramshackle mansion. Years before the family had been rich merchants, but by the time of this story their fortunes had dwindled to nothing, and all the men of the family had died. The sole survivors were a girl and her grandmother, and these two earned their living by working for hire.
That afternoon, while the greedy peddler was on his rounds, he came to the door of that very house, crying, “Beads for sale! Beads for sale!”
When the young girl heard his cry, she begged, “Please buy me a trinket, Grandmother.”
“We’re very poor, dear. There’s not a cent in the house and I can’t think of anything to offer in exchange.”
The girl suddenly remembered an old bowl. “Look!” she cried. “Here’s an old bowl. It’s of no use to us. Let’s try to trade it for something nice.”
What the little girl showed her grandmother was an old bowl which had been used by the great merchant, the late head of the family. He had always eaten his curries served from this beautiful, expensive bowl. After his death it had been thrown among the pots and pans and forgotten. Since it hadn’t been used for a very long time, it was completely covered with grime. The two women had no idea it was gold.
The old woman asked the trader to come in and sit down. She showed him the bowl and said, “Sir, my granddaughter would like a trinket. Would you be so kind as to take this bowl and give her something or other in exchange?”
The peddler took the bowl in his hand and turned it over. Suspecting its value, he scratched the back of it with a needle. After just one covert look, he knew for certain the bowl was real gold.
He sat there frowning and thinking until his greed got the better of him. At last he decided to try to get the bowl without giving the woman anything whatever for it. Pretending to be angry, he growled, “Why did you bring me this stupid bowl? It isn’t worth half a cent!” He threw the bowl to the floor, got up, and stalked out of the house in apparent disgust.
Since it had been agreed between the two traders that the one might try the streets which the other had already covered, the honest peddler came later into that same street and appeared at the door of the house, crying, “Beads for sale!”
Once again the young girl made the same request of her grandmother, and the old woman replied, “My dear, the first peddler threw our bowl on the ground and stormed out of the house. What have we got left to offer?”
“Oh, but that trader was nasty, Grandmother. This one looks and sounds very kind. I think he will take it.”
“All right, then. Call him in.”
When the peddler came into the house, the two women gave him a seat and shyly put the bowl into his hands. Immediately recognizing that the bowl was gold, he said, “Mother, this bowl is worth a hundred thousand pieces of silver. I’m sorry but I don’t have that much money.”
Astonished at his words, the old woman said, “Sir, another peddler who came here a little while ago said that it was not worth half a cent. He got angry, threw it on the floor, and went away. If it wasn’t valuable then, it must be because of your own goodness that the bowl has turned into gold. Please take it, and just give us something or other for it. We will be more than satisfied.”
At that time the peddler had only five hundred pieces of silver and goods worth another five hundred. He gave everything to the women, asking only to keep his scales, his bag, and eight coins for his return fare. Of course, they were happy to agree. After profuse thanks on both sides, the trader hurried to the river with the golden bowl. He gave his eight coins to the boatman and got into the boat.
Not long after he had left, the greedy peddler returned to the house, giving the impression of having reluctantly reconsidered their offer. He asked them to bring out their bowl, saying he would give them something or other for it after all.
The old woman flew at him. “You scoundrel!” she cried. “You told us that our golden bowl was not worth even half a cent. Lucky for us, an honest trader came after you left and told us it was really worth a hundred thousand pieces of silver. He gave us a thousand for it and took it away, so you are too late!”
When the peddler heard this, an intense pain swept over him. “He robbed me! He robbed me!” he cried. “He got my golden bowl worth a hundred thousand!” He became hysterical and lost all control. Throwing down his money and merchandise, he tore off his shirt, grabbed the beam of his scales for a club, and ran to the riverside to catch the other trader.
By the time he got to the river, the boat was already in midstream. He shouted for the boat to return to shore, but the honest peddler, who had already paid, calmly told the ferryman to continue on.
The frustrated trader could only stand there on the river-bank and watch his rival escape with the bowl. The sight so infuriated him that a fierce hate swelled up inside him. His heart grew hot, and blood gushed from his mouth. Finally, his heart cracked like the mud at the bottom of a pond dried up by the sun. So intense was the unreasoning hatred which he developed against the other trader because of the golden bowl, that he perished then and there.
The honest trader returned to Seriva, where he lived a full life spent in charity and other good works, and passed away to fare according to his deserts.
When the Buddha finished this story, he identified himself as the honest trader, and Devadatta as the greedy trader. This was the beginning of the implacable grudge which Devadatta held against the Bodhisatta through innumerable lives.