The Story of the Five Hundred Merchants, Avadān'sataka Vol. 9
When the Buddha was at the Jetavana-vihāra in Śrāvastī county, there were five hundred merchants who ventured out into the open sea for treasure hunting. The group leader, who had married the daughter of a noble family, brought his beloved wife along with him. After ten months, she gave birth to a son and named him Haisheng (meaning “seaborn”) to commemorate the trip. Due to Haisheng’s great qualities, the merchants discovered many treasures and amassed a great fortune, and they were able to return safely to their respective villages. They all praised Haisheng by happily singing the song “placid Haisheng.”
When Haisheng was already a grown-up, the merchants, believing that he was the reason for their good fortune many years back, persuaded him to accompany them on their next sea adventure. Haisheng agreed. However, on their return trip, they encountered a ferocious storm, and their boat drifted toward the ghostland of the rakshasas. The fierce wind and the impact of the crashing waves hurled the ship into an unexpected dark whirlpool, threatening to sink it into the deep sea. The horror-stricken merchants were all on their knees, bowing down before their various gods, praying and pleading for help, hoping for a miracle to happen, but their efforts were to no avail. Thankfully, an upasaka voiced out, “There is the Buddha, the World-Honored One, who possesses great compassion and constantly looks after sentient beings! He will help all those who have a karmic connection with Him and who call out to Him for help. The Buddha will rescue us! Let us praise and chant the Buddha’s name, and He will be able to save our lives!” The merchants then repeatedly chanted “Amituofo.” The World-Honored One saw the merchants in danger and cast a radiant ray of light over the dark wind. The fierce dark wind miraculously died down, and the merchants’ lives were saved. All of them were relieved and said, “Today, we were blessed by the great virtues of the Buddha, allowing us to escape from such a horrible disaster. When we get back to our hometown, we should build a monastery for the Buddha and His sangha assembly, where they could stay. We should also make various offerings to ensure that all their needs will be met and that they will have plentiful provisions all year round.” After saying that, the merchants agreed to fulfill their vows and headed for their hometown.
After reaching their hometown, the merchants devoted themselves to fulfilling their vows. They built a monastery, as they had promised, and respectfully invited the Buddha and His sangha assembly to reside therein. They also prepared a wide array of dainty offerings for them. After the offerings, they listened to the Dharma preached by the Buddha. In the process of hearing the Dharma, the doubts that had been in their minds for a long time were cleared, and they all understood the true meaning of what the Buddha had preached and gained the merit of seeing the path. After seeing the path, they immediately appealed to the Buddha to make them monks.
The Buddha then said, They continued to practice the Dharma diligently. Gradually, they achieved arhats and were fully equipped with the three insights, six supernatural powers, and eight kinds of liberation. They also became noble sages on the Path of Liberation, praised and worshipped by others in various heavens and by ordinary human beings.
When the rest of the bhikkhus saw this, they came forward and asked the Buddha, "World-Honored One! What meritorious deeds did these five hundred merchant bhikkhus do in their past lives? They met a life-threatening disaster, but they were liberated by the Buddha's majestic light and were able to meet the World-Honored One and become monks under Him, and even attain arhatship.” The Buddha replied, “I did not save them only at this time. I also saved them from the dangers that they encountered in their past lives.” The bhikkhus then asked, “What happened in their past lives? We wish the World-Honored One would explain [their associated cause and condition] why they were immensely blessed.” The World-Honored One replied, “Listen carefully. During the infinite past lifetimes, an immortal with five supernatural powers lived on the riverbank in the kingdom of Vārānasī. The five hundred merchants who were going to hunt for treasures in the sea passed by the river and saw this immortal. They greeted him, saying, “We wish you’ll have a safe and successful trip!” They even invited him to join their treasure-hunting trip, but the immortal replied, “You go ahead. Should you encounter dangers, just call out my name and I will come to your rescue!” The merchants then took off. They were able to retrieve numerous treasures from the sea, but on their return trip, they encountered perils put in their way by the rakshasas and the dark wind. At that moment, the merchants single-mindedly called out the name of the immortal. The immortal heard their plea and sensed their prayers. He immediately went to them and rescued them.
The Buddha then told the bhikkhus, “You should know that I was the immortal with five supernatural powers in my previous life and that the five hundred merchants are the five hundred bhikkhus now. Even if they had not completely eliminated their afflictions associated with the notion of self-view and innate self-attachment at that time, I was able to rescue them from the catastrophe they had encountered. Now, I have attained unsurpassed Buddhahood and ultimate liberation in the three realms, and I see no reason why I should not liberate them as well!” After the bhikkhus heard about the merchants’ [cause and condition] past lives from the Buddha, all of them joyfully accepted the Buddha’s teachings and practiced their faith accordingly.
This article is an excerpt from Electronic Journal of True Enlightenment,Issue 40