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Alavaka lived near the city of Alavi and feasted on human flesh. He was so fierce, powerful and crafty that he was known as “the demon”.
One day, the King of Alavi went hunting for deer in the jungle and Alavaka caught him. The king begged to be released, but in return for his freedom the demon made a deal that he had to send one person every day into the jungle as an offering to Alavaka.
The king, afraid for his own life, agreed. Every day after that a prisoner would be sent from the palace dungeons into the forest with a plate of rice. The wretched soul was told that to gain freedom he had to go to a certain tree, leave the plate there and then he could go as he pleased. At first many prisoners volunteered to go on that “simple” mission. But as the days went by and no one returned to tell the other prisoners what had happened, the prisoners soon grew suspicious and had to be forced each day to go into the forest.
Soon the prison became empty. How was the king to fulfill his promise of sending a person each day to be eaten by the demon? His ministers advised him to drop packets of gold in the streets. Those found picking up the packets would be caught as thieves and sent to Alavaka. When the word got around, nobody dared to collect the packets. As a last resort, the king started catching children for offering. The terrified families of the city began to flee, leaving the streets deserted and the king completely desperate. There was only one more boy left—and he was the king’s son. With much reluctance, the king ordered that the prince be sent to Alavaka the following morning.
That day, the Buddha happened to be near the city. When he surveyed the world with his Divine Eye that morning, he saw what was going to happen. Out of compassion for the king, the prince and Alavaka, the Buddha traveled the whole day to the demon’s cave and in the evening he arrived at the entrance.
The demon was away in the mountains, and the Buddha asked the gatekeeper if he could spend a night at the cave. When the gatekeeper left to inform his master about the request, the Buddha went into the cave, sat on the seat of the demon and taught the Dharma to his wives.
When the demon heard what was happening, he hurried home, very angry. With his extraordinary power, he created a terrifying thunderstorm which shook and rattled the forest with thunder, lightning, wind and rain. But the Buddha was unafraid.
Alavaka then attacked the Buddha by throwing his spear and club at him, but before the weapons could touch him, they fell at the feet of the Blessed One.
Unable to frighten the Buddha, Alavaka asked, “Is it right that you, a holy man, should enter and sit amongst a man’s wives when the owner of the house is away?” At this, the Buddha got up to leave the cave.
Alavaka thought, “What a fool I am to have wasted my energy trying to frighten this ascetic.” So he asked the Buddha to enter the cave again. The demon ordered the Buddha three times to get out and three times to enter the cave, in the hope that he could kill the Buddha with fatigue. Each time the Buddha did as he was ordered. But when the demon asked the Buddha to leave for the fourth time the Buddha refused to do so, saying, “I’m not going to obey you, Alavaka. Do whatever you can but I’m going to remain here.”
Unable to force the Buddha to do what he wanted, Alavaka changed his tactics and said, “I will ask you some questions. If you can’t answer I’ll split your heart, kill you and throw you over to the other side of the river.”
The Buddha told him calmly, “There is no one, Alavaka, whether man or deva, ascetic, brahma or brahmin who can do such things to me. But if you want to ask anything, you may do so.”
Alavaka asked some clever questions which he had learned from his parents who had, in turn, learned them from their parents. The demon himself had forgotten the answers, but he had preserved the questions by writing them on gold leaves. The questions were:
“What is the greatest wealth for a man?
What brings the highest bliss when well mastered?
What is the sweetest of all tastes?
Which is the best way of life?”
The Buddha answered:
“The greatest wealth for a man is confidence.
The true doctrine, when well mastered, brings the highest bliss.
The sweetest taste is truth.
Wise living is the decent way of life.”
Alavaka asked many more questions, all of which the Buddha answered.
The final question was: “Passing from this world to the next, how does one not grieve?”
The Buddha’s reply was: “He who possesses these four virtues — truthfulness, good morals, courage and generosity — grieves not after passing away.”
Understanding the meaning of the Buddha’s words, Alavaka said, “Now I know what is the secret of my future welfare. It is for my own welfare and good that the Buddha came to Alavi.” Alavaka prostrated before the Buddha and begged to be accepted as a disciple.
The next morning, when the officers of Alavi came with the king’s young son, they were surprised at the sight of the Buddha preaching to Alavaka, who was listening attentively to the sermon. When the boy was handed to Alavaka, he grew ashamed of what he had been. Instead of seeing the boy as an offering, he stroked the boy on the head, kissed him and handed him back to the officers. After that the Buddha blessed the child and Alavaka.
Indeed, the conversion of Alavaka the cannibal showed how the Buddha, with his great wisdom and compassion, could tame a savage and change him into a gentle disciple.