In the Mahayana Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha tells this story:
There was once a boy called Himalaya Kumara or Snow Mountains Boy, so-called because he lived in the Himalayas where white peaks rose above the clouds and the rivers, streams, and ponds were clear, and the forests were deep green and filled with medicinal trees. Beautiful flowers decorated the countryside. It was home to countless species of animals and birds.
Kumara stayed there by himself. He lived off the sweet fruits, the varieties of which were innumerable. He spent much of his time in deep meditation. Kumara had mastered many teachings but he had never heard of Buddha-dharma or any of the Mahayana sutras.
Sakra, who was also known as Indra, the ruler of the Heaven of Thirty-three Devas, and all the other devas wondered at this boy who practiced so earnestly. Sakra said, “I see how this Snow Mountains Boy named Kumara seems intent upon his path, and his seeking seems pure, yet I am not sure about him. I will test him to see if he is a true seeker, an earnest wayfarer.”
Shakra went to the Snow Mountains where he assumed the form of the rakshasa (flesh-eating demon), a gruesome and terrifying creature. He stood a short distance from where Kumara sat and recited a verse of a teaching that began:
All things change,
This is the law of birth and death.”
When Kumara heard this teaching, he was happy. Hearing this one-half of a verse was enough to fill him with joy. Right away, he got up from his seat, looked around, and said, “Who is it that has recited this half verse I have just heard?”
Kumara saw no one save the demon. He said, “Who has just opened the gate to liberation and speaks in the voice of all awakened ones? The half verse opens my mind, just as the evening moon causes the pure white lotus flower to open its petals.”
Still, Kumara saw not a single being but the demon. He asked himself, “Is it possible that this demon spoke the verse?” He went up to where the demon stood and said, “Well, hideous demon, where did you get this half of a verse? How did you come to possess a cintamani (wish-fulfilling jewel) of a teaching?”
The demon replied, “You should not ask. I have had nothing to eat for several days. Everywhere I look, I cannot find anything to eat. Owning to my hunger, my mind is not right and my words do not make sense.”
Kumara said, “Why are you reluctant to speak? If you tell me the other part of this teaching, I will be your disciple for the rest of my life. What you recited was not complete and thus the meaning is not entirely clear.”
The demon answered: “I have said, I am too hungry. I cannot speak.”
Kumara asked, “Well, what do you eat?”
“You do not want to know. When I tell people, they are fearful,” said the demon.
Kumara replied, “I do not fear you, and we are here alone. Will you not tell me?”
The demon answered, “I eat human flesh. I drink warm human blood. It is my lamentable fate to nourish myself in this way.”
Kumara said, “If you tell me the rest of the verse, afterward I will give you my body to eat. It is not such a great offering, for this body of mine will only wither away eventually, but it is all I have to give you. Besides, a tiger or a wolf could eat me and then I would be left without having realized a hair’s breadth of wisdom. I am now intent upon attaining the highest Awakening.”
The demon remained suspicious. He said, “I find it difficult to believe that you would give up your precious life just to hear eight characters of a teaching.”
“But I have witnesses such as Great Brahma, Shakra, and the four guardians of the earth, who will all attest to my sincerity of my offering!” Kumara replied.
Finally, the demon relented. He said, “If you wish to make an offering of your body, then listen carefully, for I shall now give you the second half of the verse.”
Kumara was elated. At once, he removed the deerskin clothing he wore and spread it on the ground for the demon to sit upon. Then he folded his hands, prostrated himself on the ground before the demon, and implored him to recite the remaining eight characters.
And the demon spoke:
When birth and death are transcended,
Silence is bliss.”
Kumara contemplated the meaning of the teaching and then he inscribed the complete verse on rocks, walls, and trees. When he returned to the spot where the demon stood, the demon looked at Kumara and said, “You now have the entire verse. The teaching is complete and you must be satisfied. If you desire to benefit all beings, give me your body now!”
Kumara put his clothes on, climbed a tall tree, and threw his body down for the demon to devour. As he fell to the ground, several voices sounded. Then the demon revealed his original form as Shakra, the lord of thunder, the ruler of Trayastrimsa Heaven, and he caught Kumara in mid-air and placed the boy on the ground.
“I wanted to test the sincerity of your seeking mind,” Sakra said. “You are a true seeker, a earnest and determined wayfarer. I encourage you to work for the benefit of others, so that they might obtain indestructible happiness.”
Then all the devas who had previously shouted out appeared and they fell on the ground. They touched Kumara’s feet and said: “Well done! You are a true seeker, a wayfarer who will benefit innumerable living beings and who, in the darkness of ignorance and suffering, desires to be a great torch.”
After Sakra and the devas had touched Kumara’s feet and praised him, they went away and were seen no more.
At this point in the story, the Buddha said to the disciples gathered around him, “Because I offered my body in the distant past to hear a single verse, a single teaching, as a result I was able to aspire to the highest awakening. It is no different for all of you. If you seek the incomparable Bodhichitta, the sublime thought of awakening, you must realize that in the end, your body will be nothing more than ashes. For this reason, it is futile to begrudge your life. If I was willing to give up my life merely to hear a single verse, then how much more appreciation you should have to hear two verses, or three, or even a complete sutra.”
The bhikkhus and the bodhisattvas listening to the Buddha’s words, who numbered as many as 80 billion hundred thousand, all nodded in agreement.
“I was willing to give up my life to repay the value I obtained from a teaching that benefits all living beings,” the Buddha continued. “That is why I say be glad you have this life and are blessed with the highest reward, the dharma that rescues the innumerable beings floundering in the sea of birth and death. Therefore, cast away your attachments for the benefit of others. Base yourselves on Dharma, and not the person; on the meaning, not the letter; on wisdom, not perception. And hold fast to your seeking mind, your wayfaring spirit, for the shape of Self that seeks in this way is called Buddha Nature.”
Painting of “Krishna. Spring in Kulu” by Nicholas Roerich; painting of “Sessen Doji” [Himalaya Kumara], unknown.