Buddhist Folktales and Parables
A young single father had a son that he loved more than anything in the world. One day while the father was away, some plunderers burned down most of his village and kidnapped the little boy.
When the father came back, he mistook one of the burnt corpses as his son. Completely devastated, he had the body cremated, and put the ashes in a bag that he always carried around.
Days later, his son escaped from the plunderers, ran back home, and knocked on the door of the house that his father rebuilt. His father asked who it was. When the boy answered, “It’s me, your son—please let me in,” the father, who was still holding the bag of ashes, assumed it was some other boy playing a cruel joke. “Go away,” he shouted back.
The boy continued to knock and plead to the father, but the father continued to tell him to leave. Finally, the boy left and never came back again.
And just like that example, if a person is intently holding to an idea as the absolute and unmodifiable truth, he won’t be able to open the door and accept the actual truth when it comes firsthand knocking on his door.
A man invited a friend over for dinner one night—but while his friend ate, he did not seem to be enjoying the food.
The man offered him some salt, and the friend sprinkled a little on the food, ate it, and thought, “This salt really makes the food taste good. And if just a little salt makes it better, then a lot of salt will only improve it more.”
He then proceeded to pour a few tablespoons of salt directly into his mouth—and seconds later, he spit it out in disgust.
The man in this story is comparable to people who think that since moderate eating and drinking has benefits, extreme deprivation must be even better. They end up starving and depriving themselves, and soon find out that they have veered from the right Way.
One day, a merchant set out on a short trip in order to collect a debt of ten dollars from a man living several miles away. After paying a boatman five dollars to take him across a river, the merchant was uable to find the man, and had to pay another five dollars to make his way back home. He spent ten dollars and a few hours to collect a ten dollar debt—and he ultimately ended up empty-handed.
This is analogous to people who obsessively pursue a petty gain, and end up neglecting much more important matters and periling themselves in many ways.
A Herd of Cows
A man had a herd of 250 cows and took great care looking after their welfare. One day, however, a tiger ate one of them—and when the man noticed this, he thought, “I’ve lost one of my cows, and my herd is incomplete. What’s the point of having all these other cows?” And with that, the man drove all the cows off a cliff and to their death.
He is like a person who, after breaking just one precept of righteousness, thinks, “I’ve broken one, so I might as well abandon them all.”
The son of a wealthy man found some valuable aloe wood at the bottom of a river, and took it to sell at the bazaar. However, his price was too high, and he found no buyers. Growing discouraged and desperate, he noticed a nearby charcoal seller doing brisk sales, and he decided to burn his aloe wood into charcoal. He managed to sell the charcoal easily, but the money he got for it was nowhere near the value of the aloe wood.
This is similar to how some people practice diligently at first to achieve spiritual goals, but soon grow discouraged at some obstacle, and choose to abandon great things and give up a great deal in order to accept a trivial amount.
Trying the Remedy
After being whipped by the King, a man tried treating his lash wounds by rubbing horse feces on them. Someone else noticed this, and excitedly thought, “I have discovered a magnificent way to heal wounds.” He went to his home and ordered his child to whip him severely on the back—and after the child obeyed, the man happily tried out his newly discovered remedy.
The King’s Decree
A King had citizens living in a village ten miles from his palace. This village had fantastic spring water, and the King ordered the villagers bring him some every day.
The villagers, however, were greatly annoyed and inconvenienced having to make the lengthy trip. One day, a village leader said, “I’m going to go to the King and ask him to issue a decree stating that from now on, the distance from our village to the palace will only be one mile. This will make our task much easier.”
Afer hearing the man’s request, the King gladly complied and issued the decree—much to the delight of the villagers. One of them, however, remarked, “What difference will that make? The distance will remain the same—only the name will change!”
Nevertheless, the villagers still believed in the King’s decree.
People who cling too much to names and words often act like those villagers.
Man Yells at Water
A thirsty traveler spotted a wooden conduit with water running in it, and drank until he was satiated. After finishing, he held up his hand and announced to the water, “I’m done drinking. Stop running.” As the water continued to run, the man grew angry and yelled, “I’m done drinking, and I just told you to stop! Why are you still running?”
A bystander noticed this and remarked, “Why don’t you just leave the water instead of yelling for it to stop flowing?”
The man’s behavior is similar to people who, rather than doing what is necessary, just verbally demand that something happen, and then become angry when it doesn’t.
Lots of Work, Little Reward
A man spent months carving and polishing a large rock into a toy cow. He did an enormous amount of work, yet it resulted in very little.
This is analogous to people who work hard merely to excel others in fame. If they were motivated by the supreme fruits instead of fame, the payoff for their efforts would be much greater.
A man mistakenly thought he spotted gold in a pond, and dove in to retrieve it. After coming up empty handed and stirring up the water’s mud, he got out of the pond and waited for the mud to settle. When it did, he once again saw what he thought was gold, and dove in to get it.
He got out and sat by the pond for a few minutes, and then his father came walking by and said, “Why are you all wet and tired?”
The man replied, “ I spotted gold in the lake, and I dove in to get it, but all to no avail.”
The father looked at the pond, which had settled down again, and saw the gold, but could tell that it was actually a reflection of gold on a tree behind them. He turned around and looked at the tree, and the gold was there. He showed it to his son, and the son got the gold.
The Fast Eater
The day after their marriage, a newlywed couple was eating a meal together—and for no apparent reason, the husband was wolfing down his food like there was no tomorrow.
One day, his wife said to him, “My beloved husband, no one is going to steal your food. Why don’t you slow down and enjoy it?”
The husband snappily replied, “That’ts my secret. I can’t tell you.”
Upon hearing this, the wife became even more curious about her husband’s bizarre eating habits, and asked once again in an affectionate tone. Finally, the husband replied, “I eat like this because my family has eaten quickly for as long as we can trace back our history. I’m just following our custom.”
Many people act like this man. Rather than considering whether what they’re doing is right or wrong, they simply say, “This is how our group has done things for as long back as we can remember, and that is why we do it now,” and they persist in these actions without modifying them, all the way until their death.
Man Hides Rice in His Mouth
A man visited his wife’s family, and noticed that they were hulling rice. The man, greatly desiring to eat some, waited until they left the room, and then grabbed some and put it in his mouth.
But seconds later, his wife came back in the room. She asked him something, and the husband, with the rice still in his mouth, did not answer because he did not want to be embarrassed and have the rice discovered.
Noticing that her husband was not replying, the wife became confused and concerned, and she examined his cheeks. In a panic, she yelled out to her father, “My husband has some kind of disorder! There are strange bulges in his mouth, and he can’t speak!”
The father brought over a doctor, who examined the man and remarked, “This is a very dangerous condition, and we must take action immediately and cut this man’s cheek open.”
So he did, and then everyone watched as the rice fell out of the man’s mouth.
Like this example, people often do wrong actions, and then go to such great lengths to hide them that they often put themselves in even worse situations, and stubbornly persist in the wrong no matter how much misfortune it results in. They are like the man in this story who went as far as let his cheek be cut open because he was trying to avoid some shame—and at the end, his wrong action was revealed anyway.
Wheat Growing Technique
A man observed a farm where wheat was growing very well. He went to the farmer and asked what he did to make the wheat grow so abundantly, and the farmer replied, “I leveled the land and added water and manure, and it’ts been growing like this since them.”
So the man went home eager to duplicate the farmer’s method, and put water and fertilizer on the field. He also began carefully sowing the seeds, but as he did, he noticed his feet stepping on the ground, and he feared that it would damage the seeds.
The man became concerned, and decided to hire four men to hold him in a chair while he sowed the seeds from the air. The new plan, however, had its own drawbacks, and the four men holding the chair ended up stepping on the ground four times as much as the man did previously by himself.
This man’s example is like when people are on the right way, but then over complicate things and invite wrong actions into their lives. This is just like the man who exchanged the trampling of two feet for eight feet.
A woman was talking to her friend, and mentioned that she had been experiencing pain in her eyes.
“Are they bothering you right now?” asked the friend.
“Yes,” the first lady replied.
The friend thought for a moment and then remarked, “Well, I guess a person’s eyes will end up hurting at some point during her life. My eyes aren’t bothering me right now, but I don’t want them to bother me later, so I’ll just gouge them out.”
A bystander heard her say this and remarked, “What! Your eyes might bother you every once in a while. But having no eyes at all will cause many more problems. Before you act so forcefully, you should examine things further.”
Father Spots Robbers Coming
A father and his son were waling on a path, and noticed some robbers approaching them. The father was greatly alarmed, and frantically tried to remove a gold earring his child was wearing. However, the father couldn’t get them off in time, so he took out his knife and sliced off the boy’s head. When the robbers finally came to the man and saw that they had nothing to steal, they passed by, and the father put the boys head back on his shoulders“but obviously, it did nothing.
This man is like people who, trying to take advantage of a very minor advantage, expose themselves to major misfortune. And it is also like those people who cling to one viewpoint, and will not accept the truth when it comes their way.
The Monkey and the Pea
A monkey ran down from a tree and snatched a huge handful of some people’s peas. As he ran back up the tree, one of the peas fell from his hands. He tried to grab it, but in his attempt to catch that one pea, he dropped all of the others he was carrying. They all fell to the ground, and some animals ate them.
This is like a person who maintains some righteousness, but then upon making one small mistake, he doesn’t deal with it properly, and foolishly throws all righteousness away.
Always Fearing Everything
A forest-dwelling elephant had been living a peaceful life, but one day a king spotted her and said to his servants, “Take that elephant to the palace garden and have the instructors train her.”
They did as he said, but the palace trainers were cruel and they constantly beat the elephant. She was terrified of them, and escaped the palace and ran all the way to the Himalayas.
After many years passed, the king had forgotten about the elephant, but the elephant still hadn’t moved on from her experience at the royal garden. She was still frightened and worried, and grew excessively thin because she barely ate.
One day, a tree-sprite told her, “Don’t be afraid all of the time—you’re not in the palace garden anymore. Stop the excessive worrying, for you are free now.”
Just because you used a boat to cross a river, it doesn’t mean you should pick up the boat after you reached land, and carry it with you wherever you go.
And just like that boat example, sometimes you should consider using teachings or methods the same way.
Imagine a goldsmith that is using tongs and a furnace to melt gold. If he constantly makes the fire too hot, the gold will get too hot. If he constantly sprays too much water on it, the gold will not be hot enough. If he constantly takes it out to examine it, it will never become refined. However, if he does all these things but each at their suitable time when needed, and he knows the nature of gold, he will have no problem at all in molding and refining it.
Just like that example, any practitioner needs to attend to these three qualities: focus, determination, and composure. If he properly attends to these things at the right time and circumstance, his mind will become pliant, brilliant, and pure, just like gold.
A man went wandering on a very hot day. As the hours passed, he became quite thirsty, and, imagining a mirage of water far away, chased it as if it were real. As luck would have it, his pursuit of the mirage lead him right towards a real riverbank, gushing with water. However, the man, now more thirsty than ever, merely stood next to the water without taking so much as a single drink.
A bystander noticed him and asked about his bizarre behavior.
“You look extremely thirsty, and yet you’ve been standing here for a minute without taking a drink.”
The man replied, “Well, I am really thirsty—but there’s too much water in this river for me, and I can’t finish it all!”
This man is comparable to someone who is presented with numerous advantages or teachings, and but refuses to take a single one because he can’t take and maintain all of them. He is putting himself on an unending cycle of missed opportunities.
Several merchants hired a guide to lead them to a certain harbor.
On the way, the group across a famous shrine; and the merchants, knowing that it was customary to make a human sacrifice whenever passing it, decided to sacrifice the guide.
Afterwards, they continued on their journey minus the now-dead guide; and without him, they got lost, wandered the desert for several days, and eventually died of thirst.
Correct actions are our guides to the Way, similar to how a human guide can lead travelers to a destination. Some, however, sacrifice correct actions, and end up lost.
The Starving Man and the Camel
A King noticed that one his servants, a very poor man, had gradually become thin and weak. In order to help him, the King gave him a camel that had just died.
The man began to skin the camel, but found that his knife was not sharp enough. As he searched for a whetstone, someone informed him that there was one at the top of a nearby tower.
And so, the man went to the tower and climbed it, found the whetstone, and used it to sharpen his knife. After doing so, he went back down and continued skinning the camel, but his knife dulled again.
Again, he climbed the tower, sharpened his knife, and went back down—and again, he skinned the camel some more until his knife became dull.
And then after continuing this pattern a few more times and growing exhausted from the trips, he later decided to drag the camel all the way up the tower and skin it there.
But he obviously would have been best off by bringing the whetstone down to the camel in the first place, and saving himself all the unnecessary work.
Wealthy Man’s Spit
Long ago in a small town, everyone competed to gain the favor of an extremely wealhty man. Even if he spit, someone would hurry to honor him by putting out the spit with their foot.One villager, however, never got the opportunity to even do that. So one day, he decided that since everyone beat him to stepping on the spit before it reached the ground, he would carefully observe the wealthy man, and step on the spit just as it was leaving his mouth. Greatly pleased with his plan, he followed through with it the next day—but he ended up kicking the man right in the face and injuring him severely! Greatly angered, the other yelled, “You must be a lunatic! Why did you just kick me in the mouth?”
The reply was, “I did it to gain your favor, Sir. When you spit, everyone else rushes to step and put it in the ground, but I am always too late. So, I stepped on it even before it left your mouth. And now that you know my reason, surely you are pleased by what I did.”
The man’s mistake was that his timing was wildly off. There is a proper time for everything, and if a person wants to force a benefit before the proper time for it has arrived, it will result in problems.
Someone wounded by a poisoned arrow would not delay in removing it in order to first find out the exact details of who shot it, the reason that person shot it, where the arrow was manufactured, etc. If he attended to all of that before pulling out the the poisonous arrow, he would probably die.
In this same way, dealing with the life situations that we experience at hand should be prioritized over concern about