Some Parables of the Buddha
Theosophical Quarterly, April, 1931
It has been well said that when a great Master incarnates, his whole life is a parable. Not only does he teach spiritual law; he visibly lives spiritual law at every moment of his existence. And, since the central spiritual fact of our lives on earth is struggle, conflict, trial, it is natural and inevitable that, in the life of a great Master incarnated in the world, there should be formal representation of trial and conflict, in order to make more intelligible to mankind the struggles through which we must all pass, the temptations which we must face and overcome, if we are to go forward on the heavenly way.
The temptations of Christ in the wilderness are of this nature: a rendering visible and intelligible of trials and conflicts which all men must face, because they are inherent in the very nature of our life, with its necessary adjustment between the strong tendencies of the personal and the universal self. The individual life must first be evolved to full consciousness and freedom of action. It must then be subordinated to the universal life, its fate merged in the larger destinies of the universal. And that transition, that transformation, can hardly take place without conflict. If accomplished wholly without resistance, the result would probably be limp, negative, without spiritual force.
Therefore, in the history of Christ, we have the temptation of the Master by Satan, with the offer of “all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them”; and it is of great interest to find a similar trial recorded of the Buddha, before he had attained to full illumination. There is, further, a subtle ingenuity in the proposal made by Mara, the tempter, in the trial of Prince Siddhartha, in contrast with the brazen suggestion of Satan, that Jesus should fall down and worship him.
The story goes that Prince Siddhartha had renounced his royal heritage, his family, every tie that bound him to the world; and that, after inflicting upon his body the extremes of self-discipline and privation, he had retired to a forest hut among the Himalaya mountains, there to meditate and search for illumination. The region which he chose was not a solitude of ice, forests and rocks. There were hill tribes at no great distance, with their chieftains and rulers, as there are today, even high among the hills. And we are told that at that time the chieftains and princes of the tribes ruled oppressively over the tribesmen. When Prince Siddhartha saw men persecuted and punished by these wicked princes, in contrast with the just and orderly government to which he had been habituated at Kapilavastu, under his royal father’s rule, he was moved to compassion. And being moved to compassion he considered thus within himself:
“Is it not possible to exercise sovereignty without killing or causing to kill, without conquering or causing to conquer, without grieving or causing grief, with justice and with righteousness?”
Now it happened that Mara, the evil tempter, perceived within himself the thought that was passing in the mind of Prince Siddhartha, and reflected thus: “The ascetic of the Gotama clan is considering within himself: ‘Is it not possible to exercise sovereignty?’ It must therefore be that he harbours within him a desire for sovereignty. And this desire for sovereignty may well cause a loss of recollection. If he does exercise sovereignty, I may be able to catch him off his guard. I will, therefore, draw near to him and fan the spirit of ambition within him!”
Therefore Mara, the tempter, drew near to Prince Siddhartha and thus addressed him:
“Noble Sir! Would it not be well for you yourself to exercise sovereignty? For it would be possible for you to exercise sovereignty without killing or causing to kill, without conquering or causing to conquer, without grieving or causing to grieve, with justice and righteousness!”
Prince Siddhartha thus replied to Mara, the tempter:
“Evil One, what do you see in me that causes you to speak to me thus?”
Mara, the tempter, answered Prince Siddhartha:
“Noble Sir! You have fully developed the four principles of magic power. If you should formulate the resolve: ‘Let the Himalaya, the king of mountains, be turned to gold!’ the Himalaya would straightway become gold. And, assuming sovereignty, you could work with this gold unlimited good!”
But Prince Siddhartha replied: “I admonish you, Evil One! I have nothing in common with you!”
Since it is improbable that the discomfited Mara brought this story to the recorders of the Buddhist scriptures, the narrative must come from the Buddha himself. It is evident that he dramatized and made objective an inner experience. The story of Mara, the tempter, is a parable.
And in fact, apart from the more formal discourses delivered upon set occasions, as when the Buddha was called on to address visitors who came to inquire concerning his teaching, we shall find that much of his doctrine took the form of parable, of vivid stories so perfectly formed as to be readily understood and remembered without effort.
Among these parables, many of which are touched with humour, is one which conveys a vital lesson in a highly original way. It concerns a girl who, making the acquaintance of eggs, conceived such a liking for them that she would thenceforth be content with no other kind of food. At first she was willing to wait until her mother gave her an egg. But presently the craving for eggs grew upon her, so that she went to the hens’ nests and helped herself to their eggs.
A certain hen had made a secluded nest, and was beginning to lay, looking forward to a happy brood of chicks. But the girl, alert in her search, discovered the nest, and day by day, as a fresh egg was laid, appropriated it and regaled herself.
The hen was incensed against the girl, and expressed her hostility in this earnest wish: “When my term comes to an end, and I pass out of this existence, may I be reborn as a destroyer, so that I may be able to devour your children!”
So her term was fulfilled and she died, and in that very house she was reborn as a cat. And the girl likewise reached her term and died, and in that very house she was reborn as a chicken which grew into a hen. When the time came for her to lay eggs, the cat discovered them and ate them; and this happened not once only, but a second time and a third.
Then said the hen who had been the girl: “Three times have you eaten my eggs, and you would eat me also! When I have passed out of this state of existence, may I be reborn in such a shape that I can devour you and your children!”
So, when her term was fulfilled and she passed out of existence, she was reborn as a leopardess. And the cat which had been a hen likewise passed out of existence and was reborn as a doe. And when the doe brought forth fawns, the leopardess came and devoured both the fawns and the doe. And thus it continued through five hundred existences; each in turn devoured the other and brought suffering upon the other. And finally they were reborn as women, the enmity still persisting between them.
At this time it happened that they heard the teaching of the Buddha, and were converted. Wherefore it is said: “Hatred ceases not by hatred. Hatred ceases only by love.”
Sometimes the Buddha wove into a parable the incidents that happened in the training of disciples, as in the following story, which teaches a lesson of great profundity and beauty.
It may be remembered that the senior disciple, Sariputra, was somewhat satirically taken to task by the Buddha, when he broke out into ecstasies concerning the supreme wisdom of his Master. In the following incident, Sariputra’s zeal seems once again to have outstripped his wisdom. He had in his care, it seems, a younger disciple, a happy and vigorous youth, well disposed toward the teaching, always obedient and ready to undertake generous efforts. Sariputra, thinking only of the young disciple’s vigour, and of the temptations which naturally beset one of his years, set him to meditate on the truth of bodily corruption and decay, thinking that in this way revulsion would be aroused and possible temptation anticipated and overcome.
The youth cheerfully accepted the subject of meditation which Sariputra proposed to him, and, retiring to a refuge in the forest, set himself to conjuring up images of corruption and decay.
But the harder he tried, the less progress he made, his mind and imagination swerving aside, and refusing to dwell upon the repellent themes that had been set him. And, when he described the matter to his preceptor, Sariputra was perplexed and brought to a stand. So he determined to have recourse to the supreme wisdom of the Buddha. Therefore, taking the young disciple, he went to the dwelling at Jetavana where the Buddha was.
When Sariputra had related the matter to the Buddha, the Master made clear to the senior disciple that the mind of man is complex and mysterious, and that it is given only to the fully enlightened to penetrate all its mysteries. Having thus reconciled Sariputra to his failure, the Buddha set himself to study the mind of the young disciple. With clear and penetrating vision surpassing the vision of mortals, he surveyed the previous states of existence of the youth, and asked Sariputra from what family the young disciple had come in his present birth. Sariputra answered that the boy’s father was a goldsmith, and that the youth himself had gained considerable skill in the goldsmith’s art. Then the Buddha, further studying the past existences of the young disciple, perceived that through five hundred past existences he had been born in the goldsmith’s family and in no other, and that through five hundred births he himself had worked as a goldsmith, moulding the ruddy gold into forms like the golden-yellow cassia blossom, or the yellow water-lily. For this reason, the Buddha saw that subjects of meditation, repellent and calculated to cause revulsion, were unsuited to the young disciple. The only subject of meditation appropriate for him would be one with elements of beauty.
Therefore the Buddha, exercising his magical creative power, formed a golden lotus as large as the wheel of a cart, with clear drops of water on the leaves and stalk, saying:
“Disciple, take this golden lotus and, going to the outskirts of the rest-house, set its stem in a heap of sand. Then, seated before it in the posture of meditation, repeat the words, ‘Rose-red! Rose-red!’”
The young disciple took the great golden lotus from the Master, and, as he took it, his heart was filled with peace. Going to the outskirts of the rest-house where there was a heap of sand, he set the stem of the golden flower in the sand and, seated before it in the posture of meditation, began to repeat the words, “Rose-red! Rose-red!”
And, as he repeated the words, he entered into the successive stages of contemplation The Buddha, following the course of the young disciple, raised with himself the question whether the young disciple, having already gone so far, could proceed unaided to the end. And, raising the question, the Buddha perceived that the young disciple could not gain the goal unaided.
Therefore, once more exerting his magical creative power, the Buddha caused the petals of the lotus of gold to shrivel and grow black, as though they had been trampled upon and broken. And beholding them thus withered, the young disciple thus bethought him:
“If creatures which, like this golden lotus, have no attachments to earthly things, are thus subject to fading and decay, much more must hearts and minds filled with attachments to earthly things suffer age, decay and death.”
So he took the first step toward that realization of the impermanence of all separate things which, when it reaches fulness, leads to supreme detachment.
Now, it happened that, on the outskirts of the rest-house, there was a pond in which grew lotuses, the petals of whose buds were rose-red. And a group of boys, descending into the lotus-pond, plucked the buds, and after no long time threw them upon the bank to wither. Then the young disciple saw that the tips of their petals became brown and sere, no longer rose-red like the petals of the buds that still grew in the pond. So he thought once again:
“If creatures which, like the rose-petalled lotuses, have no attachments to earthly things, are nevertheless subject to fading and decay, much more must the hearts and minds of men filled with attachments to earthly things, suffer age, decay and death.”
Thus was the young disciple perfected in detachment. And the Buddha, perceiving that the young disciple had attained the goal of contemplation, manifested himself to him as a luminous image, saying:
“Cut off the love of self, even as you would break off a lotus bud with your hand. Advance along the path of peace. This is the way to Nirvana.”
While it is altogether probable that this incident of the youthful disciple happened much as it has been recorded, yet in a deeper sense the Buddha turned the essence of it into a parable, and one of great depth and beauty. His supreme insight may well have penetrated the story of the disciple’s past existences, yet it is more probable that he schematized them in the story of five hundred lives as a goldsmith, occupied life after life in moulding with ruddy gold the fair forms of the golden-yellow cassia blossom and of the yellow water-lily; and that he did this in order to make more intelligible to the senior disciple, Sariputra, the quality of an artistic nature, which is repelled and rendered inert by ugliness, but which, in compensation, may be led by visible forms of beauty to the threshold of the hidden, everlasting beauty.
In somewhat the same way, the Buddha turns into a parable a question addressed to him by the noble Ananda, another leader among the disciples, who was particularly close to the Buddha, and thus came within the circle of the Buddha’s radiant humour. For, if the truth be told, the noble Ananda asked a rather futile and foolish question, and his great Master, turning it into a parable, made it a vehicle of enduring wisdom.
The noble Ananda was seated one evening engaged, as he supposed, in meditation, but in reality allowing his thoughts to drift hither and thither, with no very definite goal.
“There are”, considered within himself the noble Ananda, “three perfumes of the highest excellence: the perfume of sandal wood, the perfume extracted from roots, and the perfume of flowers. All these perfumes of the highest excellence the Master possesses. But each of these perfumes travels with the wind and not against the wind. But the question is, whether there may be some perfume that travels against the wind, or even some perfume that travels both with the wind and against the wind.”
No doubt, the noble Ananda herein manifested a certain aptitude for experimental physics, but, strictly speaking, he was not pursuing spiritual wisdom. However, he soon came to himself and said:
“What use is there in my seeking to settle this question by myself? Let me ask the Master!”
So, on a certain evening, when a favourable occasion had arisen, the noble Ananda drew near to the Buddha, and, when he had drawn near, he addressed the Master thus:
“Sire, there are three perfumes which travel with the wind, but not against the wind. What are the three? The perfume of sandal wood, the perfume extracted from roots, and the perfume of flowers. These three perfumes, Sire, travel with the wind, but in no case do they travel against the wind. But, Sire, this question arises: whether there may be some perfume that travels against the wind, or even some perfume that travels both with the wind and against the wind.”
The Master replied: “Ananda, there is a substance whose perfume goes both with the wind and against the wind.”
“But, Sire, what is the substance whose perfume goes both with the wind and against the wind?”
“Ananda, if there be any follower of the Buddha, one who goes to the Buddha as refuge, to the Law of Righteousness as refuge, to the Order as refuge; one who refrains from taking life, from theft, from sensuality, from lying, from intoxicants that destroy recollection; one who follows virtue and righteousness, whose heart is free from avarice, a generous giver to those who have need in all parts of the world, followers of holiness will utter his praise. These good acts of that follower of the Buddha are the substances, Ananda, whose perfume travels both with the wind and against the wind.”
Yet one more parable, this time concerning a member of a family which the Buddha greatly admired, and with some of whom he formed relations of peculiar intimacy: the parable of an elephant. When the Buddha was dwelling with his disciples in the rest-house at Jetavana, he told the disciples this story concerning an old war elephant that had belonged to the King of Kosala.
In his younger days, this elephant possessed great strength, but as the years passed, old age came upon him, and he was buffeted by the winds of time. One day, being thus oppressed with years, he waded out into the lake, and, becoming mired in the thick and sticky mud, was brought to a stand amid the waters, able neither to go forward nor to go back.
The people along the shore of the lake, seeing the old elephant in this grievous plight, began to exclaim:
“Is it not strange that an elephant, once so powerful and valorous, should become so weak!”
Word of the elephant’s mishap came to the King of Kosala, and, summoning the keeper, he bade him draw the elephant forth from the mire of the lake.
Now the keeper was a wise man, understanding thoroughly the mind of elephants.
Therefore he set upon his head a helmet, and, bringing to the shore of the lake, one whose duty it was to sound the drum for battle, bade him now beat the battle-drum.
When the elephant heard the drum and saw the helmet on his driver’s head, his valorous heart was enkindled, and, quickly setting himself free, he walked up out of the lake and stood upon dry ground.
Then said the Buddha to his disciples: “That elephant freed himself from the mud of the lake. But you have flung yourselves into the mire of evil passions. Therefore strive with all your might to set yourselves free, rejoicing in recollection!”