There are many stories in Buddhism, from the time of the Buddha onwards, and they are very helpful in illustrating aspects of the Buddha’s teaching and Buddhist practice. The following are a selection of stories from the rich heritage of Buddhist teachings.
This story involves two Quakers from the late 17th century, but the teaching in it is very Buddhist and relevant to us today. It emphasises the importance of exploring for ourselves what is the appropriate way to behave in a situation, rather than just following rules imposed from outside.
The two people who feature in this story are the founder of Quakerism, George Fox (1624-1691) and William Penn (1644-1718) who is best known as the founder of the Province of Pennsylvania in North America, and who became a Quaker during his lifetime. The first written account of this story appears nearly 150 years after William Penn’s death, and perhaps over 180 years after the events in it are said to have taken place, and as a result Quakers now generally regard it as an invented story. The teaching in it, however, is very real and very pertinent to how we explore what right action is in our lives.
When we have a growing sense that there is something we are doing, a way we are behaving in our lives, which we feel uncomfortable with, what do we do about that? Perhaps we are not quite sure why we feel uncomfortable, or exactly what the problem is, but we realise that we can’t ignore it. What should we do?Continue reading →
The story of the Master who beat the deer is about the nature of compassion, and the different ways in which this can appear. It also reminds us that we should try to understand the whole situation, including seeing things from the perspective of others, not just basing our actions on our own desires and preferences.
In Ancient China there were a very large number of Buddhist monasteries, and many of them were in rural locations. They were often on mountains, and it was common for the monastery to be named after the mountain that it was on. There was one particular monastery which had very large grounds extending to many acres, and these grounds were also surrounded by forested hills. Because of this there was a lot of wildlife around, and over the years the monastic community had developed a real fondness for all of the birds, mammals and other creatures that they shared the mountain with. Just as people do today, they put out bird feeders and food for the animals, and tried to do what they could to help and support the wildlife. As a result, the monks felt that they were really living in harmony with the world around them, and had a close relationship with the plants and animals that lived nearby. Amongst the many animals that lived around the monastery were a herd of deer, who particularly liked being on the monastery grounds as there weren’t any hunters there, unlike the rest of the mountain.
The monks certainly weren’t hunting them, and the deer had become so used to being around them that they would come right up to the buildings looking for food. The monks in turn would put out food to attract the deer, as it was a wonderful experience to see these elegant creatures at such close quarters. Eventually the deer became so used to being near people that they would even eat out of the monks’ hands. They were so tame that they almost seemed to be domesticated. Even though they were still wild animals, they had no fear of humans.Continue reading →
The story of how the bandit Angulimala gave up his extreme violence after meeting with the Buddha shows that whatever mistakes we have made in our lives, change is always possible. We can stop doing the harmful things that we have been doing, and commit ourselves to living in a way that benefits all beings, including ourselves.
On one occasion the Buddha was staying at Anathapindika’s monastery in Jeta’s Grove, near the city of Shravasti. One day, after he had eaten his mid-day meal, the Buddha picked up his robes and bowl, and headed in the direction of the Great Forest of Kosala which was not far away.
Now at that time, a bandit named Angulimala was living in the forest. He had a reputation for being extremely brutal and had blood on his hands from the numerous victims he had killed. He showed no mercy to anyone.
As the Buddha walked towards the forest, the cowherds, shepherds and farmers who saw him called out to him, “Don’t go along that road, Lord Buddha, or you will be attacked by Angulimala the brutal bandit. He has blood on his hands from the many victims he has killed, and shows no mercy to anyone. He wears a gruesome necklace of fingers, and even groups of thirty or forty men have fallen victim to him.” The Buddha heard them and acknowledged their warnings, but just kept walking on in silence.
A second time and a third time they called out to warn him, but again the Buddha heard them, acknowledged their warnings, and just kept walking on in silence.
As the Buddha entered the forest, Angulimala was sitting at his lookout post on the top of a high cliff overlooking the road, and when he saw a lone figure on the road below he sprang into action. Rushing down from the cliff, he was determined that today would see the fulfilment of the long and arduous task that he had been set many moons ago.Continue reading →
The story of Kisa Gotami and the Mustard Seed shows how the Buddha used skilful means to help someone who was in a very difficult situation.
During the time of the Buddha, in the city of Shravasti, lived a young woman named Gotami who had been born into a very poor household. She was so thin that people called her Kisa Gotami, meaning Skinny Gotami. Kisa Gotami married very young and gave birth to a son, who she was very devoted to. One day, soon after her son had learned to walk, Kisa Gotami was out in the street with him when he suddenly tripped over and fell, and lay there motionless. Kisa Gotami rushed over to her son and tried to revive him; she tried everything she could think of, but nothing seemed to work. She was convinced that he had just been knocked unconscious, and that if she could only find the right thing to do he would soon recover. In her anguish and grief she was unable to see, or unable to take in and comprehend, that her son had died.
When she didn’t manage to revive him herself, Kisa Gotami rushed home and asked her relatives to help. They could see that the child was dead and tried to convince Kisa Gotami of this, but she was determined that his small limp body was still alive, and that there must be some medicine that could restore him.
Carrying his dead body in her arms she went along the street, going from door to door asking if anyone had the medicine that would cure her son. It was clear to everyone she asked that the child was beyond the help of medicines, and that poor Kisa Gotami was so distraught that she couldn’t accept the reality of her child’s death. They tried to help her as best they could, gently pointing out that medicine would be of no use, and that she must accept that the boy was dead and take him to the cemetery to bury him. But Kisa Gotami’s sorrow and anguish was so deep that she was unable to process what the townspeople were saying to her, and when they couldn’t get through to her, all they could do was to say that they didn’t have the right medicine, and that she should try somewhere else.
Kisa Gotami still wouldn’t give up, and continued on beyond her own neighbourhood searching for the medicine. Some tried to help and console her, some just thought she was mad and closed the door to her, and some even chased her away. But Kisa Gotami was determined to cure her son, and carried on asking door to door. Eventually she came to the house of one of the elders. The elder was very wise and thought, “This child is clearly beyond the help of medicine, but the mother is in great need of help. No medical doctor can help the child, but there is a great doctor nearby who will know how to help this poor woman.” So the elder said to Kisa Gotami, “Good woman, go and see the Buddha, the Enlightened One, and ask him whether he has any medicine for you.”Continue reading →
This story describes the Buddha’s response when he was asked various metaphysical questions about the nature of the universe and the nature of reality.
Turtles all the way down
There is a story about a famous scientist who was once giving a lecture on astronomy and the structure of the solar system. After the lecture an elderly lady came up to the scientist and said, “Professor, your theory about the earth rotating around the sun has a very convincing ring to it, but I’m afraid it’s completely wrong.”
“Oh yes?” said the professor politely, “So what is the correct explanation?”
The elderly lady looked the scientist in the eye and said, “The correct explanation, Professor, is that the earth is a flat plate, which is supported on the back of a giant turtle.”
Not wanting to offend the lady, the Professor tried to gently point out the basic flaw in the theory, “If that is correct, madam, what does this turtle stand on?”
“You’re very clever Professor, and that’s a very good question,” she replied, “but the answer is simple: The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, which stands directly beneath it.”
The scientist sensed that the lady was not going to relinquish her theory, but nevertheless gently persisted, “But what, madam, does this second turtle stand upon?”
Beaming, the elderly lady crowed triumphantly, “It’s no use Professor; it’s turtles all the way down.”
The scientific approach and the Buddha’s approach
Professor Stephen Hawking starts his 1988 book A Brief History of Time with a version of this story, and then comments:
“Most people would find the picture of our universe as an infinite tower of tortoises rather ridiculous, but why do we think we know better? What do we know about the universe, and how do we know it? Where did the universe come from, and where is it going? Did the universe have a beginning, and if so, what happened before then? What is the nature of time? Will it ever come to an end? Recent breakthroughs in physics, made possible in part by fantastic new technologies, suggest answers to some of these longstanding questions. Someday these answers may seem as obvious to us as the earth orbiting the sun—or perhaps as ridiculous as a tower of tortoises. Only time (whatever that may be) will tell.”
Science tries to find answers to these big questions, but the Buddha’s approach is very different. He was actually asked some very similar questions to the ones that Stephen Hawing poses, but didn’t give answers to them, for a very specific reason, as the following story involving the monk Malunkyaputta shows.
The Buddha’s response to some big questions
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The Buddha was once staying at Anathapindika’s monastery in Jeta’s Grove, near the city of Savatthi. A monk called Ven. Malunkyaputta was also staying there, and whilst he was sitting alone these thoughts occurred to him: “The Buddha has never told us his position on these crucial question: ‘Is the universe eternal or not eternal?’, ‘Is the universe finite or infinite?’, ‘Is what we think of as a living being identical to the physical body, or are they different?’, ‘After death, does a Buddha a) exist, b) not exist, c) both exist and not exist or d) neither exist nor not exist?’ I’m not happy with this. I can’t accept that the Buddha has not declared his position on these questions. I’m going to go and ask the Buddha about these questions, and if he will declare his position on them, then I will continue to live as a monk and follow him. If on the other hand he refuses to declare his position on these questions, then I will give up being a monk and return to my previous life.”