Is there life after death?
Is there a soul?
Is there a past life?
Does your child ask you these kinds of questions? Find yourself wondering about these matters?
Well…these thoughts often cross all our minds. And they aren’t always easy to answer. Particularly for today’s parent straddling the worlds of modern science and rational thought on the one hand and ancient belief systems and religious faith on the other.
In my last post about the life and significance of the Buddha, I promised to tell you an interesting story I had heard and read about this inspiring figure in Indian History. So here it is…
I stumbled upon this story during my philosophical meanderings. It belongs to the Buddhist canon and is triggered by a question that a student of the Buddha poses before the master. Questions similar to the ones mentioned above.
The Buddha’s response resonated with me. Even delighted me. And it became fundamental to my perspective on the matter.
The story takes place in Jetavana, a place where Buddha spends much time during the monsoon months.
A monk named Malunkyaputta asks the Buddha a bunch of questions. All of them are metaphysical in nature. Questions such as “Is there a soul?” “What happens to us after death?” and so on.
Here’s how the Buddha answered it.
“Let’s say a man is struck by a poisoned arrow….” the Buddha began.
“Suppose this unfortunate man struck by a poisoned arrow has the good fortune of running into a doctor.
“And let’s say the doctor advises the man that he needs to take out the arrow immediately and agrees to do so for him.
“What will the man do? Will he have the doctor take out the arrow immediately and put him out of his misery?
“Or will he say to the doctor “Wait! Hold on! I first want to know who shot at me. I want to know the age and description of the culprit. I want to know which village he comes from. Who are his parents? I want to know why the man shot at me. What kind of arrow did he use? What kind of bow did he use? I want to know all the details first!
“If he were to wait until all these questions had been answered, surely the man would die first from the poisoned arrow.” the Buddha explained.
The parable addresses the disciple’s query in a unique and subtle manner. Without answering the question directly, the Buddha does more than answer it. He underlines the futility of the question and points us to the larger picture.
Stories regaled everyone, then and now. Whether its Parables in the Bible or the Jataka Tales from the Buddhist canon, stories were the best way to explain deeper ideas to people. The Mahabharata is the finest examples of stories containing stories with deeper lessons and philosophical speculations. The Buddha too used stories and hypothetical situations extensively.
“The Buddha always told his disciples not to waste their time and energy in metaphysical speculation. Whenever he was asked a metaphysical question, he remained silent. Instead, he directed his disciples toward practical efforts.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Teacher
What the Buddha said in essence, was that Life is short.
One mustn’t spend the short life we have in endless metaphysical speculation that may or may not bring us closer to the truth.
Moreover, that it was more advisable to expend one’s energies and time in doing constructive things that help reduce sorrow and pain in the world than waste it in wondering about matters beyond our understanding and control.
A little story that puts much into perspective.