A Flock of Fools: Ancient Buddhist Tales of Wisdom and Laughter from The One Hundred Parable Sutra
Translated and Retold by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Peter Levitt
Publisher: New York: Grove Press, 2004.
The One Hundred Parable Sutra (bayu-jing in Chinese) is known as the most humorous of all the ancient Buddhist texts. In each of the brief stories, or parables, a very foolish person does something absurdly foolish, with unpleasant results. What follows is a brief comment pointing out how we ourselves are like that foolish person.
The collection of parables can be dated back to a fifth-century-CE Buddhist teacher, Sanghasena, who selected stories from various scriptures “to help explain dharma to beginning students.” One of his disciples, Gunraviddi, traveled from India to China and there translated the text into the local language. Kazuaki Tanahashi provides an introduction tracing the various versions of the text that have appeared over the centuries the many duplicates, or parallels, between the stories included in the One Hundred Parable Sutra and those in several other Buddhist scriptures.
Some of these stories may seem ridiculous on a first reading. Yet these simple parables have carried a message that Buddhist monks and spiritual seekers – over many centuries and in different cultural contexts – have found meaningful and helpful to their spiritual practice. As Peter Levitt, who assisted with the translation, writes:
These tales magnify our foibles and folly, our appetites, impulses, and delusions, and serve as useful and accurate mirrors of our human condition. As we witness the silly, crazy, and sometimes hurtful things these fools say, think, and do, we laugh at them or shake our heads in disbelief. Yet our reaction is always tempered by the awareness that shades of our own foolishness parade before our eyes.… Since these tales are able to inspire such recognition, they help us to cultivate wisdom and compassion as we seek to develop real understanding and “do no harm” in the world.
One story tells of a poor man who worked very hard for a long time and earned enough to buy a rough-hair robe. Another man tells him to throw away the rough-hair robe and just follow his instructions, so that he could get something much better. The poor man does as instructed and ends up losing his hard-won robe and gaining nothing. The comment then explains that many people act just like this poor man. Just as the man had to work long and hard to get his robe, it took many good deeds in many lifetimes for them to gain their human body. Therefore, “they ought to protect this body with gratitude and let their practices help them to grow in virtue.” But they are deceived by people who tell them to practise penances, “throw themselves on rocks, walk into the fire.” The comments conclude, “Pity the poor ones who believe these words and throw away their lives.… Their hard-earned human body is lost and their suffering is great.”
Another parable tells of a very thirsty traveller who stops by a wooden conduit with flowing water. After drinking his fill, he announces, “I am finished drinking now. Water, stop running at once.” When the water does not stop running, he stands there getting angrier and angrier, repeating this command. Someone who witnesses this tells him he is being foolish and he should simply walk away from the flowing water, which will continue to flow regardless of his words. The comment explains:
People are like this. They develop a great thirst in the realm of birth and death and, therefore, they drink the bitter water of the five desires. Then, in time, they grow weary of these desires and, like the man who drank his fill, they say, “You forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and things I have touched, I demand that you no longer appear to me.” But the five desires continue their activities and are not affected by such words. When people see that their words have no effect, they become angry.… Then a wise person tells them, “If you really want to leave these desires behind, you must control the six sense roots and close the mind.… There will be no need for you to tell your desires to cease.”
Yet another tale begins: “A man who was about to make a lengthy journey told his servant, ‘Keep the gate well and be sure to look after the ass and its rope.’ The servant promised he would and his master went on his way.” A few days later, however, the servant wanted to go to a fair. So he removed the gate from its hinges, and took the gate, the ass, and the rope with him. When the master returned, he found that his house and all his belongings had been plundered. The comment explains that the Buddha “teaches us to always guard the gate of the five senses and the mind … and to observe the ass of ignorance and the tether of craving.” But for many monks, when they
sit in meditation, their minds continue to waver with attachment to the five desires. They are confused by forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and things they can touch. Their minds are blinded by ignorance and bound by the ropes of craving. Because of this, such treasures as clear thought, awakened mind, and the path of wisdom remain lost to them forever.
In one story a king is so pleased with a particular man’s loyalty and service that he offers him whatever boon he would like. After some thought, the man says, “All I ask is that when you wish to be shaved, allow me to do it.” Everyone laughs at the man for requesting so little when he could have received a kingdom.
To meet with a Buddha or to encounter his dharma, and at the same time to have a human body, is rare indeed.… But foolish minds are weak; they keep the lesser teachings and are content, never seeking further. As a result their minds don’t develop and they practise mistaken and misguided acts. They don’t even consider pursuing the excellent and inconceivable Nirvana and, consequently, it remains beyond their reach.
The parables often illustrate how our fascination with the business of the world causes us to miss the great opportunity for spiritual realization afforded during human life. One story tells how two good friends were passing by a potter’s shop, and intrigued by the skill and artistry of the potter, they sat down to watch the potter at work. After a while of watching the potter at his wheel, “one of the men said good-bye to his friend and went to a great assembly where he was served a wondrous banquet and given clothes made of rare and exquisite material.” The other man stayed at the potter’s shop, determined to enjoy watching “until this fine potter is completely finished.” However, the potter kept working “even after the sun had set,” so the man missed the banquet. The comment for this story is in verse:
How can we describe this man except to say:
Today he does this
And tomorrow he does that,
While Buddhas and great dragons appear
With their thunderous voices filling the world.
Though the dharma rain falls without obstacle,
Still he is attached to things and does not hear.
Not knowing that death comes suddenly,
He misses the assembly of the Buddhas.
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.