Sutras are Buddhist texts that memorialize a particular teaching, not unlike Sunday school parables (which I got big doses of as a kid: Bible Study classes in some offshoot wing of a church, playing tag or hide-and-seek in said church, and daring one another to utter H-E-double-hockey-sticks in God’s house will forever be ingrained in my memory). Recently I got into reading sutras and came across one that I felt compelled to illustrate. In jest, I tell people this is the kind of bedtime story I’d tell my kid if I had one. Here’s how it goes:
A man wandered into the wilderness and was subsequently chased by an elephant. He tried to escape the elephant and stumbled upon a well. A branch from a nearby tree stretched downward into the well, so he used it to climb down and hide from the elephant.
However, in the well, he chanced upon two rats, one dark colored and one light colored, and they gnawed away at the tree branch that the man was clinging on to. Meanwhile from the four corners surrounding him he saw four poisonous snakes, ready to bite him. Then he looked down below and saw a serpent, circling, waiting for him to fall. This is all while the two rats, dark and light, continued to gnaw at his branch.
When the tree shook from his weight, five drops of honey dripped from a beehive above and into his mouth. He enjoyed the sweetness momentarily, but then angry bees from the hive swarmed down to sting him.
Suddenly a great fire razed through that wilderness. The man fell into the abyss of the well, where the serpent was waiting.
The sutra is organized as a Socratic dialogue between a king and a wise man. The wise man is telling the story. The king then asks, “hey wise man, what was that all about?” and the wise man replies:
The man is us. The wilderness he wanders in is our enduring ignorance. The elephant symbolizes the impermanence that chases us. The well is samsara (the endless cycle of birth and death). The branch the man clings onto is our material life and how we cling on to that life in spite of ignorance, impermanence, and samsara. The dark and light rats represent night and day, or Time. How those rats gnaw on the branch represent the decay of thought. The four poisonous snakes are the four elements, earth, fire, water, and air, that create natural disasters to plague us. The five drops of honey are the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch that beget the five temptations. The bees represent false thinking. The fire is old age and illness. The serpent encircling below the man is Death itself.
Oh, and then the king experiences an “unprecedentedly deep birth of disillusionment” (yah, no kidding, who wouldn’t?).
The sutra vaguely reminded me of Noah’s Ark. I mean, insofar as there are many animals involved. *shrug* It’s like Noah’s Ark… with way more plot twists.
If only one might embellish a bit on the ending, spin it just a smidge so it’s a touch less nihilist and I think the Parable Sutra would make for one heck of a children’s book.