Parable of the arrow


Parable of the arrow

The parable of the arrow (or 'Parable of the poisoned arrow') is a Buddhist parable that illustrates the skeptic and pragmatic themes of the Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta (The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya) which is part of the middle length discourses (Majjhima Nikaya), one of the five sections of the Sutta Pitaka.

Narrative

The sutta begins at Jetavana where the monk Malunkyaputta is troubled by Gautama Buddha's silence on the fourteen unanswerable questions, which include queries about the nature of the cosmos and life after death. Malunkyaputta then meets with Gautama and asks him for the answers to these questions, he says that if he fails to respond, Malunkya will renounce his teachings. Gautama Buddha responds by first stating that he never promised to reveal ultimate metaphysical truths such as those and then uses the story of a man who has been shot with a poisoned arrow to illustrate that those questions are irrelevant to his teachings.

"It's just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.' He would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me... until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short... until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored... until I know his home village, town, or city... until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow... until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark... until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated... until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird... until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.' He would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.' The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him."

Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta: The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya" (MN 63), Majjhima Nikaya

Thich Nhat Hanh comments on the way the parable of the poisoned arrow illustrates the Buddha's anti-metaphysical views:

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. Questioned one day about the problem of the infinity of the world, the Buddha said, "Whether the world is finite or infinite, limited or unlimited, the problem of your liberation remains the same." Another time he said, "Suppose a man is struck by a poisoned arrow and the doctor wishes to take out the arrow immediately. Suppose the man does not want the arrow removed until he knows who shot it, his age, his parents, and why he shot it. What would happen? If he were to wait until all these questions have been answered, the man might die first." Life is so short. It must not be spent in endless metaphysical speculation that does not bring us any closer to the truth.

Hanh, Thich; Philip Kapleau (2005). Zen Keys. Three Leaves Press. p. 42. 

References

  • Hanh, Thich; Philip Kapleau (2005). Zen Keys. Three Leaves Press. 
  • "Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta: The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya" (MN 63), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 14 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.063.than.html.
  • Early Buddhist discourses, John Joseph Holder, Hackett Publishing, 2006.

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