A Collection of Parables, Scroll 1
Impediments to Buddhist Cultivation: Overly Craving
There were once wealthy elders in a faraway land who had only one son, and they loved, cared for, and cherished him very much. However, the son contracted a strange disease, and nothing could be done to revive him. The son soon died. Fortunately, he devoutly recited the Buddha’s name before he died and took true refuge in the Buddha. His mind became fearless and peaceful, and he died with a determined mind toward the Buddha. He was reborn in the heavenly realm.
The parents were so distraught over the loss of their son that they cremated his body, put his ashes in a silver vase, and kept the vase in their home. On the fifteenth day of each month, they placed various kinds of good food in front of the vase for their deceased son to eat. They then wailed mournfully and were unable to stop.
Their heavenly son saw this and thought, “I need to transform into a human being to teach and inspire the couple, or else they will be buried in sorrow forever.” He then manifested as an eight-year-old boy herding cows by the side of the road. One of the cows suddenly dropped to the ground and died. The boy then plucked some grass, put it in the mouth of the dead cow, and yelled, “Get up and eat the grass!” The couple saw what the boy did and asked him, “Where are you from? Why are you so foolish? Don’t you know that the cow is dead? Why are you continuing to feed him with grass?” The boy replied, “Although my cow is now dead, its head and mouth are still there! So I keep feeding it even though it can no longer eat the grass. What I’m doing is no different from what you’re doing: feeding your deceased son. Your son has been dead for so long, and all that is left of him is his ashes inside the silver vase. Yet, you keep feeding the silver vase with good foods and drinks and wail mournfully. Do you think your son can eat what you’re offering him?”
The couple was stunned by the child’s response. The father then asked the child who he was. The child replied, “I was your son, and I was reborn in the heavens. Thanks to the Buddha’s kindness, I showed up here as a child to help you understand your entanglement and be freed from sorrow.” The father was finally relieved; his heart rejoiced greatly, and he was no longer tormented and worried. The heavenly child instantly disappeared. The couple returned home and started to actively engage in almsgiving, adhere strictly to the pure precepts, diligently read and chant the sutras, and practice the correct Dharma. They ultimately eradicated their self-view and attained the fruition of stream-enterers.
The story has three implications: (1) the meritorious practice of one-pointed mindfulness absorption of the Buddha; (2) the folly of desirous craving; and (3) that eliminating the three fetters leads to the attainment of Srotāpanna (the first fruition of liberation).
We can see how dedicating oneself to the one-pointed absorption of the Buddha bestows great and virtuous qualities on a person. The child in the story was reborn into the Pure Lands of the Buddhas due to the compassionate blessings of the Buddha. In other words, if we persist in chanting the Buddha’s name without vacillation even only for a day before our death, we will be blessed by the Amitabha Buddha, who will lead us to the Pure Land.
Next, the couple was attached to their departed beloved child and suffered immensely from his parting, deeply craving to continue being with him and not being able to let go. Their suffering is one of the eight sufferings that the Buddha mentioned: separation from those we love. Therefore, we should not be attached to our dependents. After fulfilling our utmost responsibility of loving and caring for them, we should not allow ourselves to be overly worried about them.
According to the Buddha, we are caught up in the aforementioned kind of suffering due to our ignorance. Without a proper understanding that phenomena of the mundane world and the five-aggregate self are all impermanent, we will mistake them as things to be savored, and we will become attached to them. We will be unable to understand that the essence of all phenomena is impermanent and constantly changing without exception. As a result, we crave our bodies, minds, power, wealth, relatives, etc. This leads to attachment, which in turn leads to suffering. Our ignorance makes us crave worldly things, which inflicts suffering on us that we can never transcend. Thus, our five-aggregate self is fettering us.
Thanks to the departed son’s wisdom, which he bestowed expediently upon his parents, the couple was able to sever their attachment to their son. In the end, the couple eventually attained Srotāpanna after making generous donations, upholding the pure precepts, and studying the Buddha’s sutras. They attained personal liberation based on their diligent practices and their understanding of the illusionary nature of the five aggregates, and by focusing on eliminating their self-view and the three fetters based on the Buddha’s teachings.
The story tells us that we need to dedicate ourselves to the one-pointed absorption of the Buddha to be blessed by the Buddha, which will enable us to be reborn into the Buddha’s Pure Land or deva realms. Having the correct understanding of the impermanence of the five aggregates and of how the five desires and self-belongings bring about suffering is the top priority for Buddhist practitioners. With these basic understandings, practitioners will be able to stop their craving for the five-aggregate self and sever their self-view and the three fetters, thereby attaining liberation from cyclic birth and death.
Note: C: Zhong Jing Zhuan Za Piyu, Scroll 1, A Collection of Parables compiled by Kumārajīva in 2 scrolls, ; 《眾經撰雜譬喻》卷1, 姚秦 鳩摩羅什譯 共 2 卷