Honestly I’m a little confused and disappointed in a lot of these stories. They’re somewhat dogmatic and naïve in nature. Which, for someone like me to call the teachings of the Buddha naïve makes me cringe because it makes me sound like I know more. But seriously, come on, the rich and powerful do not reward people just for being nice. That’s not how the world works, and I bet that’s not even how it worked in ancient India. And so often the moral of the story is to be prepared to give up literally everything about yourself so that someone else can experience short term benefit. I would argue that if you take care to both preserve yourself and do good works for others that would have a greater positive effect than simply sacrificing yourself at every turn. You are an agent of good in this world, so therefore you possess value. By taking care to preserve the agent of good, you have the potential to increase the good that is done in the world.
I guess it goes to show that times have changed, or maybe I’m just not a Buddhist after all.
The Poisonous Trees: This is one story that I find interesting because of the concept of false appearances. The What-Fruit tree looks exactly like a mango tree in every way, but its fruit is deadly poisonous. Or… so we’re led to believe. Truthfully, everyone just goes along with what the Bodhisatta says. The people who do eat the fruit are treated before any side effects kick in. So the travelers never really know if it is a What-Fruit tree or just a mango tree. We know because the storyteller mentions that previous caravans have traveled through and died when eating the fruit. But the others just go on faith. I was considering incorporating this myth into my storybook project. Not entirely sure how yet, but I have a feeling it might fit.
The Wise Physician: Now this one is a powerful story. A mother who has just lost her son carries his dead body around asking for someone to give her medicine that will bring him back to life. She’s referred to the Buddha, who tells her to find some mustard seed from a house in which no one has ever died. She travels around the village asking people, but everyone says that they have lost someone. They say, “The living are few, but the dead are many.” She returns to the Buddha and says that she couldn’t find any house where no one had died. They talk about the impermanency of life and all things, and she accepts that her son is gone, that death is a part of life, and becomes a disciple of the Buddha. That is really profound and incorporates an essential function of storytelling: transformation, and a difference between wants and needs. What she wants is for her son’s resurrection, but what she needs is to accept that he is gone and move on. Going to each house shows her that loss is universal. Everyone has suffered through a tragic death. She is not alone in her grief. The way for her heart to truly heal was to accept her loss, not to circumvent it.
The Pupil Who Taught His Teacher: Unfortunately, this story totally invalidates the powerful message from the former story. The pupil comes from a family where young children don’t die because they’re devout followers of Buddhism. What kind of lesson is that? What kind of value does this have? Life doesn’t work that way. No matter what religion or belief you follow, young children are not impervious to death. It’s unfortunate, but anyone who says, “Follow me and your children will be immune from death,” is probably selling you something. It’s really interesting to see the contrast between these Buddhist myths and the actual Buddha himself, Gautama Siddhartha. In the previous myth, it is Gautama who bestows this wisdom on the grieving mother. In all these other tales, it’s some other reincarnation of the Buddha. Goes to show that maybe some Buddhas are wiser than others, and no one can really beat the original thing.
Bibliography. Eastern Stories and Legends by Marie L. Shedlock (1920).
Featured image source.