The Parable of the Poisoned Arrow

The Parable of the Poisoned Arrow

The Parable of the Poisoned Arrow is one of the Buddha’s most famous parables which is contained in the Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta (aka The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya) which is part of the middle length discourses called the “Mjjhima Nikaya”.

A Monk’s Unanswered Questions

the parable of the poisoned arrow

Monastery rooms at Jetavana

The sutta (or sutra in the Sanskrit language) takes place in a monastery garden named Jetavana where the monk named Malunkyaputta becomes troubled by the fact that the Buddha replies with silence to his questions about the nature of the universe.

He then meets with the Buddha and demands the answers to his questions, saying that if the Buddha fails to respond to him this time, he will renounce the Buddha’s teachings.

Here are the unanswered questions that Malunkyaputta asked:

  1. Is the cosmos eternal?
  2. Is the cosmos not eternal?
  3. Is the cosmos spatially infinite?
  4. Is the cosmos not spatially infinite?
  5. Is the soul identical with the body?
  6. Is the soul not identical with the body?
  7. Does the Tathagata (a perfectly enlightened being) exist after death?
  8. Does the Tathagata not exist after death?
  9. Does the Tathagata both exist and not exist after death?
  10. Does the Tathagata neither exist nor not exist after death?

I think that many scientists today are grappling with some of the same questions.

The Buddha’s Reply

But the Buddha replied that he had never promised to reveal ultimate metaphysical truths and then proceeds with the parable communicating that such questions are irrelevant to his teachings.  These kinds of questions are not helpful if you want to end your suffering and attain the state of Nirvana.  Even if these questions are answered, there is still birth, sickness, aging, suffering, and death.

“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 brahman, 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, 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.

He said further: “These questions are not connected with the goal, are not fundamental to the holy life. They do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are undeclared by me.

“And what is declared by me? ‘This is stress (or suffering),’ is declared by me. ‘This is the origination of stress,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the cessation of stress,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress,’ is declared by me. And why are they declared by me? Because they are connected with the goal, are fundamental to the holy life. They lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are declared by me.”

Conclusion

I think this parable is pretty easy to grasp if you reflect on it. Reflecting on metaphysical truths is not the point of the Buddha’s teachings, but rather the cessation of suffering and the attainment of happiness. As Bhikshu Sangharakshita notes, “The important thing is to get rid of the arrow, not to enquire where it came from.”

Below are a few Amazon picks if you want to read more about Buddhist parables.


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4 Responses to The Parable of the Poisoned Arrow

  1. judith says:

    Great point. Sometimes I know I spend too much time wondering how I got here instead of focusing on where I need to go. Why does something make seem so much simpler after it’s put into a parable? I don’t know much about Buddhism but I may pick up one of your book recommendations. Thanks and keep up the good works!

    • Ian H says:

      Hi Judith,
      I think that is true for a lot of people, and can end up causing ourselves more stress than we need to. I love parables since they illustrate a relationship in different ways that is familiar to the listener. The Buddha tailored his Dharma talks to the audience that was before him so that they would understand in their own way.

    • George says:

      Or, perhaps we need to focus on here and now, but without being fettered to the present either.
      But it’s OK to think about the past or future if we are not too attached to them. See the “Better Way to Be Alone” Sutra.

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