Parable of the poisoned arrow
The parable of the posioned arrow is told by the Buddha in the Cūḷamālukya Sutta in order to illustrate the futility of speculating on certain metaphysical questions, such as:
- "Is the world eternal?"
- "Is the world not eternal?"
In the Cūḷamālukya Sutta, one of the Buddha's disciples requests the Buddha to answer ten such questions, and the Buddha declines to answer the disciple's questions. Instead, the Buddha tells a parable of a man who is shot by a poisoned arrow, but before the injured man will allow a doctor to remove the arrow, he insists on knowing the name of the archer, where the archer was from, what was the caste of the archer's family, where the arrow was made, what type of wood was used to form the arrow, etc. Such a man, the Buddha said, would die before learning the answers to his questions. In the same way, the Buddha said, the knowing the answers to certain metaphysical questions will not help one on the spiritual path.
The questions that the Buddha refused to answer are known as the unanswered questions.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu states:
The Buddha understood that the issues of our life are defined by our questions. A question gives a context to the knowledge contained in its answer— a sense of where that knowledge fits and what it’s good for. Some questions are skillful in that they provide a useful context for putting an end to suffering, whereas others are not. Once, one of the Buddha’s monks came to see him and asked him a list of ten questions, the major philosophical questions of his time. Some of the questions concerned the nature of the world, whether it was eternal or not, finite or not; others concerned the nature and existence of the self. The Buddha refused to answer any of them, and he explained the reason for his refusal. He said it was as if a man had been shot by an arrow and was taken to a doctor, and before the doctor could take the arrow out, the man would insist that he find out first who had shot the arrow, who had made the arrow, what the arrow was made of, what kind of wood, what kind of feathers. As the Buddha said, if the doctor tried to answer all of those questions, the man would die first. The first order of business would be to take the arrow out. If the person still wanted to know the answer to those questions, he could ask afterwards.
In the same way, the Buddha would answer only the questions that provided an answer to our primal question and helped put an end to suffering and stress. Questions that would get in the way, he would put aside, because the problem of stress and suffering is urgent.
Thich Nhat Hanh states:
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.
The sutta begins at Jetavana where the monk Malunkyaputta is troubled by Gautama Buddha's silence on a set of ten unanswered questions, which include queries about the nature of the cosmos and life after the death of a Buddha. Malunkyaputta then meets with Gautama Buddha and asks him for the answers to these questions, he says that if he fails to respond, Malunkya will renounce his teachings. Gautama 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.— Cūḷamālukya Sutta (MN 63)
The story is also preserved in two Chinese translations of Prakrit sources.
- 箭喻經 Jiàn yù jīng (Arrow Metaphor Sūtra), T 1.26 (p0804a21), （二二一）中阿含例品 (Èr èr yī) Zhōng ā hán, Lì pǐn. Madhyāgama 221, Chapter on Examples. Translated from an Indic language (possibly Gāndārī) into Chinese by a Sarvāstivāda Tripiṭaka master, Gautama Saṅghadeva, from Kashmir in the Eastern Jin Dynasty ca. Dec 397 – Jan 398 CE.
- 佛說箭喻經 Fú shuō jiàn yù jīng (The Buddha’s Talk on the Arrow Metaphor Sūtra) T 1.94 (p.0917c21). Translator unknown, dated only to the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317–420 CE)
Each of these uses different translation strategies. T 1.26 transposes the various archery terms into items and materials familiar to a Chinese audience; while T 1.94 uses transliterated Indic terms that do not match the Pāli in most cases. A third Chinese text, Mahaprajñaparamita-(upadesa-)sastras (T 1509 at T XXV 170a8-b1) contains a paraphrase of this text.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2011), Selves & Not-self (PDF), Metta Forest Monastery
- Thich Nhat Hanh; Kapleau, Philip (2005), Zen Keys: A Guide to Zen Practice, 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.
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