Parable of the Poisoned Arrow
The theistic traditions, however, were not alone in being discredited by the Buddha. Philosophy and speculation was even harder hit. The Buddha taught that not only was metaphysical speculation and philosophical debate fruitless, it was actually a pernicious waste of time. Those who engaged in it would be much better off cultivating the means to attain direct knowledge for themselves. The most famous example of the Buddha’s teaching in regard to philosophical speculation is, of course, the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow in the Culamalunkyovata Sutta.
In the sutta, the monk Malunkyaputta decides that he will leave the Sangha if the Buddha does not give his opinion in regard to the following speculative views: Whether the world is eternal or not, whether it is infinite or not, whether the soul and the body are the same or different, whether the Tathagata exists or does not exist after death, or perhaps both exists and does not exist or neither exists nor does not exist. The Buddha, however, replies:
“If anyone should say thus: ‘I will not lead the holy life under the Blessed One until the Blessed One declares to me “the world is eternal”…or “after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist,”’ that would still remain undeclared by the Tathagata and meanwhile that person would die.
Suppose, Malunkyaputta, a man was wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions, his kinsmen and relatives, brought a surgeon to treat him.
The man would say: ‘I will not let the surgeon pull out this arrow until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble or a brahmin or a merchant or a worker.’
And he would say: ‘I will not let the surgeon pull out this arrow until I know the name and clan of the man who wounded me; …until I know whether the man who wounded me was tall or short or of middle height; …until I know whether the man who wounded me was dark or brown or golden-skinned; …until I know whether the man who wounded me lives in such a village or town or city; …until I know whether the bow that wounded me was a long bow or a crossbow; …until I know whether the bowstring that wounded me was fiber or reed or sinew or hemp or bark; …until I know whether the shaft that wounded me was wild or cultivated; …until I know with what kind of sinew the shaft that wounded me was bound – whether of an ox or a buffalo or a lion or a monkey; …until I know what kind of arrow it was that wounded me – whether it was hoof-tipped or curved or barbed or calf-toothed or oleander.’
“All this would still not be known to that man and meanwhile he would die. So too, Malunkyaputta, if anyone should say thus: ‘I will not lead the holy life under the Blessed One until the Blessed One declares to me: “The world is eternal”…or “after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist,”’ that would still remain undeclared by the Tathagata and meanwhile that person would die.” (The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, pp. 534-535)
The Buddha then drives home the point by stating that what really matters is living the holy life in accordance with the Four Noble Truths, since the question of suffering, its origin, its cessation and the eightfold path to its cessation are of primary importance.
The resolution of metaphysical questions can wait until after the most pressing issues addressed by the Four Noble Truths have been resolved, and at that point, one may be well beyond the need to know such things. It should be recalled at this point that all of the Buddha’s teachings are based upon his direct experience of the true nature of reality, and that these teachings are for the purpose of enabling his disciples to have the same insight themselves.
The Buddha’s enlightenment was not a matter of esoteric knowledge that could be communicated in words; rather it was an insight into the true nature of reality, which every one must arrive at for themselves.
The Buddha’s teachings are simply ways of helping people to mature morally, intellectually and spiritually to the point where they can do this for themselves. They point to the insight, but they cannot provide the insight that leads to liberation.
Therefore, the Buddha Dharma is not just a philosophy to satisfy mere intellectual curiosity. It is a way of life, a training program that can lead to the living experience of liberation from suffering that no philosophy can ever provide.